The first 13 practices of the New England Patriots’ training camp are in the books, as is the preseason opener against the Washington Football Team. They obviously still have a long way to go, but at this point in time we already have some feeling for how the Patriots plan to be using their talent moving forward.
This means that we can also update our list of the main camp competitions that we have identified ahead of camp. While there have been a few roster moves already — either by sending players to injured reserve or straight-up releasing them — most of the battles remain undecided at the moment.
Meanwhile, others have started to emerge. The most prominent one not listed below is at place kicker. Veteran Nick Folk was initially seen as safe given that he re-signed on a one-year deal that guaranteed him $1.23 million, but he has missed six practices and the game against Washington. This, in turn, has opened the door for impressive undrafted rookie Quinn Nordin to challenge Folk’s standing on the roster.
As for the other battles that have been anticipated before the start of training camp in late July, here is where they currently stand.
Active roster: QB Cam Newton, QB Mac Jones, QB Brian Hoyer
PUP: QB Jarrett Stidham
Cut: Jake Dolegala
While five players are listed here, make no mistake: either incumbent Cam Newton or first-round rookie Mac Jones will be the Patriots’ starting quarterback this season. Sorry, Brian Hoyer.
At this point in the process, Newton should still be seen as the favorite to win the job. The former league MVP has looked considerably better this summer compared to where he was last season, and is still the first man up during practice drills; he also started the game against Washington before leaving the field in favor of Jones after two drives.
That said, Newton is not guaranteed to win the battle even though the signs point towards him doing that. After all, the young challenger has impressed so far.
Jones, who made his in-game debut at the NFL level last Thursday, repeatedly showcased the skills that made him the 15th overall player selected in this year’s draft. He looked poised in the pocket, made some good decisions with the football in his hands, and overall does not seem overwhelmed by playing in one of the most complex offensive systems in the entire league.
There is no question that Jones will take over as the Patriots’ starter at one point, allowing the team to run the same basic offense it had for two decades with Tom Brady under center. When that transition will happen, however, is not yet clear. That alone is a testament to Jones’ ability to adapt to life in New England.
Active roster: LB Josh Uche, LB Anfernee Jennings, LB Chase Winovich, LB Ronnie Perkins, LB Tashawn Bower, LB Harvey Langi
Cut: LB Rashod Berry
The Patriots already parted ways with one edge linebacker, but the others remaining on the roster are still competing for a limited number of spots on the team. At this point in time, Josh Uche appears to be the frontrunner: he looked impressive in practice, and could very well carve out a prominent role as a situational pass rusher and versatile member of New England’s front seven.
A safe bet to join him on the team is rookie Ronnie Perkins. Playing on both defense and special teams, the third-round selection saw considerable action during the Patriots’ preseason opener. While it remains to be seen how his role on the 53-man roster will look like, Perkins has had some good moments so far this summer.
As for the other players listed above, they have had their ups and downs. Chase Winovich just recently returned off the PUP list, while Anfernee Jennings has missed time as well. Tashawn Bower registered a sack versus Washington, but he — just like Harvey Langi — still appears to face an uphill climb.
The safe projection at this point in time is Uche, Perkins, Winovich and Jennings making the roster. Jennings, who did not play last Thursday and also was absent for undisclosed reasons during Sunday’s practice, is probably the least certain projection.
Early-down running back
Active roster: RB Damien Harris, RB Sony Michel, RB Rhamondre Stevenson
Based on their usage during the preseason opener, the battle for the Patriots’ early-down running back job is going as expected. Damien Harris is the frontrunner, with Sony Michel as the number two behind him. Both players have looked good in training camp so far, and should form a potent one-two punch at the position this year.
Rhamondre Stevenson, meanwhile, had an impressive preseason debut. The fourth-round did not enter the game until the third quarter, but he made an immediate impact: Stevenson finished with 10 carries for 127 yards as well as a pair of touchdowns — including a 91-yard scamper to ice the contest in New England’s favor.
Stevenson was very good, but there is still some question whether or not his performance will be enough to challenge the other two in the race for snaps. It seems more likely that the Patriots will head into the season with Harris and Michel as their early-down preferred backs; Stevenson would serve as a backup option before taking over in a more prominent role during the 2022 season.
Active roster: LB Ja’Whaun Bentley, LB/DE Josh Uche, LB/DE Chase Winovich, LB/DE Anfernee Jennings, LB/DE Harvey Langi, LB Cassh Maluia
PUP: LB Terez Hall
NFI: LB Cameron McGrone
IR: LB Raekwon McMillan
Based on how the competition along the defensive edge is developing, three of the versatile move options listed above appear headed for the 53-man roster at this point in time: Uche, Winovich and, to a lesser degree, Jennings. Who will join them as well as equally versatile veterans Dont’a Hightower, Matthew Judon and Kyle Van Noy in an off-the-ball capacity?
Ja’Whaun Bentley certainly has a strong case. While he is coming off an up-and-down 2020 season, the fourth-year man has had a good camp so far, and also played with the starters during the preseason opener — even donning the green dot on his helmet designating him as the lead communicator on defense (a role he initially held last year as well but was later stripped of in favor of safety Devin McCourty).
The Patriots also appear to have found a solid contributor in Raekwon McMillan, but the free agency addition was sent to injured reserve last week after tearing his ACL. His first season with the club therefore ended before it even began. McMillan was well on his way to earning a roster spot when the injury happened.
As for the other linebackers listed above, they only appear to have outside chances of making the club. Harvey Langi will likely have to do so through special teams contributions, with Cassh Maluia a long shot after joining the club late. Terez Hall and Cameron McGrone remain sidelined, and it would not be a surprise if their “active” status was changed to “inactive” as part of roster cutdowns at one point.
Slot wide receiver
Active roster: WR Jakobi Meyers, WR Nelson Agholor, WR Kendrick Bourne, WR Gunner Olszewski, WR Isaiah Zuber, WR Kristian Wilkerson
The Patriots have a versatile receiving group, which means that players will be moved all over the formation. That said, training camp and the preseason opener gave us some indication about who will fill which role.
What we can therefore say with relative confidence is that Jakobi Meyers projects as New England’s number one slot receiver. The third-year man was already the team’s best pass catcher last season, and he seems primed for a permanent role in the starting lineup. Meyers has the ability to line up on the outside as well, though, and should be seen as more of a Z-receiver than a typical slot (just like Julian Edelman).
Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, meanwhile, will be used differently if their first few practices are an indication. Agholor will serve primarily as a perimeter target who does have the versatility to move inside as well, while Bourne has Z-receiver written all over him. Together with Meyers, they are projected to see the bulk of wide receiver snaps this year.
When it comes to Gunner Olszewski, Isaiah Zuber and Kristian Wilkerson, the Patriots’ coaching staff seems to have different role in mind for them based on Thursday night’s game. Olszewski is the team’s primary punt returner and a backup slot receiver. Zuber and Wilkerson, on the other hand, saw most of their action on the outside of the formation; it seems as if they are not competing for the slot role.
All things considered, Meyers and Olszewski look like the first and second slot option with Agholor and especially Bourne also able to move into the position if need be.
Rotational defensive back
Active roster: CB/S Joejuan Williams, CB/S Myles Bryant, CB D’Angelo Ross, CB Michael Jackson Sr, CB Dee Virgin, S Adrian Colbert
NFI: S/CB Joshuah Bledsoe
Even with Stephon Gilmore still on the physically unable to perform list, the Patriots’ starters in the secondary appear to be set in stone: Gilmore and J.C. Jackson are the starters at outside cornerback, with Jalen Mills filling the spot vacated due to Gilmore’s absence. Jonathan Jones will man the spot, with Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger the top three at safety.
The competition for the spots behind them, however, remains very much open.
Joejuan Williams registered an interception against Washington, and generally played a good game, but he has had his fair share of ups and downs in practice. Myles Bryant has some solid versatility, and is a realistic candidate to provide depth as a fourth safety and as a backup cornerback. Michael Jackson has had some solid practices, and might just sneak onto the team as a third perimeter cornerback behind Gilmore and Jackson.
As can be seen, all three have a case to be made for making the club. At the moment, though, Bryant and Jackson have made the strongest arguments in their favor.
The other rotational defensive backs named above, meanwhile, have been quiet so far this summer. D’Angelo Ross, Dee Virgin and Adrian Colbert are long-shots to make the team, while Joshuah Bledsoe is still on the non-football injury list as of right now.
Swing offensive tackle
Active roster: OT Justin Herron, OT Yodny Cajuste, OT/G Korey Cunningham, OT/G William Sherman, OT/G R.J. Prince
Cut: OT Jerald Hawkins
Based on training camp performance and preseason usage, it seems as if Justin Herron is the clear favorite to earn the third tackle position. He is the number two left tackle behind Isaiah Wynn, and also might be trusted to fill Trent Brown’s right-side spot if need be. At this point in the process, Herron should be considered a safe bet to make the team.
As for the fourth spot on the offensive tackle depth chart behind Wynn, Brown and Herron, the Patriots have tried out both Korey Cunningham and Yodny Cajuste. Cunningham was the first man up at right tackle against Washington, with Cajuste entering the field behind him. At this point in time, that usage appears to be reflective of the pecking order at the position: Cunningham is OT4 at the moment, with Cajuste being OT5.
William Sherman and R.J. Prince, on the other hand, have played a marginal role at tackle. The rookie Sherman was used almost exclusively at right guard this summer after spending time at offensive tackle during offseason workouts and mandatory minicamp, while Prince played only three snaps at right tackle versus the Football Team. Sherman has a better chance of making the team, but still not a great one.
Active roster: WR N’Keal Harry, WR Tre Nixon, WR Isaiah Zuber, WR Kristian Wilkerson, WR Devin Ross
Cut: WR Devin Smith, WR Marvin Hall
N’Keal Harry looked fantastic at times in practice, but when it was time to play a game he was quiet: despite starting the contest and playing 61 percent of offensive snaps he was targeted only once and finished with a 4-yard reception. Harry needs to show that his improved practice play is not a fluke if he wants to finally carve out a regular role in his third year with the Patriots.
The other X-options listed above — a group that does not include roster locks Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne — is headed by Kristian Wilkerson. The second-year man has had a solid camp this summer, and appears to be pushing Harry for the final spot on the wide receiver depth chart. It will not be easy, but he has a shot.
Tre Nixon and Isaiah Zuber, on the other hand, are currently headed for the chopping block. The two have not distinguished themselves to be considered for the 53-man team, but could be candidates for the practice squad.
Active roster: WR Gunner Olszewski, S Kyle Dugger, RB J.J. Taylor, WR N’Keal Harry, RB Sony Michel, WR Isaiah Zuber, RB Rhamondre Stevenson, WR Tre Nixon, RB Brandon Bolden
Cut: WR Marvin Hall
The Patriots used multiple players at the kickoff role in practice, but when the preseason opener came all snaps were taken by J.J. Taylor. The former rookie free agent ran back two kickoffs for an average of 22.5 yards. He also carried the football two times for 10 yards, while continuing to fight for a backup spot on a deep running back depth chart.
If Taylor makes the team he seems like the frontrunner to serve as the kickoff returner during the regular season. If not, however, fellow running back Brandon Bolden might see some action in this area after fielding a few kickoffs during practice.
Third tight end
Active roster: TE Devin Asiasi, TE Matt LaCosse, TE Troy Fumagalli, FB Jakob Johnson
IR: TE Dalton Keene
Cut: TE David Wells
With projected starters Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry both dealing with minor injuries heading into joint practices against the Philadelphia Eagles, the Patriots’ depth tight ends should see some added action over the coming days. Who will distinguish himself? That remains to be seen, but it seems as if Devin Asiasi and Matt LaCosse will fight for the third spot on the depth chart.
Asiasi played 12 snaps against Washington compared to LaCosse’s 32, but neither player had any noticeable plays. Accordingly, Asiasi should be seen as the favorite: he was a third-round draft pick a year ago and looked good during mandatory minicamp before a 10-day stint on the Coronavirus reserve list. His upside appears to be higher than what LaCosse has to offer.
Obviously, that does not mean the Patriots will part ways with the veteran. LaCosse has plenty of experience, and could stick around if he convinces the team to be kept over an additional depth wide receiver.
Troy Fumagalli, meanwhile, will likely not make the team despite some solid moments. Jakob Johnson is almost certain to survive cutdown day as the Patriots’ lone fullback.