The New England Patriots will take the next step in their preparation for the 2020 season later today: the team will hold its first practice in full pads this summer, entering the third and final phase of this year’s training camp schedule as agreed upon in the NFL-NFLPA Coronavirus deal. As a result of this, the competition level will also increase over the next few days and weeks — especially at the positions that do not have players firmly entrenched in the starting positions.
Leading into camp, we already analyzed the most intriguing of those position battles. With the first three weeks of work now in the books, and some personnel movement changing the overall outlook of the team, it is now time to revisit them and see where those competitions stand heading into the most intense workouts to date.
QB Cam Newton, QB Jarrett Stidham, QB Brian Hoyer, QB Brian Lewerke
Heading into the full-pads portion of training camp, there has been no noteworthy development in terms of the Patriots’ most intriguing position battle in recent memory. Second-year man Jarrett Stidham and offseason acquisitions Cam Newton and Brian Hoyer all received regular reps over the last few days of Phase Two workouts — as did undrafted rookie Brian Lewerke. Based on seniority, Hoyer usually took the first reps during drills followed by Stidham, Newton and Lewerke.
The next few days, however, should create a clearer picture of the battle. With more 11-on-11 and 7-on-7 drills coming versus the defense, the number of reps and supporting cast surrounding each quarterback could tell about his standing on the depth chart and the coaching staff’s projection of his role — something that comes even more important given the cancelation of preseason.
Slot wide receiver
WR Julian Edelman, WR Mohamed Sanu, WR Jakobi Meyers, WR Gunner Olszewski, WR Jeff Thomas, WR Will Hastings, WR Isaiah Zuber
New England has a deep group of inside wide receiver to man the slot and Z-positions, but only Julian Edelman is a lock to make the roster. Behind him, Mohamed Sanu seems to establish himself as a frontrunner: while a lot can change over the next few days and weeks, the veteran, who was acquired via trade last season, stood out during Phase Two drills due to his marvelous technique. Full-contact drills might change the outlook, of course, but at this point in time it would be surprising if Sanu did not make the 53-man squad.
The other players listed above, meanwhile, are fighting for what may very well be as little as two roster spots.
Right offensive tackle
OT Yodny Cajuste, OT Korey Cunningham, OT Justin Herron, G/OT Jermaine Eluemunor
With long-time starter Marcus Cannon deciding to opt out of the 2020 season over Coronavirus concerns, the Patriots have an open competition for the starting right tackle spot.Replacing the veteran lineman might actually be the Patriots’ biggest challenge in relation to their player opt-outs considering that the depth behind has yet to prove itself in New England’s system: Cajuste joined the team as a third-round draft pick in 2019 but spent his entire rookie campaign on the sidelines; Cunningham and Eluemunor were acquired via trade last season; Herron is a rookie.
In Phase Two, all four saw some reps at Cannon’s former position. The true frontrunners, however, will start establishing themselves once the pads come on today.
LB Chase Winovich, LB John Simon, LB Josh Uche, LB Anfernee Jennings, LB Shilique Calhoun, LB Derek Rivers, LB Brandon Copeland, LB Terez Hall, LB Tashawn Bower
The first four players listed here are all locks to make the Patriots’ roster, leaving five players to compete for spots alongside them. As is the case with the offensive line, there has been little actual development so far in camp for the group.
When it comes to the players themselves, three are worth keeping a close eye on this week. Shilique Calhoun and Derek Rivers have been on the Patriots’ 53-man roster before and have had their moments despite being mostly used in a rotational role. Brandon Copeland, meanwhile, has played in more NFL games than the two combined and is experienced both as a defender and special teamer. Based on track record, the offseason acquisition could therefore be considered the favorite at the time being.
TE Devin Asiasi, TE Dalton Keene, TE Ryan Izzo, FB Jakob Johnson, TE Jake Burt, TE Rashod Berry
Given that the competition at fullback is down to two players — Johnson and H-back Keene — following Danny Vitale’s opt-out, and the fact that the tight end and fullback positions have historically worked closely together in New England, it is best to also group them together for the sake of this analysis. So, where does the competition for roster spots stand at the moment?
Third-round rookies Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene are of course locks to make the team, leaving a maximum of two spots open alongside them. Johnson is the top fullback by default and should therefore join them despite Keene’s versatility, while Ryan Izzo is the only pure tight end on the current squad to actually appear in an NFL game before. The two veterans currently seem to have the best odds at making the roster when all is said and done, but it would also not be surprising to see them eventually fall victim to cutdowns.
WR N’Keal Harry, WR Damiere Byrd, WR Devin Ross
The X-receiver competition has already seen some turnover even before full-pads practices get kicked off: free agency acquisition Marqise Lee decided to opt out of the 2020 season, while Quincy Adeboyejo was released from the team over the weekend. Accordingly, only three players remain.
N’Keal Harry is of course a lock to make the roster, even though his eventual role is yet to be determined. For what it is worth, however, he did have a positive moment during Sunday’s practice when he beat cornerback J.C. Jackson for a touchdown. Devin Ross, meanwhile, also registered a score yesterday when he caught a pass from Jarrett Stidham while working against All-Pro defender Stephon Gilmore. Ross, who also was part of a prominent group of pass catchers working separately earlier last week, is one of the most noteworthy players of camp so far.
Damiere Byrd, meanwhile, could take over Phillip Dorsett’s former role as the speedster at the X-receiver spot. At the very least, he offers upside in the return game.
S Adrian Phillips, S Kyle Dugger, S Terrence Brooks, S Cody Davis, CB/S Joejuan Williams, CB/S Myles Bryant, CB/S Michael Jackson Sr.
Patrick Chung’s opt changed the complexion of the safety position and created a big opening within the starting lineup. How exactly it will be filled remains to be seen but the Patriots do have plenty of bodies capable of taking over the veteran’s former role alongside starting free safety Devin McCourty — not just at the safety position per se, but also among the ranks of the cornerbacks.
What stands out about the group is not just its intriguing potential, but also its abilities to perform in the kicking game: Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, Terrence Brooks and Cody Davis all could play a major role on special teams for New England as well this year — boosting their value to the overall operation and possibly leading to the team carrying as much five players at the position this year.
LB Ja’Whaun Bentley, LB Josh Uche, LB Anfernee Jennings, LB Brandon Copeland, LB Terez Hall, LB Cassh Maluia, LB De’Jon Harris
With the exception of the quarterback position, no other has seen as big a personnel change this year as linebacker: after Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts left New England in free agency, Dont’a Hightower decided to opt out of the 2020 season. As a result, the Patriots’ linebacker group — both on the edge and off the ball — will look almost unrecognizable this year.
Ja’Whaun Bentley, Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings will be a part of this group based on either their experience within the system (Bentley) or draft status (Uche, Jennings). The other positions, however, are up for grabs with Brandon Copeland as the most experienced player to fill the “move” role previously held by Hightower and Collins. Cassh Maluia, meanwhile, is a candidate to inherit Roberts’ old role as an early-down middle linebacker.
Backup interior offensive line
G/C Hjalte Froholdt, G/T Jermaine Eluemunor, G Michael Onwenu, C Tyler Gauthier
Five players were originally expected to compete for the backup roles along New England’s interior offensive line, but two of them have already left the team: Najee Toran was since released during roster cutdowns from 90 to 80 players, while seventh-round rookie Dustin Woodard announced his retirement last week. To bolster depth at the position, Tyler Gauthier was brought aboard as a free agent.
As is the case with the right offensive tackle spot, the interior roles will also see a serious uptick in competition this week.
RB Damien Harris, RB J.J. Taylor, WR Julian Edelman, WR N’Keal Harry, WR Mohamed Sanu, WR Gunner Olszewski, WR Damiere Byrd, WR Jeff Thomas, S Kyle Dugger
With Gunner Olszewski no lock to resume punt return duties, and with Brandon Bolden opting out of the 2020 campaign after serving as the top kickoff return man last year, New England has to fill both return roles this year. While plenty of bodies are candidates to take over (or keep their jobs, in Olszewski’s case), two names should be kept a close eye on: Damiere Byrd as a kickoff returner and second-round rookie Kyle Dugger on punt returns. Both received reps with the kicking game squads last week, and it would not be a surprise if they continued to see plenty of action in this area.