(UPDATE: The Patriots were forced to cancel two OTAs practices as punishment for violating the NFL’s offseason training policies. Their first practice in front of reporters now is set for Wednesday, May 31.)
All eyes will be on Mac Jones when the Patriots hold their first open spring practice.
And on JuJu Smith-Schuster. And on Mike Gesicki. And on top draft pick Christian Gonzalez.
The starting quarterback, marquee offseason additions and big-name rookies naturally generate the most headlines ahead of organized team activities, which began Monday in New England. But each year, we also see less heralded members of the Patriots’ roster emerge as spring standouts.
We spotlighted one under-the-radar player to watch — veteran running back/receiver Ty Montgomery — earlier this week. Here are six others we’ll have our eye on for various reasons this spring:
S Joshuah Bledsoe
The biggest question facing the Patriots’ defense, which returns nearly every contributor from last season, is how the team will replace retired free safety. Bledsoe won’t be the favorite in that roster battle, but he’s a candidate to watch. Though he’s appeared in just three games in his NFL career, the 2021 sixth-round draft pick often subbed in for McCourty last summer when New England reduced the latter’s workload in training camp. Last month, defensive play-caller Steve Belichick referred to the search for McCourty’s successor as an “open competition,” as the Patriots currently have several players with free safety experience but no obvious replacement for the longtime team captain. Beyond Bledsoe, that group includes safeties Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger and Jabrill Peppers as well as cornerbacks Jalen Mills, Jonathan Jones, Marcus Jones and Myles Bryant.
RB Pierre Strong
Shane Vereen. James White. Damien Harris. Pierre Strong? There’s a long history of Patriots running backs essentially redshirting as rookies before carving out substantial roles in Year 2. Will Strong be the latest to follow that path? The 2022 fourth-rounder played just 51 offensive snaps last season and had a couple of costly mistakes on special teams, but he flashed in his limited backfield action, averaging 10.0 yards per carry on 10 attempts and catching all seven of his targets. In an ideal world, he’d beat out Montgomery for the top third-down back role.
LB Ronnie Perkins
Remember him? The Patriots used a third-round draft pick on Perkins in 2021, and he’s played exactly zero regular-season snaps so far in his NFL career. He spent all of last season on injured reserve. This spring and summer likely will be the Oklahoma edge rusher’s final chance to prove he belongs on the Patriots’ roster. Can Perkins stick around as a depth option behind Matthew Judon, Josh Uche, etc.? He’d probably need to beat out 2020 third-rounder Anfernee Jennings to do so.
OL Sidy Sow
Sow enters the NFL with a wealth of O-line experience, having logged more than 50 starts for Eastern Michigan. The vast majority of those came at left guard, but the Patriots reportedly plan to try the fourth-round rookie out at tackle, where he hasn’t started a game since 2018. The Patriots’ decision to cut veteran Yodny Cajuste last week could be viewed as an early sign of confidence in Sow, who will compete with the likes of Trent Brown, Riley Reiff, Calvin Anderson, Conor McDermott and Andrew Stueber for reps if he sticks at tackle. Brown and Reiff are entering contract years, Anderson and McDermott never have been first-choice NFL starters, and Stueber is a wild card after missing his entire rookie season with an injury, so there will be opportunities for Sow here.
WR Kayshon Boutte
The post-draft hype Boutte has received might disqualify him from this list, but he’s still a sixth-round rookie who will need to earn his roster spot. The young wideout showed legit No. 1 receiver potential early in his college career but cratered in his final year at LSU and enters the NFL with real questions about his coachability and maturity. If Boutte buys in and proves he can handle the demands of playing in New England, he could be a Day 3 steal. Fellow sixth-rounder Demario Douglas also is an exciting addition to the Patriots’ receiving corps who could fill a Marcus Jones-type role.
QB Malik Cunningham
The Patriots gave Cunningham a hefty $200,000 in guaranteed money, making him a strong candidate to crack the 53-man roster as an undrafted rookie. The Louisville product is undersized for a QB at 6 feet, 188 pounds and wasn’t a prolific passer last season, but he’s supremely athletic and put up huge rushing numbers in college (3,197 yards, 50 touchdowns). He won’t be in the mix for a starting job but has intriguing potential as a situational offensive weapon — either as a QB or at some other position.