New England Patriots' 5 Biggest Training Camp Battles
The New England Patriots are far from a team short on talent. In fact, they probably have the league's most talented overall team—at least on paper. This is a team that won a Super Bowl at the end of last season and then worked hard to bring in even more talent in the offseason.
While all this talent should lead to little uncertainty during the regular season—barring a catastrophic event, New England will be a playoff team—it brings plenty of drama for training camp. With all this new talent added to the roster, some spots are going to be up for grabs.
We're not going to see any camp competitions for the quarterback spot, of course. Tom Brady is as entrenched as any player in pro sports, and even backup Jimmy Garoppolo appears to have a hold on his job.
However, there are some positions that are a little less certain—though definitely not because of a lack of talent.
We're here to examine five of the most intriguing positional battles we're likely to see in Patriots camp.
Dion Lewis vs. Rex Burkhead vs. James White vs. Mike Gillislee
The battle at running back will probably be the hottest one in the Patriots camp this offseason. The team parted ways with LeGarrette Blount in May and will be looking to replace him—possibly with a committee—for 2017.
There are many intriguing options here. James White proved his worth while playing hero in Super Bowl LI, and Rex Burkhead turned plenty of heads in spot duty with the Cincinnati Bengals last season. Dion Lewis is more of a utility back, but it's worth noting New England is undefeated with him in the lineup over the last two years.
Mike Gillislee, who was acquired from the Buffalo Bills as a restricted free agent, appears best-suited to be the lead back, though. He was the only back on the roster to log more than 100 carries last year, with 101. He also found the end zone eight times on those 101 carries. He and Burkhead could be the top two when it comes to rushing the ball.
Football Outsiders rated Gillislee and Burkhead first and second, respectively, in rushing efficiency on a per-play basis last season.
Overall, this does appear to be a committee unit, with each back bringing a unique skill set and playing a specific role. However, as a practical matter, Gillislee appears qualified to be the starter.
Projected Winner: Gillislee
No. 3 Receiver
Chris Hogan vs. Malcolm Mitchell vs. Danny Amendola
Danny Amendola has been New England's No. 2 receiver alongside Julian Edelman for much of his time with the Patriots. However, he will likely battle to be the No. 3 this year and may fall even further down the depth chart.
Edelman and new addition Brandin Cooks will likely be the team's starters. Pro Football Focus rated Edelman and Cooks 31st and 27th overall among wide receivers, respectively, for the 2016 season.
While many teams regularly put their No. 3 receiver in the slot, New England does things a little differently. Edelman often slides into the slot when a third receiver comes on to the field. With Cooks now manning one of the outside spots, the battle for the other could be between Chris Hogan and second-year man Malcolm Mitchell.
Given his ability to get deep—he averaged 17.9 yards per reception last season—Hogan may be the right complement for Cooks on the outside. Mitchell, meanwhile, may step into the role of the No. 4 wideout.
This would leave Amendola as a rotational slot receiver and return specialist. Given the fact the team struggled in games without Dion Lewis as a returner, New England may be perfectly happy to place Amendola in this role.
Projected Winner: Hogan
Eric Rowe vs. Justin Coleman vs. Jonathan Jones vs. Cyrus Jones
If New England's top two cornerbacks aren't Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore this season, there's something seriously amiss.
This leaves the nickel slot open for cornerbacks such as Justin Coleman, Jonathan Jones, Cyrus Jones and Eric Rowe to compete for.
Ideally, the Patriots would probably love to see Jones step up and secure the job. The team spent a second-round pick on him during last year's draft and got little in return other than a warm bench and some special teams mishaps. Don't be surprised to see the team give him plenty of chances to snag a job in training camp, though.
Jones' primary competition will likely come from Rowe, who spent a lot of time as the team's nickelback last season. He has just two years of NFL experience and one year experience playing in New England, but he showed an ability to hold his own in 2016. Pro Football Focus rated him 49th overall among cornerbacks for the 2016 season.
It's worth noting, though, that Rowe often moved to the outside so Logan Ryan—now with the Tennessee Titans—could defend the slot. If Gilmore struggles to move into the nicklelback spot at times, the Patriots may look to see if one of the Joneses or Justin Coleman can excel against the slot full time.
If things work as they did last year, though, Rowe should be the right man for the job.
Projected Winner: Rowe
Rob Ninkovich vs. Shea McClellin vs. Kyle Van Noy vs. Jonathan Freeny
Because New England often employs multiple looks and packages on defense—along with a lot of player rotation—there isn't realistically a defined linebacker spot up for grabs. As a practical matter, however, there is likely one primary role on the outside available.
The other two spots will likely be manned by standout Dont'a Hightower and recently acquired inside linebacker David Harris. Hightower is a defensive leader and Harris was brought in for a reason. Former Patriot Damien Woody believes Harris is a perfect fit for the defense.
"I think the world of David Harris", Woody said, per Mike Reiss of ESPN.com. "He will fit that culture perfectly. He's not a rah-rah guy. He's an excellent teammate, excellent locker-room guy. He has a high football IQ. He's never been the fastest guy on the field, but he is very smart."
New England has a lot of options for the final starting spot. Rob Ninkovich, Kyle Van Noy and Shea McClellin all filled significant roles last season. Jonathan Freeny was injured for much of the year but has held a large role in the past.
Ultimately, Ninkovich's vast experience in the Patriots defense—he's entering his ninth season—could be the deciding factor. He's a crafty veteran with some pass-rush value (4.0 sacks last season).
While there will be a lot of rotation along the entire linebacker unit, expect Ninkovich to get a lot of early-down work alongside Harris and Hightower.
Projected Winner: Ninkovich
Kony Ealy vs. Lawrence Guy vs. Deatrich Wise vs. Derek Rivers
The Patriots' defense produced just 34 sacks last season, tied for 16th in the NFL. As a reaction, the team dramatically revamped its defensive end room in the offseason. Gone are Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long. In are Lawrence Guy, Kony Ealy, Deatrich Wise and Derek Rivers.
As is the case at outside linebacker, there may not be a true starting spot up for grabs here. Sheard and Long were usually part of a three-man end rotation along with Trey Flowers last season. Flowers, who led the team with 7.0 sacks in 2016, should again be part of that rotation.
How the rest of the rotation plays out will likely have a lot to do with the development of rookies Wise and Rivers.
Rivers, a Youngstown State product, has the most pass-rush potential of the group, and he may force his way into the rotation early as a sack specialist. Guy spent time as a 3-4 end with the Baltimore Ravens and could have a large role as a run-stuffer. Wise could also work his way into the rotation if he can show some consistency.
If we're going to name a starter here, though, it'll likely be Ealy. He appeared in 47 games over the past three years for the Carolina Panthers and has 14.0 sacks in that span.
Projected Winner: Ealy