The Battle of the Fields of Foxborough begins Thursday.
This isn’t a lost episode of “Game of Thrones,” but rather the start of a six-plus week grind to earn a spot on the 2019-20 Patriots’ roster.
And you thought the “Battle of Winterfell” was lengthy.
After watching four spring practices — including minicamp -- the most obvious conclusion that can be drawn is that this will be a monumental task to make this 53-man roster.
There’s oodles of talent and depth at many of the positions and not a ton of turnover from a team coming off its third straight berth —and second victory — in the Super Bowl. Here’s a projection of who makes the cut at the end of camp.
Tom Brady, Brian Hoyer, Jarrett Stidham.
Brady’s entering his 20th professional season and it was clear from his words and body language he hasn’t lost a shred of enthusiasm or a tick off his fastball.
Hoyer is a solid backup with an excellent grasp of this offense and a pretty good knowledge of a lot of other schemes, too. Staff and teammates rave about Hoyer’s leadership and work as the scout team signal caller.
Stidham got in a lot of work during OTAs and minicamp as the rookie out of Auburn starts to get his feet wet in the NFL. After a shaky opening minicamp session, his decision-making improved markedly over the final two practices.
■ Something to watch: Can Danny Etling show enough in camp to force a late-summer trade? At the very least it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Etling serve another practice squad year.
Running backs (6)
Sony Michel, James White, Rex Burkhead, Brandon Bolden, Damien Harris, James Develin.
The depth here is phenomenal and if everyone stays healthy, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and running backs coach Ivan Fears will have one of the top rotations in the league, allowing them to keep everyone’s legs fresh throughout the grind.
Michel and Burkhead have injury histories, so keeping them on pitch counts makes sense. White is one of the top third-down backs in the game. Harris was an extremely productive player at an extremely competitive school (Alabama) in an extremely competitive conference (Southeast Conference). His transition should be seamless. Bolden is a pro. He provides excellent depth and outstanding special teams play. Fullback Develin is a rock.
■ Something to watch: Could the Patriots use the surplus here to bolster another position (tight end, offensive tackle) via trade?
Wide receiver (5)
Julian Edelman, N’Keal Harry, Phillip Dorsett, Maurice Harris, Dontrelle Inman.
There are more candidates here than there are candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination (OK, not quite) as the team overhauls this position from last season. Edelman and Harry are the only sure bets. Dorsett’s familiarity gives him a leg up on a lot of the new faces. Harris was a camp standout while Inman was largely invisible. Of the young pups, undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers was the most impressive. He has good size (6 feet 2 inches, 203 pounds) and sticky hands.
■ Something to watch: Veterans Demaryius Thomas (a PUP candidate as he rehabs his Achilles’ injury) and Josh Gordon (suspended) could return and give this corps a mid-to-late season turbo boost.
Tight end (2)
Stephen Anderson, Matt LaCosse.
Benjamin Watson is a lock after serving a suspension for the first four weeks of the season. How the team will patchwork the position until then will be a major camp plotline. Anderson had a strong enough surge to earn an active roster promotion late last season. He has good receiving skills though his size (6-3, 230 pounds) limits his in-line blocking effectiveness. LaCosse looked comfortable at minicamp and he could be a breakout guy.
■ Something to watch: Develin is a beastly blocker and knows the responsibilities of the position. His duties could be expanded. Additionally, if McDaniels wants to go with a jumbo package, he can enlist a tackle as the third tight end.
Offensive line (8)
Tackles: Marcus Cannon, Isaiah Wynn, Yodny Cajuste
Guards: Shaq Mason, Joe Thuney, Ted Karras, Hjalte Froholdt.
Center: David Andrews.
The more you can do. It’s been a Patriots mantra and it’s particularly pertinent when it comes to playing in the trenches. After Cannon, there are questions at tackle as both Wynn (Achilles’) and Cajuste (quadriceps) are unproven and coming off injuries. Their progress will be monitored closely throughout camp. Andrews, Mason, and Thuney form one of the best interiors in the business. Karras is smart, tough, and versatile. The rookie Froholdt appears to have similar qualities.
■ Something to watch: Was Thuney’s minicamp cameo at left tackle a harbinger or was he just a placeholder? If he’s there on Thursday morning, it reshuffles the deck and could spark a guard battle between Wynn, Karras, and Froholdt.
Defensive line (8)
Lawrence Guy, Deatrich Wise Jr., Michael Bennett, Adam Butler, Mike Pennel Jr., Danny Shelton, John Simon, Chase Winovich.
Trey Flowers will be tough to replace because of his unique skill set and versatility — but there’s a lot of talent here. The pass rush will be bolstered by the arrival of Bennett and continued emergence of Wise and Simon. Winovich will help here, too. The rookie out of Michigan can play any technique and Butler offers a nice surge in sub packages. Pennell and Shelton are space eaters and lane cloggers.
There’s a lot of good players from this group that won’t make the original cut here but will land NFL jobs somewhere – including New England’s practice squad. Derek Rivers, Keionta Davis, and Ufomba Kamalu all are experienced in this system and it would surprise no one if they make this club. Rookie Byron Cowart is sneaky athletic for a 6-3, 293-pounder and could surprise with a strong summer.
■ Something to watch: There was an uptick in 3-4 looks during minicamp, so more linebackers might be manning the edges, which could alter this a bit.
Dont’a Hightower, Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, Elandon Roberts, Ja’Whaun Bentley.
This was a loaded grouping even before Collins’s return. Now it’s borderline ridiculous. Hightower is the front-seven leader. He’s smart, versatile, and clutch and has ton of respect from his teammates and opponents. When completely healthy (if that’s possible in today’s NFL) he is a difference-maker on every series.
Van Noy just keeps getting better. He excels in every role and has a nose for the football. Wouldn’t be a surprise to see him on the edge quite a bit this season. Collins is still a freaky athlete, is well-versed in this defense, and will have the fiery Jerod Mayo in his corner.
That Bentley lasted until the fifth round last season is still a bit shocking. He’s smart, instinctive, and rugged. Roberts is a chiseled heat-seeker. No running back wants to see him filling lanes.
■ Something to watch: With good depth here, the Patriots could keep Hightower on a pitch count to help ensure health and energy for the long haul.
Stephon Gilmore, Jason McCourty, J.C. Jackson, Jonathan Jones, Duke Dawson, Joejuan Williams.
The depth here is superb. Gilmore was amazing last season. He is a model of consistency from play to play. Jackson arrived as an undrafted rookie and played like a first rounder out of the gate. McCourty is the quintessential pro. Plug him in anywhere and you won’t be disappointed. Jones can flat out fly.
It’s a big camp for Dawson (he looked sharp in minicamp) as he bounces back from a DNP rookie campaign. Williams (6-3, 208 pounds) has the size and skill to develop into a nightmare matchup.
■ Something to watch: McCourty, Jones, and Dawson all have the tools to play safety. Could they be used in hybrid roles to provide depth across the secondary?
Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, Obi Melifonwu.
Devin McCourty and Chung are so smart and dependable. But you already knew that. Harmon is like a third starter and he has an uncanny knack for being around the ball. He’s currently the best closer in New England.
Melifonwu’s size (6-4, 224 pounds), athleticism, and potential are intriguing. It’ll be interesting to see how the Belichicks (Bill and Steve) employ him throughout the exhibition season.
■ Something to watch: Will this be a position-less secondary where everyone not named Gilmore rotates and fills different roles based on week-to-week matchups?
Stephen Gostkowski, Joe Cardona, Jake Bailey, Matthew Slater, Brandon King, Nate Ebner.
The Patriots moved up to select rookie punter Bailey in the fifth round and his lunar launches during minicamp dropped a lot of jaws and led to a lot of dropped punts. He’s obviously cap friendly, too.
Gostkowski, Cardona, and Slater all are among the best in the business. King and Ebner are consistently excellent on the coverage teams.
■ Something to watch: Could Terrence Brooks, an excellent special teamer in his own right, who was signed to a two-year deal, squeeze out a veteran Patriot for a job?