5 Position Battles to Watch in New England Patriots Training Camp
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — As the summer heats up, so will the New England Patriots' training camp battles.
A look at the roster reveals a handful of positions where the team will have to make some tough decisions over the next few months, and that goes for both the starting spots and the deeper battles. Some of these battles will be determined strictly based on talent, while others could be determined by scheme fit.
For example, the Patriots won't keep four third-down running backs without keeping a solid option for first and second downs. They also aren't likely to keep a group of defensive tackles who all excel in either a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense, especially since they tend to shift back and forth between the two schemes so often.
Here is a look at some of the biggest roster battles to watch throughout this summer.
If you're looking for an underrated position battle that might bear a surprise outcome, the center position may be it.
Bryan Stork was the starting center in 2014 as a rookie fourth-rounder, but an early concussion in 2015 forced undrafted rookie David Andrews into the starting lineup at center. Stork played multiple positions upon his return, even filling in at right tackle when injuries left the Patriots depleted at the position. After a couple of weeks of this emergency scenario, Stork was plugged in at center once again as the starter from Week 11 to the end of the season.
The position appears to be open for competition this summer, though, as Stork and Andrews split the reps at center in June minicamp.
With Dante Scarnecchia back in the fold as the offensive line coach, it's expected that the offensive line play will improve. That improvement will not take place without at least one or two contentious battles for starting spots, and it all starts at center.
This is one position where almost every roster spot could be considered up for grabs, from the starters to the backups. The only true lock for the roster is Dion Lewis, and LeGarrette Blount is close to a lock (although that could change if the Patriots add someone like free-agent running backs Arian Foster or Knowshon Moreno to the mix).
Beyond that, from James White to D.J. Foster to Brandon Bolden to Donald Brown to Tyler Gaffney, everyone is fighting for his job. Bolden might seem like a shoo-in based on his special teams experience and ability, but stranger things have happened than a potential Bolden release. White appears to be the top backup option to Lewis, but with Foster in the fold, White's spot isn't guaranteed, either.
Brown and Gaffney appear to be the two long shots for the roster. Brown is new to the offense and is still getting his bearings, and Gaffney is returning from injured reserve for a second straight season. Either (or both) of those two could make a surprise push, but with so many bodies at the position, they'll have an uphill battle.
Make no mistake: The Patriots will need players of varying skill sets on the defensive line, especially if they intend to run a hybrid 3-4/4-3 defense that shifts back and forth between the two base looks. They'll need defensive tackles who can win one-on-one matchups (one-gap) and those who can hold their ground to control the flow of action on either side of their assignment (two-gap).
Malcom Brown, Vincent Valentine, Terrance Knighton, Alan Branch, Frank Kearse, Markus Kuhn and Joe Vellano give the Patriots a strong, diverse, young group of defensive tackles from which to choose.
It would appear that Brown is the front-runner for a starting job in the 4-3 among that group, and the other job could easily go to any number of the other defensive tackles. Knighton or Branch would be the optimal choice for gap-stuffing, but the Patriots don't have a real pass-rushing defensive tackle among the group. In a three-man line, the front-runners appear to be Brown (end), Knighton (nose tackle) and either Branch or Valentine (end).
It's hard to project these battles when so much remains undetermined.
Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Cyrus Jones are locked into roster spots at cornerback. After that, there are several spots up for grabs.
Between additions such as Brock Vereen and E.J. Biggers and a return to health for Darryl Roberts, there will be an influx of depth at cornerback, and the aforementioned three will be among those vying for the fourth and fifth spots.
That being said, while there is competition at the bottom of the depth chart, there may also be a sneaky battle at the top of the depth chart. Jones is a rookie, and it would be rather rare for a rookie defender to earn a starting role right out of the gate—according to Pro Football Focus, Dont'a Hightower played 667 defensive snaps (58.2 percent) as a rookie, and Jamie Collins played 441 (33.7 percent).
So don't be surprised if Jones plays just a limited role. If he outperforms Ryan, though, don't be surprised if he plays an even bigger role than past rookies have played.
The roster battle at guard is arguably the main event of the summer. It feels a little strange to say that about an interior offensive line position, but that's the climate the Patriots have created with their offseason moves: a stockpiling of guards and the addition of Scarnecchia.
Josh Kline, Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason were all in the mix as starting guards for the Patriots last year. Jackson and Mason were in and out of the lineup with respective injuries, and the rookies were part of a crop of linemen scouted by Scarnecchia, so one would assume that they would be the starters if healthy.
Kline, however, signed a contract extension for two years worth $3.5 million in November. That would seem to be an indication that his spot is secure, if not that the team has confidence in him as a starting lineman if need be.
Don't rule out Jonathan Cooper, either. The veteran guard joined the team via trade this spring, and as a former first-round pick, he clearly possesses the talent to start in the NFL. He has been nagged by injuries early in his career, though, so he'll have to stay healthy if he wants to compete with the other guards already with the team.
Unless otherwise noted, all information obtained firsthand.