Commentary

Top 10 Patriots positional battles

As training camp nears, we identify the spots where jobs will be won and lost

Updated: July 23, 2013, 1:40 PM ET
By Mike Reiss and Field Yates | ESPNBoston.com

When it comes to position battles for the New England Patriots, there is one position that is wide open. It's a spot where the club needs its players to get open: wide receiver. That is obviously where the greatest turnover on the roster has occurred.

So as we look at the top 10 position battles as the team's first practice approaches Friday, it's the logical place to start.

1. Outside receiver: Michael Jenkins versus Aaron Dobson

[+] EnlargeAaron Dobson
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesRookie Aaron Dobson will be given the chance to earn a big role in the Patriots' offense.
When it comes to a taller "X" receiver on the edges, there is the proven commodity (10-year veteran Jenkins) versus the higher-upside rookie (second-round pick Dobson). In spring drills, Jenkins (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) was a consistent presence in the role by taking most of the top-unit reps, but that doesn't mean he'll necessarily be there when it counts. You have to figure Dobson (6-3, 200) will be given every chance to seize the job and develop the desired connection with quarterback Tom Brady. He showed flashes of excellence in camp (specifically in contested situations down the sideline) but also some inconsistency catching the ball.

2. The other outside receiver spot: Who emerges?

With Danny Amendola locked in to play the slot, and likely as part of most two-receiver sets, as well, there is a big question as to who might be the No. 3 receiver. Five-year veteran Julian Edelman, if healthy, is a leading candidate. But he was placed on the physically unable to perform list (recovering from foot injury). Rookies Josh Boyce (toe) and Kenbrell Thompkins figure to get a long look, while third-year player Kamar Aiken and former Tennessee Titan Lavelle Hawkins are also in the mix. This one is wide open. It's one of the few competitions that we could envision going in several different ways. It's also a spot that takes on added significance with the Patriots' tight end depth chart significantly shortened by the injuries to Rob Gronkowski and Jake Ballard and the release of Aaron Hernandez. Will the Patriots rely on a three-receiver set more than planned instead of the preferred two-tight end formation?

3. Who starts next to Devin McCourty?

Presuming McCourty stays at free safety (a logical assumption after he stood out at that spot in 2012), the Patriots have a number of options to work alongside him in the back end of the defense. Steve Gregory was the starter when healthy last season, though the Patriots added another veteran in Adrian Wilson, the hulking 33-year-old who has been to five Pro Bowls during his 12 NFL seasons. Throw in second-year player Tavon Wilson, a second-round draft choice in 2012, and the Patriots have a trio of candidates who seem like plausible options to earn a starting gig. Gregory seems like the best-rounded of the bunch, as some believe the older Wilson is more effective as an in-the-box safety at this juncture of his career. Tavon Wilson, meanwhile, needs to rediscover the hot start he had to his rookie season.

4. Tight end competition heats up

With Gronkowski starting training camp on the physically unable to perform list and his top backup, Ballard, also opening on the PUP list, the remaining four tight ends project to get a heavy workload. Daniel Fells (seventh year) is the most experienced, but he fell out of favor down the stretch last year, with coaches preferring Michael Hoomanawanui. Both have the flexibility to be competitive as a blocker up front while also running well enough to work the seam, but it's a natural drop-off from Gronkowski and former Patriot Hernandez. Rookie free agents Zach Sudfeld (6-7, 260) and Brandon Ford (6-3, 237) should receive opportunities to show what they can do. Sudfeld looked solid catching the ball in spring drills and is a bigger target, while Ford is more of a "move" option.

5. Vince Wilfork's new partner

The Patriots parted ways with both Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick this offseason, the pair of players who split starting duties next to Wilfork last season. Regardless of whether the Patriots play three- or four-man fronts, it'll be interesting to see which player arises as the primary big body next to Wilfork. Veteran Tommy Kelly brings consistency and experience to the table, while Armond Armstead is one of the unique wild cards for this team. After a productive season at the CFL level, Armstead is hopeful to prove he has a place in the NFL. What the Patriots lacked from Love and Deaderick last season was a consistent pass rush, something that Kelly and/or Armstead may be able to improve. Armstead has opened camp on the non-football injury list. Kelly generated 14.5 sacks from 2010 to 2011.

6. Tim Tebow versus a fifth running back, fourth tight end or special-teamer

[+] EnlargeRyan Mallett and Tim Tebow
AP Photo/Charles KrupaTim Tebow (right) isn't battling Ryan Mallett (left) for a spot, he's up against guys at the bottom of the roster.

As the No. 3 quarterback, Tebow isn't competing as much against No. 2 signal-caller Ryan Mallett as he is against the final layers of depth at other positions on the roster, such as a fifth running back, fourth tight end, special-teamer or developmental player who might require a spot on the 53-man roster to protect the team from losing him on waivers. For example, does Tebow offer more value than someone like running back LeGarrette Blount, tight end Zach Sudfeld or linebacker Steve Beauharnais? The Patriots have kept just two quarterbacks on the roster in four of the past five seasons.

7. Fourth cornerback

While the Patriots didn't often play with four cornerbacks on the field during the 2012 regular season, it's a position of particular interest this year for a couple of reasons. The first is that Alfonzo Dennard is in the midst of legal woes right now that could impact his availability. If he is forced to miss time at any point, the Patriots will lose a starter from last season, vaulting a fourth cornerback into a nickelback role. The second reason is the players who are in the mix. The team drafted Logan Ryan (third round), who projects to compete with former second-round pick Ras-I Dowling, hoping to stay healthy and put his unique skill set to use. Dowling offers length and ball skills that are difficult to find, but he's yet to be able to stay on the field consistently.

8. Right guard: Dan Connolly versus Marcus Cannon

With returning starter Connolly sidelined due to shoulder surgery in the spring, Cannon worked almost exclusively at right guard, with line coach Dante Scarnecchia explaining that it was in hopes of increasing his value to the team. Scarnecchia said that he believes Cannon is also a fine tackle. In the end, most coaches want their best five linemen on the field, and will adjust accordingly to make that happen. You could make the case that Connolly is No. 5 and Cannon is No. 6. We'll see how close the gap between them is in camp.

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9. Coverage linebacker

We can almost assuredly lock this one in: Jerod Mayo will be on the field for nearly every defensive snap, provided he's healthy. But what happens when the Patriots go into their sub defensive packages (which they played roughly 57 percent of their snaps in last year) and a coverage linebacker is called upon? Both Brandon Spikes and Dont'a Hightower manned that role at times in 2012, but neither stood out in that phase. Dane Fletcher returns to action after a knee injury took his 2012 away from him, and he could be a player who competes for snaps in sub looks. Another name to keep an eye on is top draft choice Jamie Collins. He has uncommon movement skills that could be used as an edge rusher, but the Patriots may also see value in him as a pass-defending linebacker.

10. Reserve edge setters

Both Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones, starters on the edge of the Patriots' defense in 2012, return for 2013 and will be counted on as major contributors. But the Patriots need depth at the position, something they counted on for extensive stretches last season. Names to consider for this year include Justin Francis, Jermaine Cunningham, Collins, Jake Bequette and Marcus Benard, among others. The Patriots have a nice blend of youth and talent to play on the edge in their defensive looks, but there's not a defined third defensive end at this juncture. Each of the aforementioned players has a chance to emerge, with Bequette looking to break through after a quiet rookie year and Cunningham trying to re-hone his natural skills. Benard, who once recorded 7.5 sacks in a single season, may have the most pass-rushing talent out of the group.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter
Field Yates has previous experience interning with the New England Patriots on both their coaching and scouting staffs. A graduate of Wesleyan University (CT), he is a regular contributor to ESPN Boston's Patriots coverage and ESPN Insider.

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