Cue Bon Jovi’s “This Is Our House.” It’s almost football season in New England.
The Patriots are fighting to win the AFC East for the seventh consecutive year and shooting for back-to-back Super Bowl titles. Within the ranks, however, many players are battling for spots and starting roles on the Patriots’ 53-man roster, which will be whittled down in early September.
The Patriots lost key Super Bowl contributors — most notably Darrelle Revis, Shane Vereen, Brandon Browner and Vince Wilfork — but they still bring back a stacked roster, and few of their 2015 NFL draft selections should feel safe heading into the summer.
Let’s examine the Patriots’ biggest positional battles with training camp set to begin Thursday at Gillette Stadium.
Vereen is gone, but the Patriots have a bevy of options to replace the now-New York Giants running back. James White returns for his second season after being a fourth-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, and though he didn’t see much action as a rookie, he could be the front-runner for Vereen’s (and Danny Woodhead and Kevin Faulk’s) old role in the Patriots’ offense because of his experience as both a receiver and pass-blocker at Wisconsin.
The Patriots signed former New Orleans Saints pass-catcher Travaris Cadet over the offseason. Cadet has never been able to stay in one role for too long in the NFL, being used as both a running back and a receiver in New Orleans, but he has plenty of experience catching passes out of the backfield. His lack of reps carrying the ball and pass blocking could preclude him from taking the important third-down spot full-time, however.
The Patriots could elect to split up Vereen’s roles as a pass blocker and receiver. Cadet and Vereen share similar versatility as receivers with the ability to line up in the backfield and out wide.
Special-teams ace Brandon Bolden could be viewed as the backup plan for the role. If White and Cadet don’t pan out, then the Patriots know Bolden can protect Brady on third down and run routes out of the backfield. He doesn’t have White nor Cadet’s upside, but he’ll be on the roster regardless, and being used on third downs certainly would raise Bolden’s value to the team.
Veteran Dion Lewis also was being used as a pass-catching back during organized team activities and minicamp. He’s a long shot to make the roster, however, since the 5-foot-8, 195-pounder hasn’t played in a regular-season game since 2012.
Tyler Gaffney, who spent his entire 2014 rookie season on injured reserve, is a final option for third-down snaps. He was used as both a blocker and receiver at Stanford. Based on usage during OTAs and minicamp, however, the Patriots might view him as more of an early down option.
Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola are shoo-ins to make the Patriots’ roster, but there isn’t a whole lot of certainty after that. Aaron Dobson, Brian Tyms and Brandon Gibson likely are fighting for one or two more roles on the roster, while Josh Boyce, Zach D’Orazio, Chris Harper and Jonathan Krause are competing for practice-squad spots.
Dobson, a former second-round draft pick, has the highest upside of the Patriots’ reserve receivers, but Tyms leapfrogged him on the depth chart in 2014. Gibson, with 233 career receptions, has an edge in experience.
Dan Connolly, the Patriots’ starting left guard and team captain in 2014, retired after going unsigned in free agency, so quarterback Tom Brady will have at least one new face protecting him this season.
The Patriots drafted Tre’ Jackson and Shaq Mason this offseason, and Ryan Wendell returns after having an impressive season at right guard in 2014. Chris Barker, Jordan Devey, Cameron Fleming, Caylin Hauptmann and Josh Kline also could compete for the two wide-open starting roles.
Jackson and Wendell can be penciled in as the starters for now, but Fleming and Mason have the entire summer to prove they deserve key roles.
The Patriots already were bringing back starters Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, and they signed Jabaal Sheard over the offseason. That’s why it was surprising to see them use three draft picks — on Geneo Grissom, Trey Flowers and Xzavier Dickson — on pass rushers. The Patriots only can carry so many bodies at defensive end/outside linebacker, and Dominique Easley, Zach Moore, Rufus Johnson and Eric Martin also have experience playing on the edge.
Grissom, Flowers and Dickson could be competing for only one spot on the Patriots’ roster, since the team has so much versatility along its defensive front and in its linebacker corps. The Patriots also will have competition at defensive tackle, where Easley, Moore, Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Antonio Johnson, Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga, Vince Taylor and Joe Vellano are fighting for a limited numbers of spots and starting roles.
Patriots fans are dying to see what coach Bill Belichick has up his cut-off sleeves at cornerback this season after Revis and Browner departed in free agency and Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard were released.
The Patriots currently have Malcolm Butler, Tarell Brown, Derek Cox, Bradley Fletcher, Justin Green, Jimmy Jean, Robert McClain, Darryl Roberts, Logan Ryan and Daxton Swanson at the position. Butler and Ryan appeared to be front-runners for starting roles in OTAs and minicamp, though that could change this summer.
Brown, Cox, Fletcher and McClain provide veteran savvy to the Patriots’ defensive backfield, and all four players have starting experience. Roberts, a 2015 seventh-round draft pick, stood out during the Patriots’ spring passing camp.
Ryan and McClain are the only players at the position who have extensive experience at Arrington’s old slot role. McClain likely would be the Patriots’ No. 3 cornerback if the season started today.
Thumbnail photo via Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports Images
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