New England Patriots: 5 Top Preseason Position Battles to Watch

Bradlee RossCorrespondent IIAugust 14, 2011

New England Patriots: 5 Top Preseason Position Battles to Watch

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    With the NFL preseason finally arriving, every team in the NFL will have decisions to make regarding personnel and particularly interesting positions battles.

    Those of the New England Patriots are specifically intriguing because of both their free agent signings and the supposed personnel genius of their head coach.

    Here are five positions battles to watch throughout this preseason.

Tight End: Rob Gronkowski vs. Aaron Hernandez

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    This isn’t a position that a lot of people think about, mainly because tight ends take a much smaller role in other teams’ offenses. Not so in New England. In fact, Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for nearly 100 receptions, over 1,000 yards and 16 touchdowns.

    With the release of Algae Crumpler, the struggle for the starting tight end job has become a two-man race. At ages 22 and 21, both have two years of experience and had stellar seasons last year.

    Winner: probably Gronkowski. He’s a better blocker and is a full five inches taller than Hernandez. Both will get significant playing  time and catches, but Gronkowski will be the guy on the top of the depth chart.

Running Back: BenJarvus Green-Ellis vs. Stevan Ridley vs. Danny Woodhead

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    Although New England’s is known as a passing offense, it does depend heavily on rushing the football. Last season, Green-Ellis rushed for just over 1,000 yards and proved himself a dependable back who can provide enough of a threat to keep defenses honest.

    Woodhead proved himself to be a good third down back and rushed for over 500 yards on just a quarter of the carries that Green-Ellis got. He also caught the ball 34 times for 379 yards receiving.

    Ridley is a promising rookie out of LSU who ran for 64 yards in his first preseason game and had seven receptions for 47 yards. His game was good enough for people to keep an eye on him going forward.

    Winner: Green-Ellis will stay the starter, mainly because he is the Patriot’s best option for an every-down kind of back. Woodhead and Ridley will most definitely have a presence in the offense, but neither is an option right now as a starting running back.

Backup QB: Brian Hoyer vs. Ryan Mallett

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    First, I feel like I need to explain why this position battle is important.

    If you’ll remember, Tom Brady missed nearly an entire season a few years ago. His backup, Matt Cassel, had a Pro-Bowl caliber season and led the Patriots to an 11-5 record. That lone season catapulted him to a big contract as the starting quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs.

    History could repeat itself. Hoyer has looked consistently good in junk time and played well in Brady’s place during the first preseason game, going 15 for 21 for 171 yards and a touchdown. He’s becoming a solid backup and can clearly run the offense.

    Mallett also had a good game, going 12 for 19 for 164 yards and a touchdown. Mallett is 6’6” with a big arm and, even though he struggled with decision-making in college, has tremendous upside.

    Winner: Hoyer will be the No. 2, ultimately because of his superior experience and familiarity with the offense. However, Mallett will be a guy to watch in the years to come, especially when Brady nears retirement.

Defensive Line:Shaun Ellis vs. Vince Wilfork vs. Albert Haynesworth

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    Although these guys probably won’t be competing that directly for time, they will be competing to see who will become the staple of the defensive line.

    Wilfork has been the foundation of the Patriot’s line for years and is a Pro-Bowl caliber nose tackle who had 57 tackles and two sacks last season.

    Haynesworth has been considered a has-been formerly dominant lineman who is coming off the worse season of his career.

    Ellis is a former Patriot-hating Jet who has been brought in to help the Pats rush quarterbacks and who was one of the most athletic players on the Jets’ defense for a long time.

    Winner: It’s complicated. Wilfork and Haynesworth will most likely both start, especially in predominantly 4-3 situations. Ellis will help rush passers on third down.

Wide Receiver: Deion Branch vs. Chad Ochocinco vs. Brandon Tate vs. Wes Welker

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    With a guy like Tom Brady throwing to you, there are plenty of receptions to go around. But somebody must separate themselves.

    Branch and Ochocinco are the vertical threats, each had just a bit over 800 yards last season, Branch because he had to share the ball, Ochocinco because he was on a bad team and had to share the ball.

    Welker is the ultimate possession receiver, who had 86 receptions for 848 yards and seven touchdowns last season (a down year for him). Tate is a young receiver who has shown promise and will be a good back up option for these other guys.

    Winner: The Pats like to spread out the ball, so Branch, Ochocinco, and Welker will likely be on the field at the same time quite a bit. That being said, it will be Ocho who wins the yards battle, Welker who wins the receptions battle, and Branch will be in the middle, having an all-around decent year.