Predicting New England Patriots' Top Position Battles This Offseason

Kristopher KnoxFeatured ColumnistMay 9, 2017

Predicting New England Patriots' Top Position Battles This Offseason

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    Associated Press

    With the NFL draft and the bulk of free agency over, it's time to look ahead to OTAs, training camp and the position battles to come. Watching players vie for starting or significant roles can be the most exciting aspect of the late offseason. For a team like the New England Patriots, however, position battles don't always take center stage.

    These are the Super Bowl champions, after all, and most of the roster spots are solidified. While some teams will be grabbing the headlines with quarterback competitions this summer, New England hasn't truly seen one for the better part of two decades.

    This doesn't mean there won't be some interesting battles to watch in the coming months, though. Just expect them to come at less-heralded positions.

    The addition of wideout Brandin Cooks, for example, likely sets him and Julian Edelman as the team's top two receivers. However, guys will be battling for depth and such battles are going to make New England an even stronger team in 2017.

    We're here to predict the top battles of the offseason for the Patriots. We'll rank them in ascending order, based on both importance and entertainment value. We'll also try predicting the winner of each.

6. Left Guard

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    North Carolina State product Joe Thuney started all 16 games as a rookie in 2016. This is an impressive feat for a member of the Patriots, but it's worth noting he had his down moments.

    In fact, Thuney finished the year rated just 138th overall among guards by Pro Football Focus.

    While Thuney should be able to take another step forward in Year 2, I do expect the Patriots to at least challenge him in training camp.

    Veterans like Jamil Douglas and Chase Farris should be first up in the competition, and the former could be one to watch. A former fourth-round pick of the Miami Dolphins, Douglas was signed off the practice squad by New England last season.

    The Patriots obviously see something they like in Douglas.

    It's also worth keeping an eye on undrafted rookie Jason King. The 6'3", 303-pound Purdue product was inked shortly after the end of the draft.

    Ultimately, the purpose of guard competition should be to push Thuney to take that next step as a pro. It's difficult to see the Patriots demoting him after allowing him to start every game last season—unless someone clearly outperforms him in camp.

            

    Prediction: Joe Thuney stays at left guard.

5. Defensive End

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    One starting defensive end spot appears to be locked down by Trey Flowers, who led the team with 7.0 sacks in 2016.

    There are questions on the other side, though. Flowers, Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long were the team's primary ends last season, with Rob Ninkovich serving in a complementary role.

    Both Sheard and Long saw more defensive snaps than Flowers last season, per Pro Football Focus. Both departed as free agents this offseason.

    The front-runner for the starting spot appears to be veteran Kony Ealy.

    The Patriots traded to acquire him from the Carolina Panthers earlier in the offseason. The former second-round pick hasn't been the most consistent player during his three pro seasons, but he has shown elite potential at times. In Super Bowl 50, for example, Ealy produced four tackles, 3.0 sacks, a forced fumble and an interception.

    Rookie third-round pick Derek Rivers could also be in the conversation, though, because of his ability to get to the quarterback. However, at 6'4" and 248 pounds, he is probably better suited to be a situational edge-rusher and an outside linebacker in sub-packages.

    One name that also has to be considered is Lawrence Guy. While he played a 3-4 end with the Baltimore Ravens, he was rated 14th overall at his position by Pro Football Focus in 2016.

    Guy is one of the most underrated defensive linemen in the league and it wouldn't be a shock to see him win the starting job over Ealy.

            

    Prediction: Ealy, Guy and Flowers form a three-man rotation similar to the one New England used last season.

4. Cornerback

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Malcolm Butler was rated fifth overall among cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus last season, and the Patriots handed a five-year, $65 million deal to Stephon Gilmore in free agency.

    Barring something unforeseen, these two will be New England's starting cornerbacks in 2017.

    Where there is likely to be competition is at the No. 3 corner spot. Eric Rowe held the position in 2016 and seems the likely candidate to do so again this season. However, the Patriots spent a second-round pick on Cyrus Jones in the 2016 draft and are going to want him to emerge at some point.

    Jones struggled mightily as a rookie last season, to the point that he didn't even feel like a proper contributor.

    "I'll never take credit for something I don't feel I contributed to," Jones said after the team's Super Bowl victory, per Childs Walker of the Baltimore Sun. "I was part of the team, but I didn't feel a part of it."

    Jones got some looks as a punt returner last season, but multiple fumbles cost him that job. He ended up being inactive for Super Bowl LI.

    Edelman believes that Jones has what it takes to rebound.

    "Cy works his tail off, he practices hard, and it's a growing pain, a learning experience," Edelman told WEEI radio (h/t Mike Reiss of ESPN.com). "He just has to gut through it and we're all going to be behind him to help him do it."

    Jones should have a fair crack at the No. 3 corner job, as should guys like Justin Coleman and Jonathan Jones. Realistically, though, Jones is probably fighting for a role in sub-packages right now.

            

    Prediction: Eric Rowe keep the No. 3 job.

3. Strong Safety

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    Veteran safety Patrick Chung appeared to take a significant step back in 2016. The soon-to-be 30-year-old ended the season rated as the third-worst safety in the NFL by Pro Football Focus.

    While Chung will still have value for the Patriots defense in 2017, it only makes sense for the team to try strengthening the strong safety position with some competition.

    That competition is likely to come from fifth-year man Duron Harmon, who served as the team's third safety last season. Pro Football Focus rated him 28th overall among safeties for the season.

    Harmon is younger and more versatile than Chung. He rotated in at both safety positions and was often on the field as a nickelback as well. However, if Harmon is going to truly take the strong safety role, he's going to have to add a little size and physicality to his game.

    "I feel that's one area I feel I can grow. I think that is going to come with putting on a little more weight and being able to bang down there," Harmon said, per Mike Reiss of ESPN.com.

    If Harmon can show increased development as a box safety in camp, he might be able to push Chung out of the starting job.

           

    Prediction: Patriots maintain a three-safety scheme, but Harmon earns a more significant role than Chung.

2. Wide Receiver

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Now that Cooks is part of the offense, the Patriots should have their top two receivers set. He and Edelman were rated 27th and 31st overall, respectively, among wide receivers by Pro Football Focus last season.

    When two receivers are on the field, those two will probably be Cooks and Edelman. The questions surround which player is going to play on the outside when the latter kicks into the slot and who gets on the field in four-receiver sets.

    Players vying for a role include Chris Hogan, Danny Amendola, Matthew Slater, Devin Street, Malcolm Mitchell and undrafted rookie Austin Carr.

    Hogan emerged as a legitimate deep threat on the outside for the Patriots in 2016, averaging an impressive 17.9 yards per reception. It makes a lot for the Patriots to put him on the outside when Edelman moves into the slot.

    Mitchell impressed as a rookie in 2016, hauling in 32 passed for 401 yards, and he could supplant Amendola as the team's No. 4 receiver this year.

    Amendola did restructure his contract this offseason, so he has a legitimate shot at sticking as the team's fifth receiver and as a return specialist.

    Slater remains one of the league's top special teams players. His roster spot is likely safe even if he doesn't spend much time on offense.

    Street and Carr are guys to keep an eye on. If one of them outperforms Amendola in camp, the veteran could be sent packing.

    Carr, a 6'1", 194-pound slot receiver out of Northwestern, could be in New England's long-term plans and could earn a roster spot because of it.

            

    Prediction: Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell earn third and fourth receiver roles.

1. Running Back

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Last season, the Patriots' backfield attack was led by bruising runner LeGarrette Blount. He rushed for 1,161 yards and a whopping 18 touchdowns during the regular season alone. Yet, New England decided not to bring him back this offseason.

    Instead, the Patriots signed former Cincinnati Bengals backup Rex Burkhead and stole restricted free agent Mike Gillislee from the rival Buffalo Bills. Those two join a backfield that also contains James White, Dion Lewis, Brandon Bolden, D.J. Foster and undrafted rookie LeShun Daniels.

    Realistically, the Patriots are going to use a combination of backs to form a lethal backfield committee. Expect Burkhead, Gillislee, Lewis and White—at minimum—to all hold significant roles in the offense. However, there is going to be an exciting battle for the role of lead runner vacated by Blount.

    Doug Kyed of NESN.com recently explained why Gillislee may be best-suited for that role:

    It's unlikely the Patriots would have given up a fifth-round pick to Buffalo for Gillislee or handed out a contract worth almost $4 million in 2017 if they didn't want him to start this season (showing up the Bills isn't that fun). But Burkhead will have the best shot to beat him out. NFL analytics sites gave both Burkhead and Gillislee high marks despite the backs' backup duties in 2016.

    At 5'11" and 219 pounds, Gillislee is a bigger back seemingly suited for the early-down role. Burkhead, though, runs hard between the tackles and should also see significant time in the ground attack.

    My best guess is that the two split most of the rushing work, while Lewis and White split time in the change-of-pace/receiving role.

    If guys like Bolden, Foster and Daniels are going to make the roster, they'll likely have to do it on special teams.

           

    Prediction: Mike Gillislee becomes New England's lead back.