FOXBORO, Mass. — The New England Patriots have 24 days before they have to decide their starting offense and defense, and they’ll use all of the time they need.
Head coach Bill Belichick explained last summer that there is no “first team” in training camp, and that’s evident one year later. The Patriots use every possible combination of offensive linemen and skill players on offense with Tom Brady, Ryan Mallett and Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback. There’s a revolving door at cornerback and safety on defense, and before Sealver Siliga and Chris Jones went down with injuries, the Patriots were using many different combinations along their front seven.
Some starting roles obviously are set in place, however. Wide receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola look set to start with Brady on offense, and tight end Rob Gronkowski, left tackle Nate Solder, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and left guard Logan Mankins will join the top unit. On defense, tackle Vince Wilfork, ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, linebackers Dont’a Hightower, Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins, cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Devin McCourty will make up the starters.
But that leaves plenty of starting roles still up for grabs, and no matter what you hear based on training camp practices, they haven’t been decided yet. Let’s go through them:
X wide receiver
Kenbrell Thompkins and Brandon LaFell have seen equal time with Brady and Mallett to this point. Aaron Dobson will join the competition when he fully recovers from offseason surgery to fix a stress fracture in his foot. LaFell has been playing better than Thompkins recently, but there still are three preseason games and many practices before the Patriots must decide who to start outside.
Edelman and Amendola will swap between the “Z” and slot receiver roles. It was evident that the Patriots view Amendola as a starter when he sat out Thursday night’s preseason opener against the Redskins alongside Brady and Edelman. The Patriots primarily will line up in three-receiver sets this season, so Amendola and Edelman both should be considered “starters.”
It might not matter who starts at running back, since Stevan Ridley, James White and Shane Vereen all will take snaps. All three players have seen reps with Brady and Mallett during practice over the last three weeks.
White has been used as a featured back and third-down back in practice, and as training camp moves along, it’s looking like the Patriots could go running back by committee in 2014. For all the fantasy football fans out there, this probably is a situation to avoid.
Guard and center
The Patriots have used every possible combination on their offensive line this summer, but Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly rarely take snaps next to one another. The two veterans appear to be competing to start at center in 2014.
Josh Kline and Jordan Devey have spent a lot of time at guard in training camp. Rookie Bryan Stork could be competing for a starting role at guard or center, but he’s currently limited in practice with an injury.
With Tavon Wilson limited in practice, this looks like an open competition between Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon, though cornerbacks Kyle Arrington and Logan Ryan also have seen time back deep next to McCourty. The Patriots could continue this starting battle into the season. Whichever safety starts in Week 1 still might not be starting by Week 5 or 6.
Harmon is the most promising choice to start at strong safety, but if the Patriots’ goal is to put the best 11 players on the field, then Arrington or Ryan could receive a long look with only so many snaps to go around at cornerback.
No. 2 cornerback
Brandon Browner is expected to start after he serves a four-game suspension to begin the season, but he’s still competing with Ryan, Alfonzo Dennard and even undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler. Revis obviously is a starter, but Ryan, Dennard, Butler and Browner all have spent time in what appears to be the “starting” defense across from the No. 1 cornerback.
There are too many good cornerbacks on this roster to play at the same time, which, quite frankly, is a great problem to have.