6 position battles to watch during Patriots training camp

Quarterback is, unsurprisingly, not one of them.

Chris Hogan Rob Gronkowski
Chris Hogan celebrates a first-quarter touchdown with Rob Gronkowski during preseason last year. –Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

With Patriot training camp fast approaching, here’s a look at some of the key position battles that are sure to take place in Foxborough this summer:

Running back

Who’s in contention: James White, Rex Burkhead, Jeremy Hill, Mike Gillislee, Brandon Bolden, Sony Michel, Ralph Webb.

Quick hits: New England has some decisions to make with a glut of talent in the backfield and no clear top dog. White, an able receiver; Burkhead, a fiesty back who excelled near the goal line in 2017; and the first-round pick Michel are roster locks. That leaves one or two remaining spots and four competitors. Hill served as a reliable short-yardage option in Cincinnati. Bolden is an important special teamer playing for a coach who values that facet of the game more than most. Gillislee wasn’t as effective as projected after New England spent a fifth-round pick for him prior to the 2017 season. Webb amassed more than 4,100 yards on 4.5 yards per carry in four years at Vanderbilt. It’s harder for running backs than for wide receivers to isolate themselves above their peers at training camp because of the number of non-contact drills, but if any back outside the top three shows unanticipated burst this summer they could eek their way onto the 53-man come fall.

Wide receiver

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Who’s in contention: Chris Hogan, Julian Edelman, Malcolm Mitchell, Jordan Matthews, Phillip Dorsett, Cordarrelle Patterson, Kenny Britt, Braxton Berrios, Riley McCarron, Cody Hollister.

Quick hits: New England’s depth at wideout will be tested for the first quarter of the season as Edelman serves his four-game PED suspension. Hogan is a vital deep threat if he can stay healthy, a lingering issue that plagued him last season. Matthews suffered a down year in 2017 with Buffalo, snaring just 25 receptions for 252 yards after surpassing 65 catches and 800 yards in each of his first three seasons in Philadelphia. Matthews could return to form in an offense that favors talented slot men. Mitchell possesses plus size but missed all of last season because of knee issues. Things get hazier from there. Dorsett, New England’s return for quarterback Jacoby Brissett, hasn’t lived up to expectations and will need to flaunt his speedy promise. Patterson’s spot is more secure because of his electric kick return capabilities, but the 27-year-old lacks the receiving prowess of some of his competitors. Britt is an NFL veteran whose team option was picked up in March. He likely will have to battle Dorsett for the fifth spot. Berrios, McCarron, and Hollister project as practice-squad members.

Tight end

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Who’s in contention: Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, Jacob Hollister, Will Tye, Ryan Izzo, Troy Niklas, Shane Wimann.

Quick hits: Few areas on New England’s roster hold as much intrigue as backup tight end. Gronkowski, perhaps you’ve heard, is the No. 1 man. That leaves six men for one or two remaining spots. Allen, who comes with a $5 million cap hit, should be secure because of his blocking aptitude. If New England yearns for a cheaper alternative, they have options. Tye enjoyed intermittent success with the Giants before their own roster crunch sent the 26-year-old packing. Hollister made last year’s team after going undrafted out of Wyoming and saw limited time. Izzo, Niklas, and Wimann represent longer-shot candidates to crack the final 53, though Bill Belichick values a cheap grinder should the right man emerge.

Cornerback

Who’s in contention: Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, Eric Rowe, Duke Dawson, Jonathan Jones, Cyrus Jones, Ryan Lewis, Keion Crossen, J.C. Jackson.

Quick hits: The first five names on this list are virtual locks. McCourty joins his brother, Devin, in the secondary, and much of the unit’s success will hinge on how well he patrols his side of the field. New England could house a sixth cornerback, particularly if Cyrus Jones exhibits the peskiness that made him a second-round selection in the 2016 NFL Draft and not the tortured results of his first two seasons as a pro. Crossen ran a 4.32 40-yard dash at his pro day, which would have tied for first place at the combine. Lewis and Jackson likely will be signed to the practice squad.

Offensive line

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Who’s in contention: Marcus Cannon, David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Isaiah Wynn, Trent Brown, Ulrick John, LaAdrian Waddle, Luke Bowanko, Matt Tobin, Andrew Jelks, James Ferentz, Joe Thuney, Ted Karras, Jason King, Cole Croston.

Quick hits: Nate Solder’s departure to the Giants leaves a gaping vacancy at left tackle. Andrews, Mason, and Cannon are near locks on the right side of the line. Thuney, entering his third year in the league, is the leading candidate at left guard, but his hold on the position is tenuous after suffering rocky stretches in 2017. That leaves Solder’s replacement, which could spark an interesting struggle between Brown, Wynn, Waddle, and Croston, with the former enjoying a slight edge as camp approaches. Croston will more likely serve as a depth option at guard on New England’s bench. Karras backs up Andrews at center and gives the Patriots added depth at all five slots up front.

Punter

Who’s in contention: Ryan Allen, Corey Bojorquez

Quick hits: One of the most entertaining battles during minicamp, this should continue throughout the summer. The two lefties alternated big kick after big kick during their three-day showcase, making life difficult for the myriad punt return candidates. Allen has long been one of the league’s best, showing the ability to boom the ball and place it. The height on some of Bojorquez’s punts led to oohs and ahhs from practice observers this spring.

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