These 12 Patriots Players Have Most To Prove In Training Camp

Camp will be especially important for some New England players

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July 26

Bill Belichick likes to say the spring portion of the New England Patriots’ offseason program is about teaching and learning. The true, cutthroat competition and evaluation doesn’t begin until training camp kicks off in late July.

Well, that time has arrived. The Patriots will reconvene at Gillette Stadium on Tuesday, with their first on-field camp practice set for Wednesday morning.

Every member of New England’s roster is looking to solidify or improve his standing at this time of year. But for some, these next several weeks of practices and preseason games will be especially important.

From veterans looking to rebound from underwhelming 2021 seasons, to young upstarts eyeing breakthroughs, to draft busts down to their final chance, here are the 12 Patriots players with the most to prove this summer:

OT Isaiah Wynn
Can Wynn play right tackle? He may need to. In perhaps the biggest surprise of New England’s spring practice schedule, the Patriots flipped Wynn from left tackle to right when he arrived for mandatory minicamp — a position at which he’s never seen game action in the NFL or college. Trent Brown bumped from right to left tackle, where he started every game for the Patriots in 2018. We’ll find out this week whether that was a temporary experiment or a permanent move, but either way, it wasn’t a ringing endorsement of Wynn, who’s battled injuries throughout his career and lacked consistency last season. He remains a possible trade candidate, as doing so would wipe his entire $10.4 million salary from the Patriots’ salary cap.

TE Jonnu Smith
The single most disappointing player on the Patriots’ roster last season? Had to be Smith, who offered little as a receiver or blocker after coming aboard on a four-year, $50 million contract. He caught just 19 passes over his final 14 games, topped 50 yards once all season (52 in Week 7), scored one touchdown and graded out as one of the NFL’s worst run-blocking tight ends. The Patriots need Smith — a roster lock based on the terms of said contract — to be much, much better in 2022, and the early returns have been positive. The 26-year-old was a full participant in New England’s offseason program after skipping the voluntary portion the previous year and showed noticeable improvement on the practice field.

WR Nelson Agholor
See: Smith, Jonnu. Agholor was moderately more productive last season (37-473-3 in 15 games) but failed to live up to his $11 million average annual contract value, which many viewed at the time as an overpay. Then, the offseason arrivals of veteran DeVante Parker and second-round draft pick Tyquan Thornton threatened to eat into Agholor’s workload in Year 2. But like Smith, Agholor enjoyed an encouraging spring after predicting his 2022 season will be “something special.” We’ll see how he still fits into a receiving corps that also features Kendrick Bourne and Jakobi Meyers, both of whom were significantly more impactful last season.

CB Malcolm Butler
Back after four seasons in Tennessee and a year of retirement, Butler is a true wild card in the Patriots’ secondary. If he can perform the way he did in 2020 — when he started every game, tallied 100 tackles and defended 14 passes for the Titans — he’ll be a valuable re-addition to a cornerback group that, for the first time in a decade, lacks an elite talent. But if the Super Bowl XLIX hero looks like a 32-year-old who hasn’t played football in a year, he might not make it out of camp. The Patriots appear to be staging a wide-open competition at corner, with Butler, returning starter Jalen Mills, veteran newcomer Terrance Mitchell and feisty fourth-round rookie Jack Jones among those seeing first-team reps this spring.

LB Josh Uche
At the conclusion of last year’s training camp, Uche looked poised to be a major contributor in New England’s front seven. But the 2020 second-round pick saw only sporadic playing time in a veteran-laden position group, and his on-field impact was minimal, registering zero sacks, zero tackles for loss and one quarterback hit after Week 2. Now, following the offseason departures of Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins, Uche has a clear path to playing time. He enters camp as the favorite to start opposite Pro Bowl edge rusher Matthew Judon. Can he take the talent and athleticism he’s shown in flashes and use it to become a reliable three-down player? To be determined. But Bill and Steve Belichick both teased a “big” role for Uche this season.

LB Cameron McGrone
For a fifth-round draft pick who didn’t play at all as a rookie, McGrone has generated considerable hype ahead of his second pro season. Steve Belichick gushed about the athletic Michigan product earlier this offseason, saying he “really didn’t look in any sort of way out of place on the field” during his three-week practice cameo late last season. Now fully recovered from the torn ACL that ended his college career, McGrone worked mostly with the reserves this spring but should compete with Raekwon McMillan and Mack Wilson for a starting inside linebacker spot.

RB J.J. Taylor
Taylor has been on reporters’ radars since former position coach Ivan Fears compared him to Dion Lewis before he’d played his first NFL snap. But that hype has yet to translate into regular-season production. The pocket-sized back has appeared in just 11 games over his two seasons, and he averaged an uninspiring 1.9 yards per carry in 2021 while catching four passes for 8 yards. Taylor was heavily involved in the passing game during spring practice and could be an asset there if James White struggles in his return from hip surgery. But the Patriots have a crowded backfield and can’t keep everyone.

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WR Tre Nixon
After a nondescript 2021 camp and a rookie season spent on the practice squad, Nixon was awesome last month during mandatory minicamp, hauling in multiple highlight-reel deep balls and displaying a strong connection with draft mate Mac Jones. But is he a legit threat to make the team or the 2022 version of Maurice Harris? With a bunch of established veterans above him on the depth chart and second-round rookie Tyquan Thornton guaranteed a roster spot, Nixon still has a lot of work to do.

CB Joejuan Williams
Following N’Keal Harry’s trade to Chicago, six members of the Patriots’ 10-man 2019 draft class no longer are with the team. Williams could be the next to go. Taken in the second round that year, the long-limbed corner had more healthy scratches last season (five) than he has career starts (one) or interceptions (zero). He likely needs a phenomenal summer to have any chance of sticking around for Year 4.

OT Yodny Cajuste
Another underwhelming 2019 draftee, Cajuste (third round) has played just 81 offensive snaps in seven career appearances over three seasons. Sixty-four of those snaps came in one game, and Cajuste didn’t see the field for the final two months of last season. There are roster spots up for grabs near the bottom of New England’s O-line depth chart, but Cajuste has done little to inspire confidence since arriving in Foxboro.

TEs Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene
The stories have been similar for these two third-year tight ends, selected 10 picks apart in Round 3 of the 2020 draft. Asiasi has played in 10 career games, caught just two passes and was a healthy scratch for nearly all of last season. Keene has six career appearances, three career catches and spent all of last season on injured reserve. This duo’s early struggles prompted the Patriots to throw gobs of money at Smith and Hunter Henry, and the odds of both Asiasi and Keene sticking on the roster this summer look slim. Keene’s prior work as an H-back could be useful in the Patriots’ newly fullback-free offense, but he still can’t seem to stay healthy, with an undisclosed injury keeping him out of most team drills this spring.

Thumbnail photo via Paul Rutherford/USA TODAY Sports Images
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