The New England Patriots will return to the practice fields behind Gillette Stadium later today for what will be the 11th practice since teams were allowed to work out in full capacity again earlier this month. Of the 10 sessions so far, five were held on consecutive days last week — the Patriots practiced in full pads on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, while holding lighter sessions on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
Six full-to-semi-full-speed practices in, we can therefore now assess how the main position battles have been unfolding so far. While a lot can and will still change — the first week was focused more on fundamental work; injuries can alter the picture at any time — 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 most intriguing battles, let’s go through the positions and roles one-by-one.
QB Cam Newton, QB Jarrett Stidham, QB Brian Hoyer, QB Brian Lewerke
While the biggest camp competition in recent memory started off without a clear frontrunner, the last two practices saw a shift towards veteran offseason acquisition Cam Newton. With Jarrett Stidham dealing with a hip injury and Brian Hoyer as a solid but comparatively uninspiring presence, the former league MVP has received the majority of practice reps on Friday and Sunday and is now the clear frontrunner to become Tom Brady’s heir as New England’s starting quarterback (at least for the 2020 season).
Newton pulling away in the competition should not be seen as an indictment on Stidham’s development, however. The second-year man, who served as Brady’s lone backup for most of the 2019 season after beating out Hoyer in camp, was always in a difficult spot without a real offseason to familiarize himself with the offense as a potential QB1. Newton did also spend the spring away from the Patriots — he was signed in July — but his experience running an NFL offense is vastly superior when compared to Stidham’s.
What the future holds for the 24-year-old remains to be seen, but for the time being the Patriots’ offense appears to be Newton’s.
Slot wide receiver
WR Julian Edelman, WR Mohamed Sanu, WR Jakobi Meyers, WR Gunner Olszewski, WR Jeff Thomas, WR Will Hastings, WR Isaiah Zuber
With versatile Julian Edelman — who is seeing regular action both in the slot and on the perimeter — a lock to make the team, and with Mohamed Sanu also appearing to be in the “safe” category, the Patriots will have limited space available for the other interior options on the roster.
At this point in time, Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski seem to be the favorites among the five non-locks listed above.
Meyers has been comparatively quiet in camp after showing some potential during his 2019 rookie season. His development is steady, however, and he appears to be more confident as part of New England’s offense. While not on his way to earning a starting role, there is value in having rotational options that know how to do their jobs.
Olszewski, meanwhile, has taken a massive leap forward and projects to fill an Edelmanesque role for the Patriots in 2020: he has the versatility to not just line up inside the formation, but on the outside as well. Despite some issues with drops, Olszewski appears to be the number three inside receiver at the moment.
Undrafted rookies Jeff Thomas, Will Hastings and Isaiah Zuber, meanwhile, appear to be competing for the practice squad at best. Thomas has the most intriguing skillset of the three, but has struggled with injuries one week into camp.
WR N’Keal Harry, WR Damiere Byrd, WR Devin Ross
Damiere Byrd has seen plenty of action so far as an X-receiver in the mold of former Patriot Phillip Dorsett. The results may not have always been perfect, but it would be a surprise if he did not make the team based on his first few practices with the team.
The same cannot be said about Devin Ross just yet, but the youngster is certainly not going down without a fight: Ross, who arrived via New England’s practice squad last year, is one of the standouts of camp so far and has proven himself a reliable target capable of running smooth routes and winning at the catch-point. He needs to sustain his momentum, but is in a good position to eventually make the team.
N’Keal Harry, on the other hand, does not have to worry about his spot on the roster. That said, the second-year man has been a disappointment so far. Not only did he miss time due to an apparent injury, he also has struggled with some of the same issues that plagued him last year: creating separation and using his frame to box out defenders. He will make the team, but his playing time will depend on his development in those areas.
TE Devin Asiasi, TE Dalton Keene, TE Ryan Izzo, FB Jakob Johnson, TE Jake Burt, TE Rashod Berry, TE Paul Butler, TE/FB Paul Quessenberry
New England added two more tight ends to the equation since training camp started (Paul Butler, Paul Quessenberry) but they are long-shots to make the team behind roster locks Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene. In fact, only one of the players listed above appears to definitively be on his way to join the two third-round rookies on the Patriots’ 53-man squad: fullback Jakob Johnson, who has had some solid moments one week into camp.
Of the others, Ryan Izzo appears to be the frontrunner. His upside as a receiver may be limited — he did have a solid contested catch on Sunday, though — but he knows the system and has some value as a blocker. With Keene mostly a developmental player, the Patriots could go with the Asiasi-Izzo combination as its one-two punch during the early stages of the regular season.
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.
That all being said, one player has emerged as the clear frontrunner: Jermaine Eluemunor has taken the majority of starter-level snaps at the right tackle spot, and he appears to have a firm grasp on the role.
The others, meanwhile, are fighting for the swing/backup jobs. Cajuste’s rawness is on full display, but both Cunningham and Herron have performed well when given the opportunity.
Backup interior offensive line
G/C Hjalte Froholdt, G/T Jermaine Eluemunor, G Michael Onwenu, C Tyler Gauthier, G Ben Braden
With Eluemunor on his way to earning the starting right tackle spot, the interior line competition has been dominated by Hjalte Froholdt. The second-year man, who spent all of 2019 on the sidelines due to a shoulder injury, has shown the ability to take over Ted Karras’ former role as a versatile interior backup. His development compared to a rookie season that was at times rocky is notable, and in turn has made it hard for Onwenu, Gauthier and Braden to earn spots on the team when all is said and done.
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 — Winovich, Simon, Uche, Jennings — are all locks to make the Patriots’ roster, leaving five men to compete for spots alongside them. So far, it seems as if Shilique Calhoun and Brandon Copeland can be considered the favorites.
While not flashy players by any means, both are fundamentally sound and offer value and experience as edge defenders and on special teams. Both are solid if unspectacular depth pieces, with Copeland also having upside as a move option that can play both on the line and off it — a skillset shared by Terez Hall, who has also been solid one week into camp and may benefit from a lack of quality depth at the linebacker position.
As for Derek Rivers and Tashawn Bower: as the old saying goes, you can’t make the club from the tub. Rivers returned to practice on Sunday after missing three straight sessions, but has yet to show that he can be an impact player; Bower has missed all of last week for undisclosed reasons.
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 and the competition has been a fun one so far.
Not only does the aforementioned Brandon Copeland offer depth both on and off the line of scrimmage, the three youngsters competing for roster spots have also made plays on a regular basis: Terez Hall is the most experienced of the trio and been actively involved in the defense; Cassh Maluia has made multiple big plays and been given prominent looks; De’Jon Harris’ skillset is intriguing to fill a Roberts-like role as an early-down defender.
The race for the final spots at the off-the-ball linebacker position remains exciting despite its lack of big names.
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.
The race for Patrick Chung’s old starting role as well as the third and fourth spots on the depth chart remains wide open at this point in time.
Kyle Dugger looked impressive early in camp, but a minor injury set him back a bit. The second-round rookie will have to show that he can effectively bounce back and continue building on what was a very good start to his pro career. If he does that, it would not be surprising to see him earn a prominent role alongside fellow safety Devin McCourty.
Terrence Brooks and Adrian Phillips, meanwhile, appear to be third and fourth on the depth chart in that order. Brooks’ experience in the system has helped him make some solid plays, while free agency addition Phillips has not seen the field the last three sessions — presumably because of injury. Phillips’ skillset makes for an intriguing chess piece, but he needs to a) get back on the field, and b) start living up to it.
The other players listed above have also had their moments.
Cody Davis is on his way to take over the Nate Ebner special teams/emergency safety role; Joejuan Williams is better than he was a year ago but buried on the depth chart; Myles Bryant has made some very good plays for an undrafted rookie; Michael Jackson has adapted well after arriving via trade.
The depth in the Patriots’ secondary, no matter if at cornerback or safety, is still very strong.
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
Gunner Olszewski is not just very much in the running for a wide receive role but also appears to be the team’s number one punt returner at the moment. He also factors into the kickoff return mix — alongside Damiere Byrd, J.J. Taylor and Kyle Dugger. New England’s return game was not necessarily awe-inspiring last year, but the group competing for roles this summer has a lot of potential to change this.