Updating New England Patriots Key Position Battles Early in Training Camp

Sterling Xie@@sxie1281Correspondent IIJuly 28, 2014

Updating New England Patriots Key Position Battles Early in Training Camp

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    Kenbrell Thompkins is one of camp's top performers thus far.
    Kenbrell Thompkins is one of camp's top performers thus far.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    Considering the intense microscope the media places on the NFL, four days of training camp might seem like an eternity.  Of course, only a small fraction of camp has occurred, so every snap judgment must be placed in perspective.

    Still, the commencement of "real football" season is here, as the roster-evaluation portion of the offseason is in full swing.  While the New England Patriots' 53-man core is largely in place, there are still a handful of starting and potentially critical specialty roles up for grabs.

    As an expected contender, the Patriots should see fewer surprises and less upheaval than most teams around the league.  Nonetheless, the Pats' depth chart is far from infallible, so a few middle-class players will need to distinguish themselves this summer as reliable cogs come fall.

    Before camp, I wrote up a list of New England's five biggest camp competitions to watch.  With the caveat that preseason could drastically alter the picture, let's take an early measure of how those competitions have developed.

5. Coverage Linebacker

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    With the Patriots working extensively on the passing game thus far, there has been ample opportunity for an unheralded linebacker to make an impression. 

    The pre-camp favorite, veteran James Anderson, has yet to demonstrate the skill set that made him one of the better coverage linebackers in the league last season. 

    According to The Boston Globe's Erik Frenz, both Shane Vereen and Justin Jones have beaten Anderson for touchdowns in red-zone work.  The ever-present small-sample-size caveat applies (to everyone on this list), as the real key for Anderson is to demonstrate a steady grasp of the Patriots' system.

    Digging for surprise standouts, third-year player Darius Fleming might be a name to watch going forward.  During Friday's practice, ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss noticed Fleming receiving one-on-one instruction from Bill Belichick:

    It caught our eye when coach Bill Belichick spent some one-on-one time with the third-year linebacker from Notre Dame in Friday's practice. The 6-2, 255-pound Fleming, who entered the NFL as a fifth-round draft choice of the 49ers in 2012, missed his first two seasons with knee injuries. If he regains the form that made him a draftable prospect in 2012, he could provide depth behind a solid starting linebacker trio.

    Fleming came into the NFL with durability concerns, as his ESPN predraft scouting report rated his durability as "below average" (subscription required).  However, at roughly 6'2" and 245 pounds, Fleming brings size that could make him more of a pass-rusher rather than a coverage option.

    This race remains wide open, begging for likes of Steve Beauharnais, Chris White and Cameron Gordon to elevate their games.  For now, Anderson's track record keeps him ahead of the pack.

    Early Favorite: Anderson

4. 4th Wide Receiver

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    The label of this competition could become a misnomer soon.  With Aaron Dobson still recovering from his offseason foot surgery, fellow sophomore receiver Kenbrell Thompkins has seen his stock soar in the early part of camp.  A fast start in 2013 catalyzed a prominent early-season role for Thompkins, and the early returns suggest that a similar pattern could unfold this year.

    Thompkins has bulked up over the offseason, per the Providence Journal's Mark Daniels, perhaps in an effort to avoid the late-season swoon that often derails rookies adjusting to the relentless NFL schedule.  His endeavors have paid dividends so far, as Tom Brady raved about Thompkins after one practice, according to the Boston Herald's Jeff Howe:

    He made some great plays. I think he’s certainly capable of it. It’s exciting for a quarterback when you see a guy make those types of efforts and lay out and catch the ball like he did.

    It’s fun to be out there with him. I have a lot of confidence in him, a lot of trust. He’s a great guy.

    Though circumstances change, Thompkins' competition at this point lies with Dobson rather than Josh Boyce, Brandon LaFell or Jeremy Gallon. 

    While Dobson was able to make up for a slow start last year, his rehab-centric offseason has likely stunted his development a bit.  With Thompkins ostensibly improving, Dobson's superior natural tools may not be able to close the gap that has opened between the two in offseason practices.

    Still, NEPatriotsDraft.com's Mike Loyko reported that the Patriots still view Dobson as an integral part of the offense.  New England invested considerably less in the undrafted Thompkins than the second-rounder Dobson.  The latter will receive every opportunity to make up for lost time, but for now, Thompkins is ascending to a surprising spot on the depth chart.

    Early Favorite: Thompkins (likely top three right now)

3. Sub-Package Defensive End

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    The two-man race between Michael Buchanan and Will Smith has yielded some interesting results so far.  With the Patriots bringing out one-on-one pass-rushing drills on Saturday, Buchanan and Smith received their first real chance of camp to earn the upper hand.

    CSNNE's Mike Girardi reported that Buchanan stood out in the drills, with Reiss noting that the second-year defensive end won multiple battles against rookie tackle Cameron Fleming.  As a large yet sinewy rusher, these drills are tailor-made for Buchanan to shine.

    Buchanan's progress could depend upon how much strength he added during the offseason.  Though Buchanan's speed led to several sacks and pressures, his inability to control the edge forced Belichick to take the promising young rusher off the field.  Error repeaters receive a notoriously short leash in Foxboro, so Buchanan's gap discipline will be essential toward earning more juicy sub-package reps.

    The veteran Smith has not made as much noise this offseason.  That's no surprise, as Smith is still rounding back into form after missing the entire 2013 season with a torn ACL.  According to The Associated Press (via Fox News), Smith proclaims he is fully healthy this summer:

    My body definitely feels great. I've just been working out for the past year, just trying to get back to this point — so I could be able to go out and play football. I don't have the traditional aches and pains that most of the guys have from playing the last two years, or three years, or whatever, consistently.

    This is an area where practices can reveal almost as much as games because of the individual drills.  Although Smith's track record would seemingly provide a cushion, Buchanan's extra year in the Patriots' system could nullify most of the gap in experience.

    Early Favorite: Buchanan

2. Right Cornerback

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    Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

    The battle between Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard has yet to materialize.  With the latter on the physically unable to perform list because of a shoulder injury, Ryan has seized the opportunity.

    Ben Volin of The Boston Globe highlighted the second-year cornerback as one of Saturday's top performers.  Ryan has continued to display the range and ball-hawking instincts that made him one of 2013's most impressive defensive rookies, and Reiss believes the Rutgers product has the inside track on the starting job opposite Darrelle Revis:

    Praised for his smarts by veteran cornerback Darrelle Revis, Ryan took mostly second-team reps in spring camps behind Revis and free-agent signing Brandon Browner. His ball skills produced a team-leading five interceptions last season and he'd probably be the starter opposite Revis if the season started today and Browner was serving his four-game suspension.

    Right corner will be one of New England's most stressful roles this year, as opposing quarterbacks will invariably hone in on the non-Revis side of the field.  It's the main reason why I projected Dennard to win this job before camp, as he succeeded in a similar environment last year when Aqib Talib occupied the left side.

    But Ryan's ball skills are hard to ignore, as he has consistently exhibited a penchant for big plays during his brief career.  It's hard to know when Dennard will return—for what it's worth, NEPatriotsDraft.com's Oliver Thomas spotted Dennard riding the stationary bike on the sidelines—as every day away digs a deeper hole.

    If Dennard returns in time for joint practices and the preseason games, he could erase the deficit with his steady and physical play.  For now, though, Ryan is the heavy favorite to start the first quarter of the season while Brandon Browner serves his suspension.

    Early Favorite: Ryan

1. Interior Offensive Line

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The most crowded competition has seen a couple standouts so far.  Fourth-rounder Bryan Stork looks increasingly likely to supplant incumbent Ryan Wendell, as the rookie has worked with Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski after practice, according to Reiss.  That continues a trend of Stork receiving plenty of attention from the coaching staff and starters.

    The picture at right guard is murkier.  Dan Connolly was arguably the most impressive offensive lineman in the one-on-one drills, as Reiss singled him out for his performance.  Though the Patriots could save $3 million in cap space by shedding his deal, per Spotrac.com, it would be foolish to shed someone the coaching staff might see as a safe starting option.

    Most intriguingly, Patriots.com's Paul Perillo reported that Connolly was taking snaps at center, where he started the majority of the 2011 season.  Unlike Wendell, who is purely a center, Connolly's versatility could not only save his roster spot, but also provide insurance in case Stork is not quite ready for full-time duties.

    That could potentially open up the right guard spot for either Marcus Cannon or Josh Kline.  Though Cannon is the more talented and proven of the two, his value as a swing tackle might render him more of a utility super-sub.  Kline's lone start (and significant glimpse of playing time) in 2013 came at left guard, where he held his own against the Baltimore Ravens.

    With sixth-rounder Jon Halapio in the mix as well, this is a convoluted six-man race with numerous permutations.  Guessing which two will eventually emerge is nearly impossible at this point, and it will likely be weeks before this extremely fluid race begins to solidify.

    Early Favorites: Stork (C), Connolly (RG)