Predicting the Winner of the New England Patriots' Biggest Training Camp Battles
Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots have never been afraid to buck conventional wisdom. Though that habit most frequently manifests itself through the team's approach to the draft and free agency, the same philosophy applies to decisions about the depth chart.
Since Lawyer Milloy's stunning release before the 2003 season, the Patriots have demonstrated a willingness to cut ties with any player not part of the long-term plan, regardless of track record. New England defies prognostication more than nearly any other franchise, and training camp performance will have the most significant impact on the team's position battles.
That being said, it would be foolish to suggest that a hierarchy does not exist headed into training camp. Most of the players on this list are not unknowns, so they carry expectations from both the coaching staff and fans.
The pre-camp hierarchy is bound to fluctuate as practices and games accrue. Still, it's beneficial to understand where things stand before evaluating competitions once camp begins. With that in mind, here's a look at the five training camp battles that will have the biggest impact on the Patriots' season, as well as the projected winner for each.
5. Coverage Linebacker
Though Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins possess the movement skills and instincts necessary to fulfill this role, both are versatile enough that the coaching staff seems unlikely to pin a single role on them. Collins, in particular, could see more snaps as a blitzer or a down lineman in sub packages, as he accrued nine pressures in just 34 pass-rushing snaps last season, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Assuming that Collins transitions to a more multifaceted role (one that would best exploit his rare athleticism), that would require at least one other linebacker to emerge as a viable sub-package option. And in the event of an injury, the top backup could even receive early-down snaps as well.
Free-agent signing James Anderson is the only option with a proven track record. As a Chicago Bear in 2013, Anderson's plus-6.9 coverage grade was the sixth-best among all 4-3 outside linebackers. The 235-pound Anderson is built more like a Kam Chancellor-type safety, possessing enough size and agility to keep up with tight ends down the seam and running backs in the flat.
However, the Patriots do have other younger linebackers who have had at least a year in the system, unlike Anderson. Second-year Rutgers product Steve Beauharnais impressed in spring practices, and he possesses excellent instincts and enough agility to play a larger role in 2014. In addition, while Chris White and Ja'Gared Davis were mostly special teams contributors last season, both appear more likely to contribute in coverage than against the run.
None of those names may entice Pats fans very much, and in truth, the starters will likely play the vast majority of the snaps if healthy. But health is far from guaranteed, and the winner of this competition seems likely to occupy an important niche at some point this season.
Projected Winner: Anderson
4. 4th Wide Receiver
The fourth and fifth wide receivers are typically afterthoughts on most depth charts. But while the top three of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson are locked in, the former two possess checkered injury histories, while the latter is coming off offseason foot surgery that forced him to miss all of spring.
Thus, depth will be crucial for a receiving corps that lacks flash when compared to many other Super Bowl contenders. Ex-Carolina Panther Brandon LaFell has the most experience of the contenders for the job, and his three-year, $9 million contract suggests he is likely to stick in 2014. Moreover, at 6'3" and 210 pounds, LaFell's frame differentiates him from New England's mostly diminutive receiver corps.
However, it is ominous that ESPN's David Newton, an extremely well-informed Panthers beat writer, has repeatedly insisted that Carolina will not miss their erstwhile No. 2 receiver. By the numbers, LaFell was one of the league's most inefficient receivers last season in yards per route run, ranking 79th out of 94 qualified receivers. In fact, he finished behind every Patriots receiver who qualified for the rankings.
Thus, second-year receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce may actually hold the upper hand, given their experience in the system.
Thompkins, a stronger, more refined route-runner, and Boyce, a speedier open-field threat, are very different receivers at first blush. But both are also versatile enough to play the split end "X" and flanker "Z" receiver roles, which could consequently place them in direct competition with each other during camp. Considering that Thompkins played 589 snaps in 2013, second-most among New England wide receivers, he likely holds the upper hand in terms of rapport with Tom Brady.
Between Rob Gronkowski, Shane Vereen and the Edelman-Amendola-Dobson troika, four out of the five top targets suffered serious injuries last year. Expecting five spotless bills of health in 2014 appears delusional at best. So while the winner of this competition may not earn a prominent Week 1 role, expect him to provide necessary depth when the injury list inevitably grows.
Projected Winner: Thompkins
3. Sub-Package Defensive End
The Patriots are extremely fortunate to have a pair of reliable three-down defensive ends in Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich. However, due to a dearth of options beyond the bookend starters, Jones and Ninkovich finished the year having played the most and second-most snaps, respectively, of any Patriots defender.
That's an untenable ratio for defensive linemen. Indeed, there were instances like the AFC Championship Game when the two appeared worn down by game's end, which produced adverse effects on the pass rush.
While Jones and Ninkovich will still play the vast majority of the snaps if healthy, they desperately need a reliable third wheel to play two to three series per game to keep both relatively fresh.
Will Smith inked a one-year deal to provide the position some experience. The 33-year-old is not quite the Pro Bowler he was in his New Orleans Saints heyday, and he has much to prove after missing the entire 2013 season with a torn ACL. Still, excluding last year, Smith has not finished with fewer than 5.5 sacks in a season since 2008. The veteran would represent the safe though unspectacular route, similar to what Andre Carter supplied last season.
A more intriguing option could be second-year defensive end Michael Buchanan. The seventh-rounder demonstrated impressive burst in a limited sample size in the first half of the season. If Buchanan can correct the gap discipline issues that led to his benching last season, his ceiling likely exceeds whatever Smith can still provide.
An underrated key to the battle could be positional versatility. Smith is exclusively a right end, as 546 of his 551 pass-rushing snaps in 2012 came from that side. Buchanan still leaned to the right, but with 85 pass-rushing snaps from the right and 19 from the left, he demonstrated a greater potential to play both sides.
Projected Winner: Buchanan
2. Right Cornerback
I broke down this battle in greater depth earlier in the spring. While that piece sought to determine the likeliest starter by the middle of the season, it did not necessarily opine on the player who would win the battle out of training camp.
With Brandon Browner set to serve a four-game suspension to start the year, the battle becomes a two-man race between Alfonzo Dennard and Logan Ryan.
Dennard has the edge in experience at the position, having played that side for the vast majority of his two-year career. Though Dennard flew under the radar last season, he allowed just 35 receptions in 424 coverage snaps, a 12.1 cover-snaps-per-reception rate that placed him 16th among all corners and right behind more heralded teammate Aqib Talib.
While Ryan may not have played as many snaps, he was arguably more impressive in a smaller sample size. Ryan limited opposing quarterbacks to a paltry 53.3 quarterback rating, a mark exceeded only by Richard Sherman. With terrific awareness and ball skills, Ryan demonstrated the tools necessary to play outside corner.
Even if Ryan outperforms Dennard in training camp, however, that does not necessarily ensure that he will subsequently earn the right cornerback job to start the season. His versatility could actually work against him, for whereas Ryan played 128 snaps in the slot last year, Dennard played just 78. If both impress during camp and preseason, the Patriots would almost certainly rather keep Dennard at the position where he has blossomed.
It's a nice problem to have for the Patriots, who are likely to receive above-average play from the position regardless of who wins the battle. New England will find reps for Ryan—a three-cornerback package with Ryan, Dennard, Devin McCourty and Darrelle Revis could be lethal on passing downs—but keeping Dennard outside could maximize both players' talents.
Projected Winner: Dennard
1. Interior Offensive Line
Despite returning all five offensive-line starters from 2013, the Patriots could potentially have two new starters at center and guard. With several players overlapping in both competitions, it makes sense to evaluate the battles by lumping the two positions together.
I’ve broken down last year’s struggles for incumbents Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell. Connolly and Wendell lost a significant patron in retired offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, so both will need to prove themselves anew under Dave DeGuglielmo.
Fourth-rounder Bryan Stork and second-year pro Josh Kline are the likeliest threats to each. ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss suggested during minicamp that Stork may be a viable starter from Day 1. Given his collegiate experience on a vaunted Florida State offense, Stork does arrive with more polish than the average mid-round rookie. Meanwhile, Kline held his own in a Week 16 start against the Baltimore Ravens, conceding just two hurries over 69 total offensive snaps.
However, the most interesting option could entail kicking Marcus Cannon inside to guard, where he was originally drafted. Although Cannon excelled at right tackle last year, there is simply no room for him with Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer entrenched as rock-solid starters. Moving him to right guard could allow New England to play its best five offensive linemen.
There are certainly hurdles to that reality, as the natural interior linemen do not need to divide their attentions between tackle and guard/center. However, Cannon’s talent may simply prove irrepressible, while Connolly’s $4.1 million cap hit could prove fatal against cheaper and younger alternatives.
Projected Winners: Cannon (RG), Wendell (C)
*All stats via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).