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Top position battles we'll be watching

Posted by Greg A. Bedard  July 25, 2012 10:22 AM

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Competition will be the buzz word of this year's training camp for the Patriots. From 1 to 89 (right now), the team is much stronger than it was at this point last season.

So there will be a lot of jockeying for roster spots and starting spots.

The most competition will come along the defensive line, but between injuries, possible new arrivals (Andre Carter?) and going back to the 4-3, we find it impossible to even identify which players are competing for what spot. There's so much versatility up front that it could go a million different directions, so we're going to hold off going there at this point.

Here are the other top competitions:

Deion Branch vs. Donte' Stallworth for 5th WR

The Patriots are just about locked in with four receivers: Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Jabar Gaffney and Matthew Slater. The past four years, they've never kept fewer than six WRs (seven in 2009). Branch, 33, is one of Tom Brady's favorite targets and still effective in a 10-yard box, but he is no threat to stretch the field. Stallworth showed much more explosion and looked good returning kickoffs. Branch does nothing on special teams, so if Stallworth can show he's as reliable catching the ball as Branch, he could have an edge.

Julian Edelman vs. Jeremy Ebert vs. Britt Davis for 6th WR

Some think Edelman is a shoo-in to make this team, but I don't see it. Yes, he's the only real punt returner on this team, but we don't yet know what Ebert, a seventh-round pick, or Davis are capable of contributing on special teams. Liked what I saw out of Ebert in his college tape. I think he's a more polished receiver than Edelman. Ebert's on active PUP right now with a hamstring issue and he can't afford to miss much, if any, of camp to win a spot. If his injury lingers, don't be surprised if the Patriots keep him under wraps to slip him to the practice squad. Really liked what I saw out of Davis in the offseason. He's a candidate for "stud player late in preseason games." Can he do enough on special teams to take a spot from Edelman? Doubt it, but we'll see.

James Ihedigbo vs. Josh Barrett vs. Nate Ebner vs. Sergio Brown for 4th (and maybe 5th safety)

Like receiver, most of the safety spots are locked down with Patrick Chung, Steve Gregory and Tavon Wilson. The Patriots only keep four safeties, but that could change this season if more players (Sterling Moore, Alfonzo Dennard, etc.) show the ability to play both safety and cornerback. Patriots could keep less or more. If it's down to one spot, it's a four-way race. Ihedigbo is the Branch of this group, but Barrett has the most upside and was a starter to begin last season. This position usually comes down to special teams, and Brown, despite his limitations on defense, ascended there last season. By the end of the season, he was one of the team's best gunners. Ebner, the former rugby player, will have to make his mark on special teams as well. This spot could come down to the player who can contribute in the most ways.

Stevan Ridley vs. Shane Vereen for starting RB

This will all come down to production in practice and games, and availability. Can Vereen prove he's durable after a run of bad luck last season? He should be the more explosive player, but Ridley was not bad in that department last season. He seems to be built more to be an every-down back, but the Patriots don't usually concern themselves with that considering the variety of packages they use. Pass protection will be a big key, as will ball security after Ridley's struggles at the end of last season.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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