Stars, marquee free agents and early-round draft picks naturally dominate headlines at the outset of each NFL training camp. For the 2023 New England Patriots, that’s players like Mac Jones, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Christian Gonzalez.

But the most compelling position battles — and most interesting stories — often are found on the roster fringes.

With that in mind, and with Patriots camp set to kick off Wednesday morning, here are seven dark-horse roster candidates who should be on your radar this summer:

WR Demario Douglas
With Pro Bowl wideout DeAndre Hopkins choosing to sign with Tennessee, the Patriots’ top four of JuJu Smith-Schuster, DeVante Parker, Kendrick Bourne and Tyquan Thornton appears set, barring injury. They typically carry five receivers on their 53-man roster, however, and Douglas enters camp as the favorite to claim that final spot. The Liberty product worked with the Patriots’ coaching staff pre-draft at the East-West Shrine Bowl and, based on what we saw in OTAs and minicamp, seems to be further along than fellow sixth-round pick Kayshon Boutte. (If you’re looking for an even deeper sleeper at wideout, undrafted Rhode Island alum Ed Lee had some nice moments in spring camp.)

Story continues below advertisement

RB Kevin Harris
Harris faces longer roster odds than fellow 2022 draft pick Pierre Strong or versatile veteran Ty Montgomery, who missed nearly all of last season with an injury but is coming off a productive spring. Both of those players are more likely to be used in sub packages and on passing downs, however, giving Harris a realistic path to a roster spot as an early-down backup to Rhamondre Stevenson. The burly South Carolina product hardly played as a rookie (five games, 18 carries, 52 yards, one touchdown) but flashed potential late in the season. Harris’ prospects could hinge on the Patriots’ roster strategy, as they’ve hosted free agent backs Leonard Fournette and Darrell Henderson for visits and have been linked to Dalvin Cook.

TE Anthony Firkser
Of the four tight ends battling for the third spot on the depth chart behind Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki, Firkser is the most accomplished, having appeared in 69 career games with Tennessee and Atlanta. Backup quarterbacks Bailey Zappe and Trace McSorley frequently targeted the 28-year-old Harvard man during spring practice. With two-tight end sets expected to be a staple of Bill O’Brien’s new offense, it would make sense for the team to carry a third option at the position.

    What do you think?  Leave a comment.

WR/QB Malik Cunningham
A highly productive dual-threat quarterback at Louisville, Cunningham is attempting a Julian Edelman-esque position change as an undrafted rookie. His lack of wideout experience was apparent in OTAs and minicamp — he said he’d never run routes in his life before this spring — but his unusually lucrative contract gives him a better chance to stick than most UDFAs. The Patriots also could give Cunningham additional looks at QB in camp. At the very least, he’s an intriguing project.

OLB Ronnie Perkins
Remember him? This summer likely will be Perkins’ final chance to earn his way onto the Patriots’ roster. The 2021 third-round pick has yet to appear in a regular-season NFL game and might need to beat out 2020 third-rounder Anfernee Jennings if he hopes to stick around.

Story continues below advertisement

CB Isaiah Bolden
There might not be room for either of the Patriots’ late-round rookie cornerbacks on the 53-man roster, but the uncertainty surrounding Jack Jones’ legal situation could test New England’s depth at the position. Though neither profiles as an immediate contributor on defense, Bolden (seventh round) and Ameer Speed (sixth) both are tall cover men with elite speed and the ability to impact the game on special teams. For Bolden, that’s through his kick returning, which the Patriots could use to lighten do-everything All-Pro Marcus Jones’ workload.

ST Jourdan Heilig
Heilig barely played his listed position of linebacker at Appalachian State and was a virtual unknown when he signed with the Patriots after the 2023 draft. But Bill Belichick loves players with special teams potential, and Heilig spent the spring glued to the hip of Matthew Slater, running through kicking-game drills while most of the roster repped offense and defense. Brenden Schooler and DaMarcus Mitchell got that treatment at times last year, and both went on to make the team as UDFAs. Heilig could follow suit, especially if Cody Davis is not removed from the physically unable to perform list before the season begins.

Other under-the-radar players to watch: S Joshuah Bledsoe, G Bill Murray, DT Sam Roberts, OT Andrew Stueber

Featured image via Zack Cox/NESN