With one preseason game in the books, we now have an idea of what the depth chart might be. There will be updates following every preseason game and cutdown day, so there will be 5 more updates between now and the day the Patriots have to finalize the 53 man roster. Even after that, the roster could change in that week between final cutdown day and the first preseason game.
Battle #1: Starting CB
At the start of camp, I had Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler as the starters with McClain as the nickel. Since then, the Patriots have signed Tarell Brown, a corner who quietly put together a solid career in San Francisco before injuries started mounting. In camp, Butler and Brown have been the top two CBs with McClain and 7th round rookie Darryl Roberts also performing well. Those four should make the roster barring injuries and the 5th CB spot coming down to Logan Ryan vs. Bradley Fletcher. Neither player had an exceptionally good first preseason game although I have Ryan ahead of Fletcher for the time being.
Battle #2: Receiving Back
This camp battle has been impacted by injuries with Travaris Cadet, Dion Lewis, and Brandon Bolden all being out in the first preseason game. That meant more reps for 2nd year player James White, who took advantage of his opportunity against the Packers. He's not as fast as Shane Vereen or Danny Woodhead, but he's equally as elusive in space. I had James White winning the camp battle because it was his 2nd year in the system and has an idea of what is expected. The Patriots will likely carry 2 receiving backs and Brandon Bolden, a trend that started in 2011. Until the other receiving backs get back onto the field, the 2nd spot is literally wide open. I believe White will get another extended look in the 2nd preseason game. Hopefully his pass blocking skills become more consistent because he's certainly capable of performing in that aspect.
Battle #3: OGs
The Patriots started Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson at LG and RG in the first preseason game. Initially I had Jackson and Wendell as my starters with Shaq Mason eventually getting into the starting job later into the season. With Wendell sidelined on the Physically Unable to Perform list, that has given Mason 1st team reps at left guard as well as created an opportunity for UDFA Dave Andrews. Andrews had a solid and unspectacular first game, which is a good sign for him. Even though Evan Mathis is available to sign, the Patriots don't have the cap space to sign him and I don't think he provides much extra value added over just crash-coursing Shaq Mason. It looks like Mason and Jackson could be the starting guards in Week 1.
Battle #4: Power Running Back
This initially pitted Tyler Gaffney against Jonas Gray. Gaffney has since injured his knee and reverted to injured reserve, leaving Gray as the winner by default. Gray turned in a fine performance in the first preseason game, blasting off a 55-yard touchdown run in the 2nd quarter. Gray rushed for 74 yards on 7 carries and was done at half time. For Week 1, I think the Patriots will go with Bolden as Gray's backup and then having Blount as the primary rusher afterwards. In Gray's case, not many players get a second chance to prove their worth, but he's taking advantage of that opportunity so far. I believe it's possible that both Blount and Gray will have over 150 carries each at the end of the season.
Battle #5: Backup Linebackers
It looks like that both Jerod Mayo and Dont'a Hightower should be ready to go in Week 1. However, even with the best LB trio in the NFL, the Patriots need to have capable replacements because of injuries. I had Fletcher, Fleming, and Wells as my three backups and Chris White on a special teams only basis, but injuries have changed that. In the first preseason game, Jonathan Freeny and James Morris got extended looks. Freeny struggled to cover Packers TE Andrew Quarless and at times looked like a deer in the headlights, but there were times where he was aggressive and attacking the run. I'd have to say that Freeny will likely be on the 53 this year based on the way Belichick was gushing about him as a 4-down player. That leaves potentially two linebacker spots open right now, although White may take one when he's healthy again. I'd probably have to pick between Eric Martin and James Morris for the final spot, although that can change over 3 preseason games.
Battle #6: Dime DB/Money LB
In the Dime Package, I initially had the Patriots going with Chung playing more of a LB role and Harmon playing safety. That way the Patriots could use Devin McCourty in any capacity they wanted to. Now it looks like that Jordan Richards could be challenging for that role. Richards' excellent football IQ and excellent change of direction makes up for a lack of speed and explosive burst, and he'll be starting at safety before long. If the Patriots stick with Chung at safety for the dime packages, I think Richards will get the nod as the Dime DB. If Harmon is at safety, Chung should be taking this role.
Battle #7: Nickel CB
This really wasn't a competition, but given Kyle Arrington's release the spot was open. I had the veteran Robert McClain taking on the role and he was very solid when it came to covering Randall Cobb in the first quarter. A top 3 CB tandem of Butler, Brown, and McClain is very solid and should not instill panic amongst the fans just because their names aren't Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, and Arrington. McClain is the nickel CB for this year and could earn an extension with the team with a solid performance.
Battle #8: #4 WR
When training camp opened, it was pretty clear that Aaron Dobson was the frontrunner for the role. With Dobson sidelined for the first preseason game, Josh Boyce flamed out while veteran Brandon Gibson and UDFA Chris Harper took advantage. The team is really trying to find something that works for Boyce, but he's just not producing enough to warrant sticking around even for a practice squad spot. If Dobson can play the rest of the preseason, he likely wins the roster spot although how Harper and Gibson perform over that stretch could impact how many receivers the Patriots carry into the regular season.
Battle #9: Strong Safety
Patrick Chung made the start in the first preseason game. He was largely invisible on the drive he played, other than giving up a 1st down catch to Jordy Nelson off a scramble drill. If Patrick Chung is invisible on pass plays, that's always a good thing. I'm still not sure if the position will be a timeshare, but Chung is definitely the starter on early downs. Harmon has always struck me as a solid and unspectacular option, which is fine for a backup and replacement level starter. I'm not sure what they'll do with Chung on passing downs, he's much more suited to play more towards the line of scrimmage in a short/intermediate middle zone or man coverage role as opposed to the deep role which McCourty and Harmon are known for.
Battle #10: Last 2 DL Spots
This assumes the Patriots carry 10 DL this year. These players are a lock to make the team this year: Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, Jabaal Sheard, Malcom Brown, Dominique Easley, Trey Flowers, Sealver Siliga, and Geneo Grissom. I see the Patriots carrying maybe 9 or 10 defensive linemen on their 53 man roster, so space is at a premium right now. Free agent signee Antonio Johnson got the starting nod and left when the other starters left, so he's got the inside track to the 9th DL spot. If the Patriots carry 10 DL, that pits Alan Branch, Zach Moore, and Rufus Johnson for the final spot. Of the three, Rufus Johnson shows the most promise and had a strong first game before leaving with injuries. Branch just came off the Non-Football Injury List after passing a condition test. For him, I don't think he needs a lot of reps because he was on the team last year.