Here is a look at the top five battles at Patriots' camp and our projection of who will come out on top:
5. Right Tackle
Nick Kaczur has been decent in his four years with the Pats, but the addition of monsterman Sebastian Vollmer via the second round of this year's draft could make things interesting. Vollmer played both left and right tackle in mini-camps, and has the size and athleticism to contribute right away. The wild card is Ryan O'Callaghan, who has seen spot duty in three seasons though he missed almost all of 2008 with an injury.
Our Projection: Kaczur holds off the young Sea Bass. O'Callaghan is sent packing.
4. Starting Running Back
The Patriots favor the running back-by-committee approach. No matter how the depth chart looks, all healthy backs will get a chance to carry the rock.
Free agent Fred Taylor will certainly make things interesting for Laurence Maroney, but Maroney has the one thing the other three top RBs on the roster dont: young legs. Sammy Morris has been reliable when not hurt in his two years with the Pats.
Kevin Faulk's role is etched in stone as the third down back/screen nightmare for opposing defenses. Second year back BenJarvus Green-Ellis looked good in spot duty last year. He runs hard, but is ineligible for the practice squad, so he'll have to make the team outright if he's to remain with the Pats.
Our Projection: Maroney comes to camp with something to prove, letting the Pats give him the early carries. Ensuring Taylor stays healthy for the playoffs is paramount. Morris could be the odd man out if the team doesn't keep four backs. A minor injury to one of these guys wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing.
3. Tight End
Chris Baker, signed as a free agent, and Alex Smith, acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay, were brought in this offseason to compete with Ben Watson and David Thomas. When you look at the stats of all four, no one jumps off the page. Patriots fans are well aware of Watson's athletic ability, but also a collection of drops and fumbles in key moments (see last year's loss to the Jets). Thomas had a critical unnecessary roughness penalty against the Colts that cost the Pats a shot at overtime.
Baker was always solid against the Patriots in his days with the Jets, and Smith has the versatility that Bill Belichick loves. Both should push Watson not only as primary blockers, but as receivers in the spread offense as well.
Our Projection: Watson's familiarity with Tom Brady gives him an advantage, but Baker is signed through 2013 and will have a significant role with the team. Watson may win the starting spot in training camp but it's just a matter of time before Baker is the go-to guy.
2. Outside Linebacker
Mike Vrabel's departure left a huge opening at starting outside linebacker, and there was no shortage of rumors about players outside the organization that might be brought in to take over. First there were the Julius Peppers rumors, then the Derrick Burgess rumors, but ultimately the Pats stuck with what they had.
Tully Banta-Cain, who was brought back this offseason, spent some time starting at OLB for the Pats in 2006 when Junior Seau went down and Mike Vrabel shifted to inside linebacker. He looks to be more like insurance if the youngsters don't emerge.
All signs point towards Pierre Woods being the starter on opening day. Woods was solid while filling in for Adalius Thomas, until being lost with a broken jaw against the Steelers. Note I said "solid" and not "spectacular" or "great"; Patriots fans will still be looking for him to really emerge.
The wild card is Shawn Crable. The second-year player from Michigan showed some promise in the 2008 preseason but didn't play a down in the regular season after going down with a shin injury. No player will be watched closer that Crable in training camp, but it might be a lot to ask for him to take the starting spot from Woods. More likely he will contribute on special teams and spot pass rush duty.
Vince Redd could also be in the mix. And if all else fails, Banta-Cain is a reliable fall back option.
Our Projection: Woods will be the starter, especially on run downs, but Bill Belichick can get creative using Crable and Banta-Cain as third down pass rushers. If Crable shows enough in camp Banta-Cain could become expendable. Redd should remain primarily as a special teamer.
After ranking 28th in third-down defense in 2008 it was hardly a surprise to see a revamp of the cornerback position both in free agency and in the draft. The Patriots now have a collection of five cornerbacks, all of whom could potentially start.
The two veteran free agents are Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs. Bodden hopes to revive his career in New England after an impressive start in Cleveland was negated when he spent 2008 with the Lions. Springs might be 34 but he still has something left in the tank, and can always play safety if he's needed to.
The three youngsters are rookie Darius Butler, and second-year players Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley.
Wilhite ended 2008 starting at left cornerback, and looked good in mini-camps. Wheatley was looking promising in 2008 as well, earning his first start against the Colts, but was lost for the season in that very game with a wrist injury.
Butler was a steal in the second round this year, he was an explosive playmaker at UConn. He will push for playing time if he can get the system down quickly.
Our Projection: Springs and Bodden have the experience to win the starting jobs out of camp, but Wilhite and Wheatley will be ready to go and should immediately improve sub-packages with multiple defensive backs. Looks for rookie safety Pat Chung to contribute there as well. Butler will look to make an impact on Special Teams and wait for his number to be called. Injuries always seem to hit the Patriots defensive backfield, but this year they appear to be ready with quality depth that runs five players deep.
Mike Dussault is a Patriots Community Leader and just bought his annual Patriots hat, a fitted red throwback in honor of the AFL 50th Anniversary.
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