The Patriots are going into training camp with more than a few positions up for grabs. With a slew of new wide receivers, Aaron Hernandez’s departure, and the additions of Leon Washington, Adrian Wilson and Tim Tebow, along with the possibility of Alfonzo Dennard’s incarceration pending the outcome of a probation hearing, there’s more than enough competition to keep tabs on.
Let’s walk through all the position battles, which will surely stay at the forefront of the team’s story lines throughout the season. Next
Take your pick: Aaron Dobson, Michael Jenkins, Josh Boyce, Kamar Aiken, Kenbrell Thompkins, Mark Harrison, or Quentin Sims. Every one of the aforementioned players is competing to play at the team’s X position, or outside wide receiver. (The slot position is buttoned up with star free agent signing Danny Amendola locked in as the No. 1 and Julian Edelman penciled in as his backup.)
Dobson, Jenkins, and Aiken have all been impressive during OTAs and minicamp, but the shift to full pads will be when the competition heats up for everyone. Don’t be surprised if Jenkins comes out on top in the early going with draft picks Dobson and Boyce scratching at his heels. Aiken is the longshot.
It’s also possible the Patriots could have new plans for Edelman, who supplanted Wes Welker for a time last season in the slot. And free agent signee Lavelle Hawkins has some flexibility as well. Next
Forget about Aaron Hernandez. He has his own problems now as he awaits trial on a murder charge. The team still has to deal with the very real possibility that Rob Gronkowski may miss some time in the early part of the regular season as he recovers from back surgery. And the Patriots still have to fill the sizable hole on offense left by the loss of Hernandez.
While taking into consideration that Hernandez may very well be replaced by a mix of skilled position players, wide receivers and tight ends, there are still strong candidates on the roster. In the team’s two-tight end offense, Hernandez worked as the team’s flex tight end while Gronkowski is the team’s primary blocking tight end, or Y.
Gronkowski is immediately backed up by Jake Ballard, who had some success with the New York Giants in 2011 (38 receptions, 604 yards, 4 touchdowns) before suffering an ACL tear that wiped away his 2012 season. That’s not to say Ballard still doesn’t have competition. Undrafted rookie Zach Sudfeld out of Nevada has looked impressive in mini-camp and veteran Daniel Fells (92 career receptions, 1,086 yards, 8 touchdowns) is still available.
At the flex, Michael Hoomanawanui (25 career receptions, 328 yards, 5 touchdowns) filled in for Hernandez last season, shifting back and forth between tight end and fullback in a hybrid role. Undrafted rookie Brandon Ford has also worked as a flex-like tight end while in college at Clemson, moving out wide at times while catching 65 career passes for 728 yards and 12 TDs.
The Patriots have also worked out fullback James Develin with the tight ends group. He is a long shot to be a flex tight end. Next
The Patriots were a quagmire at safety last season, turning once again to defensive back Devin McCourty to help shore up the woeful play in the position group. But his change of position, which can be categorized as all but permanent, did anything but settle the issue. The Patriots needed a talent upgrade so they signed Adrian Wilson. The 13-year veteran is expected to compete for the starting strong safety position opposite McCourty.
Going up against Adrian Wilson will be second-year pro Tavon Wilson (41 tackles, 6 passes defensed, 4 interceptions), who contributed to the Patriots in mostly dime packages last season but struggled. And then there’s the matter of Steve Gregory, who returns after a tough season playing out of position, much closer to the line than his physique suggests is doable. (He’s listed at 5-11 and 200 pounds, but he’s much closer to 5-9 and 190.)
Between the three, there’s the matter of who plays as the team’s starter, and who works in the team’s money position (dime defensive back). The preference is for a larger player to work as the money, with Tavon Wilson splitting time with Ras-I Dowling last season.
Gregory may be seen as McCourty’s primary backup going forward with the two Wilsons duking it out for each position, veteran vs. upstart.
Rookies Duron Harmon and Kanorris Davis can get in the mix here too. Next
Third-down running back
Stevan Ridley (290 carries, 1,290 rushing yards, 4.4 yards per carry, 12 touchdowns) is most definitely the team’s No. 1 running back. But it’s no secret the Patriots operate with multiple roles available within the team’s offense. After Danny Woodhead left for San Diego, the team is forced to address who will play as its third down running back and consequently its no-huddle running back as well.
Last season, Shane Vereen (400 yards from scrimmage, 4 touchdowns) was competing for Woodhead’s spot in training camp. He took the majority of the snaps with the first team, but he was beset with injuries. Now, he’s healthy and resuming his quest to make an impact on the team, but not without competition.
The Patriots signed veteran running back Leon Washington in the offseason. Not only is Washington a competent third-down option, but he has the added cachet of having done it before, mostly early on in his career with the New York Jets.
If Vereen can stay healthy, the Patriots certainly have their man. But Washington can easily overtake the younger Vereen if his health becomes a factor again. Next
The Patriots didn’t bring Tim Tebow to New England just to watch, did they? As a former starting quarterback in this league, there’s a distinct possibility that Tebow could be used in a variety of roles to widen the team’s playbook. Think Wildcat. Think Pistol. Anything is possible in with Tebow on the roster.
But Tebow’s use doesn’t come without having to leapfrog Ryan Mallett, whom many consider to be a talented backup for Tom Brady. But Mallett is not a mobile quarterback, and he doesn’t provide the kind of playbook-widening ability that Tebow does. What he does provide is a competent arm in case of emergency.
The question that will come up again and again is can Tebow be a reliable enough threat as a quarterback – reading defenses, accurate on the throw, and able to handle pressure – to justify the use of his legs in these quirky, new-age formations, if the Patriots want to go that route. There’s extreme doubt he can do as much. Nevertheless, he’ll get his chances. Next
A lot will be determined on July 31. Alfonzo Dennard will be back in a Nebraska courthouse for a probation hearing following his arrest on suspicion of DUI. While the team doesn’t plan to cut the cornerback, he faces possible jail time for violating his probation, which he was placed on after his felony conviction for assault on a police officer in Lincoln, Neb. (He still has to serve 30 days in jail in 2014 for the incident.) He also faces the possibility of suspension from the league.
With all of that hanging over his head, the Patriots may once again have to fill a hole at right cornerback. While Kyle Arrington has started at the position in the past, the team prefers to use him in the slot as its “star” corner, which is basically a starter’s position in the secondary. He could still start at right corner and shift to the slot in nickel situations, with any number of players moving up the depth chart.
Ras-I Dowling has also started at cornerback for the Patriots. He even competed with Arrington for the starting right cornerback spot last season, losing in that bout. But as with all things Dowling related, it all comes back to his ability to stay healthy. In his first two seasons with the Patriots, he’s played only nine games.
Also available to compete is draft pick Logan Ryan (5-11, 195), who was projected as a solid cornerback option out of Rutgers. The team’s other rookie cornerbacks, Stephon Morris and Brandon Jones, are long shots. Back to the beginning
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