Part 2 in a 10-part series examining key storylines leading into Patriots' training camp...
The question: What positions will have the most competition?
Three factors: New collective bargaining agreement rules; health; future of some former high draft picks.
Finding the answer: While the NFL and the players are rapidly approaching a new collective bargaining agreement that should be agreed to, in principle, in the next couple of days, there is still much we won’t know until the deal is completed, namely what the rules on transactions and rosters will be.
How many years will it take to hit free agency? Will teams gain rights for first refusal on any player who would normally be free agents? What’s the salary cap going to look like and how will it be calculated? What will be the roster limit for training camp and then the regular season? Will teams get more spots than the usual 80 and 53?
All of those questions will factor in how the Patriots’ roster will look when training camp commences, and what the most competitive positions will be.
But going by the current roster (minus the three players on the reserve-military list who are due to come off it) with an eye towards free agency, here are the three positions that figure to have the most spirited competitions:
Defensive line: Just by pure numbers, this is the position that will have the most competition. Right now the Patriots have 13 players under contract. They kept eight in 2010 at the 53-man roster cutdown after retaining six the previous two years.
Locks to be on the roster figure to be Vince Wilfork, Mike Wright (coming back from a severe concussion), Ty Warren (hip surgery) and Ron Brace.
Myron Pryor, Brandon Deaderick, Marcus Stroud and Eric Moore (who is a tweener) are likely penciled in. Deaderick is iffy because of his late-season team suspension. He may not have a long leash. The Patriots signed Stroud in free agency to replace Gerard Warren, but Stroud will still have to prove he has more left in the tank.
That’s eight players right there, seven if Moore is figured more at outside linebacker.
That leaves Kyle Love, Kade Weston, Landon Cohen and Darryl Richard for one spot. More if one of the other players falter.
Safety: Another position heavy on numbers. The Patriots have kept four each of the previous three seasons. Right now they have seven under contract.
The locks are Patrick Chung and Brandon Meriweather, though with a year left on his contract the team could be looking hard at Meriweather’s long-term value to the team.
Jarrad Page, who was tendered as a restricted free agent, could be an unrestricted free agent with new free agency rules.
James Sanders, a master communicator and leader, figures to be back but his contract makes him expendable if the team chooses to go that route. He could garner some interest on the trade market.
So after Chung and Meriweather, that leaves Page, Sanders, Sergio Brown, Ross Ventrone, Brandon McGowan and Josh Barrett for two spots if the team doesn’t find a value pickup in free agency.
Cornerback: Leigh Bodden’s return from injury makes this a crowded, if not talented position. He joins Devin McCourty, second-round pick Ras-I Dowling and Kyle Arrington (who is an unsigned exclusive rights free agent) as virtual locks. The Patriots usually keep five cornerbacks but did retain six in ’09.
Darius Butler figures to be back as a second-round pick in ’09, but the numbers don’t guarantee it. He would make five corners.
That means Jonathan Wilhite, Tony Carter, Thad Turner, Brett Lockett and seventh-round pick Malcolm Williams fighting for scraps, or a fall by Butler.