It hasn’t even been four months since the New England Patriots lost Super Bowl LII, and they’re already starting up practice again this week.
The Patriots are entering phase three of the offseason workout program Monday, which means they can begin to hold voluntary full-team organized team activities . They will not be in pads, so we won’t learn much about the players in the trenches, but this is the first chance for many skill position players to get a leg up on their competition in roster battles.
Here are five positions we’ll be watching closely over the next four weeks of OTAs and minicamp.
We still don’t know for sure if Tom Brady will decide to show up for OTAs. If he doesn’t, then the media will be watching a lot of Brian Hoyer and Danny Etling in open sessions. (The first practice reporters can watch is Tuesday).
The Patriots could decide to keep three quarterbacks this season. But if they only keep two, then Hoyer and Etling would be battling for one open spot on the roster as Brady’s backup. Hoyer is the heavy favorite to win that competition. If Etling, a 2018 seventh-round pick, beats out Hoyer for the backup job, then there’s probably no need to keep Hoyer around as a No. 3. Etling would REALLY have to impress, though.
At the very most, New England will keep five running backs (six including fullback James Develin) in 2018. Rookie Sony Michel, Rex Burkhead and James White are roster locks, leaving Brandon Bolden, Jeremy Hill, Mike Gillislee and undrafted free agent Ralph Webb fighting for one or two spots.
Bolden still is a strong special teamer, while Hill could be a solid short-yardage option. The Patriots liked Gillislee enough to give up a fifth-round pick for his services last year and Webb received $70,000 guaranteed in his rookie deal.
There won’t be much to glean by seeing these backs run between the tackles in non-padded practices, but they can show off burst and pass-catching ability.
New England has a similar roster crunch at wide receiver, as the team likely will keep just six wideouts. If the Patriots feel this position is strong enough, then they could roster seven receivers. Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and Matthew Slater are locks. That leaves Malcolm Mitchell, rookie Braxton Berrios, Cordarrelle Patterson, Jordan Matthews, Phillip Dorsett, Kenny Britt, Riley McCarron and Cody Hollister fighting for anywhere from two to four roster spots.
OTAs mostly are viewed as a teaching period in New England. But players still can begin to create some separation in front of teammates in positional battles.
Tight end is wide open behind Gronkowski. The Patriots have Dwayne Allen, Jacob Hollister, Will Tye, Ryan Izzo, Troy Niklas and Shane Wimann competing for one or two spots. Allen should be safe, but he’s on the books for $5 million next season. If the team feels Hollister, Tye, Izzo, Niklas or Wimann can provide similar value on the field, then it’s worth freeing up Allen’s salary cap space for midseason additions or to carry over into 2019.
Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, Eric Rowe, Duke Dawson and Jonathan Jones all are either locks or near-locks to make the Patriots’ 53-man roster. But everyone behind Gilmore is battling for positioning on the depth chart, and there are talented players, like Cyrus Jones, Ryan Lewis, Keion Crossen and J.C. Jackson, not included in that lock list. One of those four players could convince New England to keep six cornerbacks in 2018.