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New England Patriots' 5 Players Facing Make-or-Break Training Camps

James DudkoFeatured ColumnistJuly 16, 2014

New England Patriots' 5 Players Facing Make-or-Break Training Camps

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    A pair of situational pass-rushers and an intriguing rookie running back are among the five New England Patriots players facing a make-or-break training camp.

    The Pats need to freshen up the rotation along their defensive front. That's one reason why they signed veteran Will Smith off the NFL scrapheap. He'll now be expected to push aside 2013 seventh-round pick Michael Buchanan.

    Shifting inside, a high-effort defensive tackle could struggle to stick around and provide depth at a key position. Meanwhile, a low-key offseason signing can prove he can contribute a lot at outside linebacker.

    Away from the front seven, no position features competition as intense as the battle for carries at running back. Fourth-round pick James White certainly has the potential to upset the established order.

    Here's a more in-depth look at the Patriots facing critical camps, beginning with White's attempts to shake up the rotation at running back.

James White, RB

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    It was next to impossible not to love the decision to draft James White in Round 4. The ex-Wisconsin ace is a crafty runner with a good instinct for identifying and decisively attacking holes.

    What's most intriguing about White's style is his one-cut mode of running. That's a trait usually reserved for zone-based schemes.

    Yet the Patriots have enjoyed major success on the ground with a power system in recent seasons. Their rushing attacking is built on draws and sweeps into spaces created by pulling linemen.

    White can run north-south and certainly knows how to let his blockers set up space. NFL.com draft analyst Charles Davis used the superb phrase, "patience grasshopper," to describe White. It's a very apt moniker.

    White's patience and intelligence should work well in New England's schemes, particularly on counter plays. Of course, that assumes White can make a good enough impression to merit taking carries away from Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden.

    He doesn't possess the upper body power of Bolden or Ridley. The latter is a supremely talented runner. At least, he would be if he could hold onto the ball.

    Ridley's ball security issues are always going to make carries available at this position. White can take advantage, although the 5'9", 204-pounder won't offer the acceleration of Vereen.

    Fans shouldn't expect to see White take up third-down duties. Vereen has that role to himself. He is the "Joker-style" weapon in this backfield who should continue moving around formations to create matchup nightmares.

    White's best chance of being a factor is to use camp to prove he is a dependable and productive ball-carrier. Then he'll be a good bet to split carries with Ridley and Bolden.

Will Smith, DE

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Taking a chance on Will Smith was a smart move by Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. The 33-year-old is flexible enough to be the kind of "Elephant-style" pass-rusher Belichick loves.

    Smith has the skills to adopt a versatile role, flip-flopping between defensive end and rush linebacker in sub-packages. His experience and versatility will prove invaluable in Belichick's chameleon-like defensive schemes.

    However, as scheme-ready as he is, Smith must use camp to prove he can still put the theory into practice. After all, he did spend last season on injured reserve.

    Yet Smith does at least have a decent pedigree getting after quarterbacks. He has accumulated 67.5 sacks in his career, per stats from NFL.com. But those same stats reveal that he has only managed to tally double-digit quarterback takedowns twice in nine seasons.

    Nevertheless, Belichick could be counting on Smith's veteran acumen this season. Bleacher Report and Boston.com writer Eric Frenz believes Smith's veteran presence is indeed needed on this year's defensive line.

    Ultimately, though, Smith's future in New England will hinge on whether or not he convinces Belichick he can still be a major factor rushing the passer. When winning the AFC means getting past Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, Belichick knows he'll need a deep rotation of quality pass-rushers.

Michael Buchanan, DE

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    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    The fact that Belichick felt the need to sign Smith at all doesn't bode well for Michael Buchanan. The former Illinois rush end saw the field as a seventh-round rookie last season but could soon be pushed off the roster altogether.

    Buchanan tallied a pair of sacks as a situational pass-rusher. However, Belichick still acquired Smith this offseason. He also used a sixth-round pick to draft Zach Moore.

    Yet despite the increased competition, the writing might not be on the wall just yet for Buchanan. NESN.com writer Doug Kyed has noted that the player has added more pounds to his frame and is working on being stouter in the trenches:

    There's hope for Buchanan, however. He already looks bulked up from an offseason of lifting, and he did show signs that he could get under offensive linemen, get them off balance and overpower them.

    Buchanan needs that extra bulk to stand up against the run, something he couldn't do as a rookie. Yet he certainly possesses natural rush skills that are always valuable to a defense.

    His offseason work could be the key to enhancing those skills by refining the raw aspects of the rest of his game. That's something Buchanan can't avoid doing.

    Belichick places a lot of demands on his defensive players, particularly the linemen. They must be able to play multiple techniques and be sound in every area.

    If Buchanan doesn't use camp to show he's progressed against the run, he won't escape the final cuts.

Joe Vellano, DT

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    It's impossible to ignore the uncertainty surrounding this team at defensive tackle. As many as four members of the potential rotation are recovering from serious injuries.

    The most notable members of that group are likely starters Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. They are joined by first-round pick Dominique Easley.

    The fragile health of this trio means there could still be snaps available for a player like Joe Vellano. An undrafted free agent a year ago, Vellano eventually made eight starts as the injuries mounted up.

    Although he notched two sacks, Vellano couldn't generate a consistent push inside. That was bad news for a defense so reliant on strong pressure through the middle.

    Vellano may find it difficult to keep his place on this year's roster. He's not as effective a pass-rusher as Chris Jones, nor does he boast the size offered by 6'2", 325-pounder Sealver Siliga, whose bulk makes him a natural deputy for Wilfork.

    Without a particularly strong camp, it's difficult to believe Vellano will be around for too much longer.

James Anderson, LB

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    James Anderson is a capable all-around linebacker. He is a stout tackler, smart in coverage and effective on the blitz.

    Yet despite that skill set, Anderson finds himself on his third team in as many seasons. But the veteran is no mere camp body or depth player. He's still a very competent starter.

    Anderson can give the Pats an excellent tandem on the edges alongside Jamie Collins. Belichick could certainly make good use of the ex-Carolina Panthers and Chicago Bears starter's versatility.

    Anderson is a natural fit for the strong-side role in New England's base defense. The 30-year-old can also work well in the nickel packages, something he did for the Bears in 2013.

    But he must prove during camp that he can get to grips with the nuances of Belichick's schemes. He hasn't played in a system this multiple before.

    That will mean showing he can set the edge in 4-3 looks and shift inside in a 3-4. Anderson will also have to prove his worth as a sub-package pass-rusher. That's something that would free the ultra-athletic Collins to handle more coverage responsibilities in nickel and dime packages.

    Anderson could be one of the better under-the-radar signing of this offseason. That's provided he can handle the extra responsibilities the Patriots will place on him. His camp progress is worth keeping a keen eye on.

    This list is obviously heavy with defensive players. That's not necessarily an indictment of the unit. The Patriots could actually boast a very strong defense this season.

    However, a lot will depend on Belichick's ability to coax life from veteran role players like Smith. He must also ensure the D-tackle rotation is deep and strong.

    After years of weak secondary play, the acquisition of cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and and Brandon Browner have ironically switched the focus firmly to the front seven.

    That's where most eyes should be during camp. Meanwhile, the situation at running back also bears close watching.

    The position needs a refresh, and White has the potential to be a really pleasant surprise.

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