In a normal year, the New England Patriots would have held their first training camp practice on Thursday. But 2020, of course, is no normal year.
Under the NFL’s new training camp format implemented as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Patriots’ first camp practice won’t be until Aug. 12. Their first session in full pads will take place five days later, on Aug. 17.
In the meantime, Patriots players will undergo coronavirus testing — they must test negative three times before entering Gillette Stadium — attend virtual meetings and complete several days of conditioning, weight training and walkthroughs.
As we count down the days before these new-look Patriots hit the field for the first time, here’s a look at six of the most intriguing roster battles we’ll be watching this summer:
Who replaces Tom Brady: Cam Newton or Jarrett Stidham? COVID-related issues notwithstanding, that’s the biggest question of Patriots training camp.
Newton, the 2015 NFL MVP, should be the guy if healthy, but that’s no guarantee after he ended each of the last two seasons on injured reserve. There’s still a chance Stidham could simply outplay Newton (who signed for the veteran minimum and can make up to $7.5 million this season) and earn the starting nod, but the ceiling for New England’s offense would be higher with the former Panthers star at the controls.
Brian Hoyer, who has more significantly more experience in said offense than either Newton or Stidham, has a good chance of sticking around as a safety-net QB3. The Patriots also re-signed undrafted rookie Brian Lewerke this week.
Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry and Matthew Slater are safe. Mohamed Sanu should be, too. But what about Damiere Byrd, Jakobi Meyers, Marqise Lee, Gunner Olszewski, Jeff Thomas and Will Hastings? All six have realistic chances of earning roster spots, but it’s likely only two will make the cut, three tops.
Meyers and Olszewski made the team as UDFAs last season and impressed in spurts. Byrd and Lee are veteran free agent additions. Thomas and Hastings are undrafted rookies with intriguing traits — speed and big-play potential for the former, elite quickness and a strong connection with Stidham for the latter.
Two members of last year’s practice squad, Quincy Adeboyejo and Devin Ross, round out this position group.
With Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts now in Miami, Jamie Collins in Detroit and Dont’a Hightower opting out of the season, the Patriots are without four of their top ‘backers from last season, including their three best pass rushers in Hightower, Van Noy and Collins.
Replacing those three versatile defenders will require contributions from an array of players, many of whom either lack substantial NFL experience or are new to New England’s system. Ja’Whaun Bentley, John Simon, Chase Winovich, Day 2 draft picks Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings and veteran newcomer Brandon Copeland all look like roster locks, but it remains to be seen how they’ll be positioned on the depth chart.
The bubble battle at inside linebacker (sixth-round rookie Cassh Maluia vs. UDFA De’Jon Harris vs. 2019 practice squadder Terez Hall) is one we’ll be closely monitoring. Also: Will this be the end of the road for edge rusher Derek Rivers, who’s played in just six games in his three pro seasons?
Marcus Cannon’s replacement might not even be on the Patriots’ roster yet. The veteran starter’s decision to opt out left New England extremely thin at tackle with only Korey Cunningham, Yodny Cajuste and Justin Herron behind starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn.
Cajuste, a 2019 third-round pick who missed his entire rookie season, has the most potential of those three. The Patriots also could experiment with standout left guard Joe Thuney at right tackle. Thuney played tackle in college and took reps there last spring and summer, though those came on the left side.
Expect the Patriots to use at least one of their open roster spots — they had four as of Wednesday afternoon — on an experienced tackle. Cordy Glenn and Demar Dotson are the most notable available free agents. Former Patriots LaAdrian Waddle, Marshall Newhouse and Jared Veldheer also are unsigned.
Keep an eye on Bill Murray and Nick Coe here. With plenty of uncertainty up front behind standout Lawrence Guy and pass-rush specialist Adam Butler, the two undrafted rookies could make strong pushes for roster spots. Murray, who dominated on defense and special teams at the FCS level, received the second-most guaranteed money of any 2020 Patriots UDFA ($125,000), and the versatile Coe was considered a potential first-round prospect as recently as last summer.
The rookie duo will compete with fourth-year pro Deatrich Wise, 2019 fifth-round pick Byron Cowart and returning practice squadders Nick Thurman and Tashawn Bower. Wise is the longest-tenured player in that bunch, but he remains an awkward fit for the Patriots’ 3-4 scheme. He also finished tied for the team lead in penalties committed last season with seven, six of which resulted in first downs.
Beau Allen should be safe as Danny Shelton’s replacement, but he played sparingly in Tampa Bay last year, and the Patriots have cut plenty of freshly signed veterans before (Mike Pennel, Terrance Knighton, etc.).
Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene are locked into roster spots as third-round draft picks. They’ll be tasked with returning this group to its former glory after it nosedived last season without Rob Gronkowski. But with just a handful of preseason practices, will either of the rookies be ready to contribute in Week 1? Or will the Patriots need to rely on Matt LaCosse or Ryan Izzo (holdovers who likely are fighting for one roster spot) to open the season?
And then there’s the fullback question. With Danny Vitale opting out and Jakob Johnson still largely unproven, a tight end like Keene or UDFA Jake Burt could see reps at fullback in camp. The two position groups officially will fall under the same umbrella this season, with Nick Caley serving as New England’s tight ends/fullbacks coach.