The Patriots put the drama of Deflategate behind them Tuesday and got back to football, hitting the practice field as a full squad for the first time since winning the Super Bowl in February.
It marked the first of the Patriots’ 10 organized team activities over the next three weeks. No contact is allowed in the offseason, but the Patriots can conduct 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills for the first time and show the rookies and new free agents how they will conduct practices this fall.
Most of the familiar names were back, of course: Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Rob Ninkovich, Jerod Mayo and Devin McCourty, to name a few. But for a team that just won the Super Bowl, the Patriots actually have a fair number of position battles to sort out.
Let’s take a look at their six key competitions:
LeGarrette Blount, James White, Brandon Bolden, Jonas Gray, Travaris Cadet, Tyler Gaffney, Dion Lewis, and James Develin.
Breakdown: Bill Belichick has always viewed running back as an interchangeable position, and that theory will be put to the test again this year after Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley were allowed to walk away in free agency. These eight are likely battling for five spots, with Blount carrying a suspension for Week 1 and White and Gaffney holding practice squad eligibility.
Blount seems like a safe bet to make the team as the primary power back, and Bolden is almost certain to make the team as a core special teamer. Develin should also make the team again, leaving two (or at most three) spots.
The “Vereen role” as the primary pass-catcher will likely come down to White, last year’s fourth-round pick, and Cadet, a speedy playmaker who caught 38 passes with the Saints last year. The Patriots could certainly keep both players, and it’s doubtful they’ll give up on White after just one season. The coaching staff likes the power-speed combination of Gaffney, but he is mostly an unknown quantity after missing his rookie season with a torn meniscus. Gray had a memorable game against the Colts last year, but the fact that he lost his spot to Blount (and is out of practice squad options) makes him far from a sure bet to make the team. Lewis has bounced around.
Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Brian Tyms, Josh Boyce, Brandon Gibson, Jonathan Krause, Chris Harper, and Zach D’Orazio.
Breakdown: Three of the five spots are already claimed by Edelman, LaFell, and Amendola. But the final two (or possibly three) are wide open.
Dobson, a second-round pick in 2013, is entering a make-or-break training camp after a wasted sophomore season. Tyms showed good deep-ball ability last year, but really only made one significant play all season (the 43-yard touchdown in Buffalo). Gibson has caught 233 passes in six NFL seasons, and could give the Patriots solid production on a cheap one-year contract.
The others are mostly battling for practice squad spots — Boyce, in particular, has been a disappointment since being drafted in the fourth round in 2013. However, the opportunity is there for any of the five to win the fifth spot, especially if they can contribute on special teams.
Ryan Wendell, Josh Kline, Jordan Devey, Cameron Fleming, Marcus Cannon, Tre’ Jackson, Shaq Mason, and Chris Barker.
Breakdown: The Patriots have a hole at left guard with Dan Connolly’s departure for free agency. It’s pretty clear the team views Jackson and Mason as the guards of the future after drafting them in the fourth round this month, but could the future be now?
Center Bryan Stork started 11 regular-season games last season as a rookie, and Jackson and/or Mason have a chance to win at least one of the guard jobs in 2015. Given that Mason comes from Georgia Tech, which runs the triple option and rarely throws the ball, he likely needs a little more time to develop his pass-blocking skills than does Jackson, who played in a pro-style offense at Florida State and has an instant rapport with Stork, his former college teammate.
But two veterans will look to hold them off. Wendell is under contract for one more season, and while he is no lock to make the team, he has the versatility to play all three interior positions and can provide veteran leadership. And Kline has given the Patriots serviceable play in five starts over the last two seasons.
Cannon and Fleming have played guard, but are likely better suited for tackle. Devey and Barker are likely on the outside looking in. And if no one looks that great this offseason, we wouldn’t be shocked to see Belichick make a call to Connolly to bring him back.
Jerod Mayo, Dont’a Hightower, Jamie Collins, Brandon Spikes, Dane Fletcher, Dekoda Watson, Jonathan Freeny, Darius Fleming, James Morris, Chris White, Rufus Johnson, Eric Martin, and Matthew Wells.
Breakdown: Yes, the Patriots have a whopping 13 linebackers on the roster, plus four hybrid DE/OLB types in Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Jabaal Sheard, and Geneo Grissom. This is a reflection of the uncertainty the Patriots face at the position in the early portion of the season, with Hightower’s status for the first month uncertain following shoulder surgery and Mayo coming off a torn meniscus.
None of the other 11 linebackers received much guaranteed money, creating a wide-open competition for three or four spots (depending on if Hightower begins the season on short-term IR or the Physically Unable to Perform list).
Given the number of playing-time incentives in his contract, Spikes likely has the best chance to grab one of the roster spots. Fletcher’s experience in the Patriots’ system and special teams ability will certainly help him as well. Wells, a sixth-round pick, should have an advantage for the final spot, although Belichick won’t hesitate to cut a draft pick if he’s not performing well in camp.
Logan Ryan, Malcolm Butler, Bradley Fletcher, Robert McClain, Justin Green, Dax Swanson, Darryl Roberts, Brandon King, Jimmy Jean, and Eric Patterson.
Breakdown: The top four spots are accounted for in Ryan, Butler, Fletcher, and McClain, but the battle for playing time is wide open. Butler should see a significant increase in playing time this year, while McClain should replace Kyle Arrington as the slot defender.
The other six players will battle for the fifth spot, plus whoever else the Patriots pick up this offseason. This is one position where the Patriots would be well-served to add another veteran via a trade.
Breakdown: Yes, the Patriots still have to figure out what they’re going to do at long snapper. Right now Cardona is the only one on the roster, but the fifth-round pick doesn’t know yet if he will be eligible to play this fall or if he will have to serve his two years in the Navy.
If Cardona can’t play, the Patriots can bring back Danny Aiken, the team’s long snapper the last four years, who remains unsigned.
Interestingly, Cardona and Aiken are represented by the same agent.