The battle for roster jobs in 2022 began the moment the Patriots walked off the field in Orchard Park, N.Y., following their wild-card loss back in January.
It really begins in earnest now, with the major waves of free agency and the draft in the rearview mirror.
New England has added a bevy of new faces who will be expected to compete for jobs and snaps as soon as the ink on their contracts is dry.
Here’s a look at some of the more interesting competitions that will play out during the dog days of training camp.
A QB controversy in New England? Absolutely.
The starter snaps are not in question; Mac Jones is QB1 for the long haul. In addition, Brian Hoyer is entrenched as the backup/veteran sage; he proved invaluable as Jones’s sounding board in 2021.
The fight here is for the third spot between Jarrett Stidham and rookie fourth-rounder Bailey Zappe.
Entering Year 4, Stidham, who has served as a backup to Tom Brady, Cam Newton, and Jones, has not risen to the occasion when given opportunities — albeit limited — and is clearly on notice. Zappe is coming off a prolific college career, and his ability to adapt and adjust, as well as his exquisite ball placement are hard to ignore.
▪ Running back
Damien Harris’s contract status (he’s in the final year of his rookie deal) and James White’s health (he’s coming off a major hip injury) were among the reasons the Patriots drafted two backs (Pierre Strong and Kevin Harris) Saturday.
Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson make a nice 1-2 power punch, and White and Strong could make a nifty 1-2 shifty punch as pass-catching backs. If White is ready to contribute, it will be hard for J.J. Taylor to stick.
This is likely another battle for a fringe spot, with DeVante Parker, Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers, and rookie Tyquan Thornton virtual locks.
That leaves one job (maybe two) for the group of Ty Montgomery (who also can play running back), N’Keal Harry, Kristian Wilkerson, Tre Nixon, and Malcolm Perry to compete for.
The real battle probably is between Montgomery (because of his versatility and experience) and Wilkerson (who showed flashes last season). Harry could be on his way out of town, while Nixon and Perry might land on the practice squad for another season of seasoning.
▪ Offensive line
The big question is not who but where?
David Andrews is the center, with Isaiah Wynn (left) and Trent Brown (right) at tackle. Mike Onwenu and rookie Cole Strange are the logical choices at guard, but it remains to be seen which side they’ll man.
Can rookie Andrew Stueber get in the mix for the swing tackle role against Justin Herron and Yodny Cajuste? The latter two have the experience, but Stueber’s size (6 feet 7 inches, 325 pounds) and pterodactyl wingspan are intriguing.
The backup guard battle will feature rookie Chasen Hines, along with relative unknowns Arlington Hambright and Canadian import Drew Desjarlais. Hambright was a Bears pick in 2020 out of Colorado. He has size (6-5, 300) and athleticism but must improve his power. Desjarlais (6-2, 313) has the quickness and surliness that could translate to the NFL.
This crew will have a different look this season with new faces Mack Wilson, Cameron McGrone, and Raekwon McMillan expected to have large roles on the inside with Ja’Whaun Bentley. Matthew Judon, Josh Uche, and Ronnie Perkins the expected battlers on the outside.
The Patriots lacked speed and quickness at the second level last season, and that should be improved this season.
The competition to keep an eye on will be for depth roles among incumbents Anfernee Jennings, Jahlani Tavai, Harvey Langi, and Terez Hall. All have a measure of experience but have yet to carve out consistent roles.
“We’re excited about that group,” director of player personnel Matt Groh said when asked about the club not drafting a linebacker. “I think we’ve got a lot of names there and a lot of experience, and mix in some youth, so I think it’s a good group.”
Perhaps the most interesting and intriguing positional grouping. Jalen Mills (outside) and Jonathan Jones (slot) are the only two givens.
There’s a mix of seven veterans and young pups competing to fill the rest of the rotation.
Malcolm Butler is back, and if he’s anywhere close to his prime, he could lock down the boundary corner opposite Mills. Butler is a quick and twitchy player who battles to the echo of the whistle.
Other perimeter candidates include veteran Terrance Mitchell (he’s light on his feet), Shaun Wade (he’s basically coming off a redshirt season but has good size and quicks), rookie Jack Jones (he has good size and ballhawking skills), and Joejuan Williams (his size and skill set have yet to translate at this level).
Myles Bryant (he can also play safety) and rookie Marcus Jones (he has ridiculous speed and quickness) are best suited for slot duty and could contribute immediately in nickel and dime sub packages).