Ladies and gentlemen, football officially is back.
The New England Patriots will report to Gillette Stadium for training camp on Wednesday before hitting the field for their first practice Thursday morning. The Patriots can carry 90 players on their active roster throughout camp but must trim that number to 53 following their fourth and final preseason game.
That means nearly half of the players who will be in Foxboro this week will be out of a job come Labor Day. And even some of those who are guaranteed spots on the final roster enter camp with question marks of their own.
On that note, here are the Patriots players who have the most to prove over the next five weeks:
Cyrus Jones, CB
The pressure will be on Jones to prove he belongs on this team after a disastrous rookie season in 2016. That means either establishing himself as a reliable punt/kick returner or convincing the coaching staff to keep him around as the third, fourth or fifth cornerback behind presumptive starters Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler. So far, he has done neither. Jones is one of several players competing for the slot corner spot vacated by Logan Ryan’s offseason departure, and he should see plenty of reps in the return game, as well.
Dwayne Allen, TE
Allen is expected to fill Martellus Bennett’s old role as New England’s No. 2 tight end, but he struggled in organized team activities and minicamp, dropping far too many passes during the team’s non-contact spring practices. It’s too early to worry about the former Indianapolis Colt, but the Patriots surely would like to see improvement from him once camp commences. Bennett illustrated last season how much better this Patriots offense is when it has a reliable backup to the oft-injured Rob Gronkowski.
Stephon Gilmore, CB
The typically frugal Patriots stunned the football world when they signed Gilmore to a four-year, $65 million contract shortly after free agency opened in March, making him their highest-paid defensive player and the eighth-highest-paid cornerback in the NFL based on average annual value. While early returns on the 26-year-old are promising — he looked great during OTAs and minicamp — that price tag comes with tremendously high expectations. Gilmore will be expected to dominate from Day 1.
Every linebacker not named Dont’a Hightower
With Hightower set to begin camp on the physically unable to perform list, the competition at linebacker will be wide open. Incumbents Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts all had their ups and downs for the Super Bowl champs last season, and none is guaranteed a spot on this year’s squad. Add former New York Jet David Harris and highly touted undrafted rookie Harvey Langi to the mix, and the ‘backers will be a fascinating position group to watch this summer.
Stephen Gostkowski, K
The Patriots did not sign another kicker to compete with Gostkowski this summer, but it’s hard to have total confidence in the 33-year-old after he struggled through one of his worst seasons as a pro. Gostkowski will be under a microscope until he proves his disappointing 2016 was an aberration, not a sign of decline.
D.J. Foster, RB
The Patriots kept Foster on their 53-man roster for almost all of last season while basically redshirting him. That obviously means they like what the versatile second-year man brings to the table and didn’t want to risk exposing him on the practice squad. But New England is so deep at running back following the additions of Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead that Foster likely will need a monster summer — or an injury to a player above him on the depth chart — in order to stick around again this year.
Rob Gronkowski, TE
Talent-wise, Gronkowski has nothing to prove. When he’s healthy, he’s arguably the most dangerous offensive weapon in the NFL. Gronkowski is coming off his third back surgery, however, and hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2011. Though he was a full participant in spring practices and has said he is back to 100 percent, he hasn’t taken contact since last November. So, we’re looking for proof that Gronk truly is back to full strength and will be ready to go for Week 1. It will be interesting to see how the Patriots handle his reps over the coming weeks.
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images