The first week of the New England Patriots’ 2019 training camp is in the books and five practices in, we can now assess how the main position battles have been unfolding so far. While a lot can and will still change — the team only had two practices in full pads, while Tom Brady sat out one of the other sessions — we have a first feel for which players have put themselves in a favorable position when it comes to beating out their competitors.
Based on our offseason list of the ten most intriguing battles, let’s go through the positions/roles one-by-one.
TE Matt LaCosse, TE Benjamin Watson, TE Ryan Izzo, TE Stephen Anderson, TE Lance Kendricks, TE Andrew Beck, FB/TE Jakob Johnson
So far, it’s been a two-class society at the tight end spot: it’s Matt LaCosse and Benjamin Watson, and everybody else. The two offseason acquisitions have looked good over the first long training camp weekend, with Watson seeing a little more time with the first unit than LaCosse but both getting heavily involved this early in the process. At this point, it would be a surprise to see any other tight end on the roster leapfrog them on the depth chart.
With that in mind, the battle for the next spot down the line is in fact intriguing — especially considering that Watson will miss the first four weeks of the regular season due to a suspension. Ryan Izzo and Stephen Anderson have seen action with the ones, with the latter having his moments as a rotational receiving option. It’s a long way to go, obviously, but the two youngsters appear to be the main contestants for the spot on the opening day roster that would otherwise go to Watson.
WR N’Keal Harry, WR Phillip Dorsett, WR Maurice Harris, WR Dontrelle Inman, WR Demaryius Thomas (PUP), WR Damoun Patterson
New England has moved its wide receivers around on a fairly regular basis, but of the men competing for the X-receiver role one has stood out in particular: Maurice Harris appears to be developing a nice rapport with Tom Brady, as he continued building on a solid spring by showing good hands and an ability to consistently get open against both man and zone concepts. Through five practices, Harris is the best and most productive pass catcher on the team.
Phillip Dorsett, meanwhile, also saw plenty of action with the top offensive unit — something N’Keal Harry cannot quite say. While the rookie and Brady spent a lot of time working on their chemistry during one-on-one sessions, Harry primarily ran with the second team led by Brian Hoyer during the 11-on-11 portions of practice. With that in mind, he is guaranteed to get his opportunities with the starting offense at one point. Don’t be surprised if he fits in well.
The other receivers listed above have either been sidelined (Demaryius Thomas) or disappointing: Dontrelle Inman, who missed the last two sessions for undisclosed reasons, has been a no-show even when on the field, while former practice squad receiver Damoun Patterson has been inconsistent as a pass catcher. Based on the last week, neither of the two men will play a noticeable role moving forward.
Swing offensive tackle
OT Yodny Cajuste (NFI), OT Cole Croston (PUP), OT Dan Skipper, OT Cedrick Lang, OT Tyree St. Louis
While Dan Skipper and to a lesser degree Cedrick Lang saw some reps with the ones recently, Joe Thuney still appears to be the Patriots’ number two at left tackle: he is a clearly superior option when compared to the other three available players. While this could all change upon the arrival of Cole Croston — he is on PUP but was spotted for the first time on Monday night — and rookie Yodny Cajuste, Thuney is still the front runner to start the year as the emergency option in case starting left tackle Isaiah Wynn goes down.
If the starter on the other side, Marcus Cannon, were to suffer an injury, meanwhile, it appears that Wynn would be the top option just to stick with the best five as the starting lineup. Thuney would still move to left tackle, with top interior backup Ted Karras taking his spot at left guard. It’s a complicated scenario to think about, but the gist is this as it relates to the swing offensive tackle spot: not one of the players above has yet distinguished himself from the rest of the group, with Skipper the frontrunner mostly by default.
DE John Simon, DE Derek Rivers, DE Keionta Davis, DE Trent Harris, DE Shilique Calhoun
John Simon has seen considerable practice reps with the first-team defense, and he seems poised to earn a top rotational spot alongside roster locks Michael Bennett, Deatrich Wise Jr. and Chase Winovich. Derek Rivers, meanwhile, received snaps with the ones on a regular basis as well, which might indicate that the team either wants to give him one last crack at the lineup or that it likes what it sees. The latter is certainly possible based on his performance so far.
Keionta Davis, Trent Harris and Shilique Calhoun, on the other hand, have yet to stand out on a regular basis. While they flashed some solid pass-rushing moves during one-on-ones at times, the three youngsters have yet to emerge beyond second-team status. Preseason will be big for all three of them, as will be the performance of Rivers: if he fails to impress, one of the men behind him could jump in as the fifth option at the edge.
P Ryan Allen, P Jake Bailey
The punter battle is developing exactly as it was projected to develop: while incumbent Ryan Allen is unspectacular compared to challenger Jake Bailey, he has been the more consistent of the two. That being said, Bailey still appears to have the inside track to earn the job as his hang-times have been absurd — he has a tremendous power in his leg, and the team has also trusted him as a holder and kickoff specialist.
CB Jason McCourty, CB J.C. Jackson, CB Jonathan Jones, CB Duke Dawson Jr, CB Keion Crossen, CB Ken Webster, CB D’Angelo Ross
With Jason McCourty and J.C. Jackson playing primarily on the perimeter from practice one through five — McCourty is still ahead on the depth chart, but by a hair — Jonathan Jones has seen the most action in the slot. He’s been terrific and has a case as the second best cornerback on the team early in camp alongside the always outstanding Stephon Gilmore. Behind Jones, though, the slot defenders had their ups and downs.
Duke Dawson is clearly behind the veteran on the depth chart, and he has plenty of room for improvement. Fellow second-year man Keion Crossen, on the other hand, has had some moments during team drills and actually leads the Patriots’ defense with three pass-breakups. Rookies Ken Webster and D’Angelo Ross have not yet figured into the equation much, but it was notable to see the latter line up with the starting defense at one point during Monday’s walkthrough session.
Rotational defensive tackle
DT Danny Shelton, DT Byron Cowart, DT/DE Ufomba Kamalu, DT David Parry, DT/DE Nick Thurman
With the top three spots at the position in the hands of Lawrence Guy, Mike Pennel and Adam Butler, the rotational guys have seen irregular if any practice reps with the starters. Danny Shelton, who was on the Patriots’ roster last year as an early-down run-stuffer, appears to be ahead of the competition at this point in time with Nick Thurman also finding some success — albeit as a pass-rushing option from the interior.
Byron Cowart, meanwhile, has been absent since last Friday with what has been reported as a quad injury. The fifth-round rookie better get back on the field soon or else the competition might get too far ahead for him to ever catch up.
Slot wide receiver
WR N’Keal Harry, WR Dontrelle Inman, WR Braxton Berrios, WR Ryan Davis, WR Jakobi Meyers, WR Gunner Olszewski
With Julian Edelman absent, N’Keal Harry not being moved around the formation a lot so far, and with Dontrelle Inman having no discernible impact whtsoever, the Patriots relied on four players to man the slot so far: second-year man Braxton Berrios and undrafted rookie signings Ryan Davis, Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski. The competition has been a fun one to watch as all four players stood out at various times.
At this point in time, Berrios might be the leader of the pack based on his usage on both offense and special teams. He is the only member of the young quartet to catch a pass from Tom Brady during 11-on-11 work, and was part of the first-unit two-minute package during Sunday’s practice. Furthermore, the Patriots regularly used the 23-year-old in the kicking game as a returnman on both kickoffs and punts.
While Davis and Olszewski were also used on special teams, Berrios seems to be higher up on the list of current return options. That being said, they all did make plays on offense as well: Olszewski has the most 11-on-11 receptions of the group with three (Berrios has two, Meyers and Davis one each), while Meyers’ and Davis’ talent was apparent in 2-on-2 and 4-on-4 drills. This battle will remain one to keep a close eye on as we head towards preseason.
LB Ja’Whaun Bentley, LB Jamie Collins Sr, LB Elandon Roberts, LB Christian Sam, LB Calvin Munson, LB Terez Hall
The Patriots’ linebacker group might be one of the best in the NFL due to its blend of versatility, experience and developmental upside. Accordingly, the team mixes and matches its players based on situations. And judged by this usage over the first five sessions of camp, it appears that Collins will play a considerable role on the defense this year: the 29-year-old has looked outstanding so far, and comfortable wherever he lined up.
Alongside him, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Elandon Roberts have both seen plenty of reps as well. Bentley’s movements have looked a bit slow at times as he’s working his way back from a season-ending bicep injury, but that is no cause for concern. While the second-year man spent large portions of his time with the second unit, Roberts lined up with the ones on a regular basis. Both players can currently be projected to be on the team.
The same cannot be said for Christian Sam, Calvin Munson and rookie Terez Hall. While Sam and Munson in particular caught the eye from time to time, the talent atop them on the depth chart makes it hard for them to earn starter-level reps. As is the case at defensive edge, preseason will be big for the low-level players at linebacker as well.
RB Sony Michel, RB Damien Harris, WR N’Keal Harry, WR Maurice Harris, WR Braxton Berrios, WR Ryan Davis, WR Gunner Olszewski
The Patriots did not use all of their potential kickoff return options so far in training camp. In fact, based on the first five practices, three players seem to have established themselves as the frontrunners to earn the gig — all of them wide receivers: Phillip Dorsett, Braxton Berrios and Gunner Olszewski. While the preseason opener against the Detroit Lions will give more clarity about the depth chart at kickoff returner, it would not be a surprise to see one of the three wideouts come away victoriously. Of course, it all may depend on whether or not they can establish themselves on offense as well.