FOXBORO, Mass. — As the third day of training camp winds to an end, some of the obvious positional battles are clearing up on the practice field.
The Patriots have some real competitions for starting and backup roles at tight end, wide receiver, safety, defensive end and guard. Players like Marcus Benard, Zach Sudfeld, Brandon Bolden, Kamar Aiken and Marcus Cannon stood out Sunday at training camp.
Benard still has a ways to go, but he was showing off speed and agility that hasn’t been seen from a sub pass rusher since Mark Anderson was in New England. Benard had some very successful seasons in Cleveland, but missed most of 2011 and all of 2012 with injuries. He looks fully healthy and blew past Sebastian Vollmer in pass rush one-on-ones.
Benard said Sunday he’s used to being the underdog. So even though he was an unheralded future signing in January, that’s not affecting his mindset on the field. In fact, it could be pushing him to be even better.
Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich should be the starters at defensive end (as long as the team plays a base 4-3), but then the position drops off with Benard, Jake Bequette, Michael Buchanan, Jermaine Cunningham, Justin Francis and Jason Vega all fighting for spots. None of those players are guaranteed roster spots.
Benard may be the most pure third-down rusher of that group. He doesn’t have the run stopping prowess or positional versatility those other players have, but if you’re looking for a pure pass rusher, he could be the guy.
At tight end, Sudfeld is showing a burst Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui don’t possess. It’s like watching a different animal running routes after the veterans. If Gronkowski can’t come back by Week 1, and as long as Sudfeld stays healthy, the undrafted rookie should be guaranteed a spot on the 53-man roster.
Ballard would likely take the Gronkowski role to start the season, but if the Patriots were looking for a guy on the roster to play the Aaron Hernandez role, it would likely be Sudfeld. He’s a good enough blocker and has the speed and agility to line up out wide.
After Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Leon Washington, Bolden and LeGarrette Blount are likely fighting for one spot at running back. So far, it’s no contest between Bolden and Blount. Bolden showed a quick cutting ability Sunday that was making defenders miss. Bolden was impressive in limited snaps last season with the Patriots, but had his season derailed by a PED suspension.
As long as Bolden stays healthy and keeps his nose clean, he should be making this roster. He won’t fight for starting snaps with Ridley as some are suggesting, but he’ll be the main backup at that position.
Bolden, Ridley and Vereen were even taking reps split out wide at receiver. Bolden came in motion back to the backfield like Hernandez used to, while Ridley stayed in for a screen pass and Vereen ran an out route. That’s something to monitor as the preseason progresses.
At wide receiver, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce, Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater are likely making this team (as long as they all stay healthy). After that, the sixth spot at wide receiver (if it exists) is up for grabs. At this point, it looks like Michael Jenkins, Kamar Aiken and Kenbrell Thompkins are coming down as the finalists (although there is plenty of camp still to come).
The Patriots know what they’re getting in Jenkins, but he’s limited in what he can do. He had some tough drops Sunday, though he’s usually as sure handed as they come. Aiken has been a surprise performer. No one expected him to compete for a role on this team, but he’s pushing the issue with his play on the field.
At guard, Cannon has been getting a lot of reps on the right side while Dan Connolly recovers from injury. Once Connolly returns, it will be interesting to see if he immediately gets the job back, or if Cannon’s strong play pushes him down the depth chart. Cannon was impressive in the trenches Sunday.
There’s still plenty of time for these competitions to work themselves out, but for now, certainly players are making the most of their opportunities.
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