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Patriots Training Camp Previews: Roster Strengths

Highlighting positions where the Patriots have strong depth on their 90-man roster.

The Patriots go into camp with arguably one of the deepest rosters in Bill Belichick’s tenure after one of the greatest come from behind wins in NFL History followed by an exciting offseason. The Patriots added cornerback and receiving depth while also being able to retain key defensive players in free agency. The Patriots will miss Martellus Bennett, Logan Ryan, and LeGarrette Blount, all of whom were great for the Patriots last season. On the other side, they added Brandin Cooks in a trade with New Orleans, and signed Stephon Gilmore to a mega deal. There is a lot to be excited about when camp opens up on Thursday.

The Patriots roster is very deep at receiver, running back, defensive line, and offensive tackle. The Patriots made a major moves at all five of those positions in the last calendar year, which included extensions, re-signings, trades, and free agent additions. The Patriots were able to make some splashes in the offseason due to a very small amount of dead money on the cap thanks to prioritizing depth over star power and being able to draft really well since Nick Caserio took over the player personnel job in 2009.

Running Back: Last year, the Patriots relied on the duo of LeGarrette Blount and James White as their top RBs. Dion Lewis missed 10 games recovering from a follow-up surgery to treat a stress reaction in his right knee, the same knee he blew out the previous season. Blount is now in Philly, but that was after the Patriots went out and signed Rex Burkhead the first week of free agency and Mike Gillislee before the draft. In addition, they were able to extend White’s contract for 3 years. Gillislee will be the main early down back and White the receiving back, although I figure he’ll get a decent chunk of carries as well after showing the ability to run through contact in the Super Bowl.

Of this group, I expect the most from James White, who can be best described as tough, smart, and dependable, all of which are excellent qualities to have as a football player. Gillislee was excellent as a backup in Buffalo, averaging about 5.7 yards per carry the last two seasons, so the Patriots are banking on similar efficiency when his volume of carries doubles from last season. Rex Burkhead is a jack-of-all trades RB that does a lot of things well and can play on all four downs, which makes him the perfect back up to both Gillislee and White should either player need a breather or are injured.

That’s before mentioning Lewis, who’s been forgotten in the shuffle with all these moves. Lewis is another RB who can play on all 3 downs and offer value as a return man. Lewis is in the final year on a very cheap contract signed 2 years ago. Lewis is electric as a runner in tight quarters with amazing quickness and impossible to cover and tackle in space. If he returns to pre-injury form, the Patriots will have an embarrassment of riches at the position, even with 2 players in a contract year.

Receiver: In the offseason, the Patriots traded for Brandin Cooks and extended Julian Edelman’s contract another 2 years. That’s adding to a position group that already had Edelman along with 2016 additions in Chris Hogan and Malcolm Mitchell. Hogan served as the team’s vertical threat, averaging just under 18 yards per reception. Mitchell enjoyed a very strong rookie year that ended on a high note with 5 catches for 63 yards in the 2nd half of the Super Bowl that included a critical 3rd and 11 conversion right after Dont’a Hightower’s strip sack. While the position is deep, they struggled to get open against the Falcons’ man coverage, but the tempo and rhythm that Brady had tired out the Falcons secondary by the end of the 4th quarter.

Cooks will be the guy to watch this camp. It’s important for him to develop chemistry with Tom Brady because of the group he will be the biggest difference maker. Edelman is going to get his catches and yards as the go-to-guy when Brady needs someone to make a play. Hogan and Mitchell are really #3 type targets in terms of talent, but they’re the #4/5 option in this offense, which says more about everyone else. If this receiving group clicks, Tom Brady and the Patriots are going to have a special year in 2017.

Offensive Tackle: The Patriots have two quality bookends on their offensive line in Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon. Solder and Cannon were both coming off down years in 2015, where Solder missed 14 games due to a biceps tear and Cannon had a huge breakout season. Marcus Cannon was easily the best story in 2016, going from turnstile to impregnable barrier at right tackle thanks to diet, health, and Dante Scarnecchia, who probably gets more credit than he deserves. Both Cannon and Solder missed a game in the early part of 2016, but Cameron Fleming was a quality backup with a serviceable game against Arizona and a strong game against Cleveland.

In addition they drafted two high-upside players at the position in Tony Garcia and Conor McDermott, who I’m not related to. Garcia is a lock to make the roster with his 3rd round draft while McDermott has to fight for what could be the final 53-man roster spot. Garcia and McDermott have a lot experience playing left tackle in college, but both players probably need a lot of time in the weight room and with Scar to develop strength and technique. I believe one of the two will be ready to step up next year when Solder potentially walks, but if either guy is playing significant snaps this year, something horrible has happened to Solder or Cannon, or the Patriots opponents.

Defensive Line: The Patriots best move at the position was being able to keep Alan Branch. Branch turned in his best season as a pro last year and the Patriots rewarded him with a 2-year contract. He’s playing his best football and is great at what the Patriots ask him to with his 6’6” 350 body. He eats up space, clogs rushing lanes, and is impossible to move on double teams. If teams are stupid enough to try to block him with one guy, he kills run plays before they can develop. Branch isn’t the only player that’s good at these things, but he’s easily the best of the group.

The Patriots have quality players at the position coming into the offseason with 2015 1st rounder Malcom Brown taking advantage of opportunities created by Branch. Brown quietly put up a strong sophomore year behind Branch, perhaps underrated because he’s so good at his job that people didn’t notice as much. Brown isn’t as sturdy as Branch as a run defender, but he’s been making consistent improvement with each passing game. Last year they drafted Vince Valentine, a behemoth in the mold of Branch at 6’4”, 330 lbs. and he turned in a strong rookie year. Valentine arrived in Foxboro with little fanfare since he was misused his final year in college, but he showed a lot of promise.

In the offseason the Patriots added a guy, specifically a Lawrence Guy. Guy has been an underrated two-gapper on 3-4 teams that include Green Bay, Indianapolis, and Baltimore. Guy is very versatile, he can line up anywhere from the 0 to 7 technique and play it well. He is productive in both one-gap and two-gap schemes. He can slide inside on passing downs and be an effective rusher inside. Having a player who can be effective from almost anywhere on the defensive front is an asset for rotations and injuries.