5 Position Battles to Watch at New England Patriots OTAs

Erik Frenz@ErikFrenzSenior Writer IMay 8, 2016

5 Position Battles to Watch at New England Patriots OTAs

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    Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

    Now that the 2016 NFL draft is over, the New England Patriots roster has taken shape. 

    As it stands right now, there are a handful of positions that will have some heated battles over the next few months. Rookies and veterans will vie for starting jobs and roster spots, but while some battles may come down to strictly talent, other battles may be determined by scheme fit and versatility.

    As the Patriots shapeshift from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense and morph from a spread offense to a two-tight end attack, they will also be looking for different traits in players at specific positions than they may have valued in the past.

    Here is a look at some of the biggest roster battles to watch throughout this spring and summer.

Cornerback

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    Logan Ryan (26) could be competing for his incumbent starting job at cornerback.
    Logan Ryan (26) could be competing for his incumbent starting job at cornerback.Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

    The cornerback position was not the position of weakness it was presumed to be following the Patriots' controversial offseason moves of 2015. Neither Malcolm Butler nor Logan Ryan yielded more than a 60 percent completion rate into their coverages, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Now the Patriots have added some depth at the position to help address the third and fourth positions on the roster, where they were weakest in 2015. A revolving door of Justin Coleman, Rashaan Melvin, Tarell Brown and Leonard Johnson all played a part as the Patriots' third cornerback. The competition grew with this offseason's additions of Brock Vereen, E.J. Biggers, rookie Cyrus Jones and a return to health for Darryl Roberts.

    Last year, the Patriots' top five defensive backs were three safeties and two cornerbacks; more often than not, their fifth defensive back in nickel packages was a safety, as Patrick Chung lined up in the slot to compensate for a lack of healthy depth and talent at corner. 

    The Patriots will be looking for a cornerback with a blend of man- and zone-coverage skills to help execute their versatile scheme and the ability to defend the run. Butler and Ryan figure to be at the top of the rotation. That third spot will be up for grabs, though, as will the backup spots behind it.

Wide Receiver

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    The complexion of the wide receiver position changed a bit this offseason with the release of Brandon LaFell and the additions of two rookie wide receivers. As the Patriots reshape their offense to a two-tight end attack, they might also be changing the mold of what they prioritize in a wide receiver.

    Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Julian Edelman, Chris Harper, Chris Hogan, Keshawn Martin and Nate Washington are the receivers with NFL experience. Add rookies Malcolm Mitchell and Devin Lucien to the mix, as well as second-year wideout DeAndre Carter, and you're left with a deep battle for starting jobs and backup spots.

    Thanks to Amendola's restructured contract, the veteran wide receiver has increased his odds of making the final roster. As for Dobson, this could be the final shot at redemption for the oft-injured, big-bodied talent, with Hogan and Washington both threatening his job as an X-receiver.

    If the two-tight end set is the base formation for the Patriots offense in 2016, New England will be looking for its best options at wide receiver on the perimeter, meaning the advantage will go to the big-bodied pass-catchers. That being said, there will be room for smaller, shiftier receivers in an offense that has always featured a heavy dose of quick passing.

Defensive Tackle

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    Malcom Brown (right) leads the charge for the Patriots at defensive tackle.
    Malcom Brown (right) leads the charge for the Patriots at defensive tackle.Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    The Patriots have a lot of depth on the defensive line, and while players will be competing for roster spots, the direction of that competition could be determined by whether the Patriots switch back to a 3-4 base defense. 

    Between Malcom Brown, Vincent Valentine, Terrance Knighton, Alan Branch, Frank Kearse, Markus Kuhn and Joe Vellano, the Patriots have plenty of options. If they want to run a 3-4 base, they'll be looking for gap-stuffing defensive tackles who can play inside and outside. If they want to run a 4-3 base defense, the aim will be pass-rushing defensive tackles.

    It seems likely that the 3-4 is the direction they're headed, given the addition of Knighton, who is a pure nose tackle. Every defensive tackle on the roster has the traits to fit in a 3-4 defense, so it's anyone's guess how this battle will unfold. 

Running Back

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    You and your friends all thought the Patriots were a lock to draft a running back in the 2016 NFL draft. When they didn't, you were all baffled and maybe even mad at a team that seems to annually ignore whatever is the consensus "big need" (think outside linebacker in 2009 and 2010 and defensive line in 2011). 

    But even as you look at the running back depth chart today, there are plenty of warm bodies to fill out the roster. LeGarrette Blount, Dion Lewis, James White, Brandon Bolden, Tyler Gaffney, Donald Brown and undrafted rookie D.J. Foster will all have a chance to make the roster. Blount and Lewis are likely to be at the top of the depth chart as long as they are healthy enough to play at the beginning of the season.

    That leaves White, Bolden, Gaffney, Brown and Foster to compete for two or three spots. The Patriots will need backups for both Blount (first- and second-down, between-the-tackles runner) and Lewis (quick-cutting, third-down scatback). White was the fill-in scatback for Lewis last year, and Bolden's role got bigger when Blount went down. 

    But Gaffney, Brown and Foster are all talented backs in their own rights and could make a case for a surprise roster bid. 

Offensive Guard

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    Tre' Jackson (63) and Shaq Mason (69) are both vying to retain their starting jobs of 2015.
    Tre' Jackson (63) and Shaq Mason (69) are both vying to retain their starting jobs of 2015.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Last year, the Patriots added two rookie guards to their offensive line as the front office gave the position a dramatic face lift. Just a year later, the Patriots added two more rookie guards along with a veteran, and the position is once again up for grabs.

    Shaq Mason and Tre' Jackson joined the Patriots as fourth-round picks in 2015 and quickly rose to the starting positions at left and right guard, respectively. Josh Kline might have been the best of any starting guard for the Patriots in 2015, though, filling in for both Mason and Jackson. And now, the Patriots have added veteran Jonathan Cooper via trade and rookies Joe Thuney and Ted Karras via the draft.

    Returning Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia had a hand in scouting Jackson and Mason as a member of the scouting staff in 2015. The Patriots' recent string of additions indicates that they would like to see more competition at the position. Has Scarnecchia already seen enough of Jackson and Mason to begin searching for other starters?

    The Patriots offensive line could take any number of different looks this year, but the basis for much of the variety is at the guard position. It will be interesting to track what happens with the two starting jobs. 

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