As the New England Patriots get set to begin their preseason in earnest on Thursday night against the Washington Redskins, it will give Bill Belichick and his coaching staff its first opportunity to evaluate players in a game setting. While the team does not have as many question marks on its roster at this stage as it did last preseason, there are still a number of intriguing positional battles the coaching staff will be focused on as it begins the process of paring the roster down to 53 men on opening day. In addition, the fact that the team is likely to keep three quarterbacks in 2014, given the use of such a high draft pick on Jimmy Garoppolo, makes the coaches’ task that more difficult.
There have been a number of roster projections done by analysts lately, including this one by NESN’s Doug Kyed and this one by Bleacher Report’s Sterling Xie. An analysis of these projections show just where the Patriots have to make their hardest decisions roster wise. Here are three positional battles to watch as preseason football begins:
1. Tight End
Conventional wisdom is that two tight ends currently on the Patriots roster are locked in: Rob Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui. While there are currently five tight ends on the Patriots 90 man roster in Gronkowski, Hoomanawanui, D.J. Williams, Asa Watson and Justin Jones, at least two of those players will not make the 53 man roster. While most analysts believe the Patriots are likely to carry three tight ends, it’s not inconceivable that the team could decide to carry only two, but that mostly depends on how healthy Gronkowski is. With the likelihood that the team will retain fullback James Develin to contribute primarily as a blocker in the running game and in pass protection, that lessens the need to carry a third tight end. Because of that dynamic, the pressure is really on the remaining three tight ends to prove their worth as pass catchers if they want to find themselves on the 53 man roster. With Hoomanawanui banged up recently, that’s given the others an opportunity to see more reps in practice. To this point in camp, D.J. Williams and Justin Jones have shown the most promise. Williams has impressed with his route running and Jones has used his ridiculous size (6-8, 280) to make some amazing catches. If the Patriots do decide to keep a third tight end, it will be because one of these two players has shown an ability to produce in the passing game. Thursday night’s first preseason game will be telling for these players.
2. Wide Receiver
There are two key questions at the receiver position to follow throughout the preseason. The first is whether or not Aaron Dobson can get back on the field, start practicing, and see some game action before the start of the regular season. If he can’t, the Patriots have a decision to make as to whether he’s placed on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list before the beginning of the season, which would mean that Dobson would have to miss the first six weeks of the season. The other question is whether or not the Patriots decide to carry six or seven receivers on the 53 man roster. Like at the tight end position, this will depend on the team’s assessment of the relative value of the receivers on the bubble comparable to at other positions. There’s not much argument among analysts as to who the Patriots top six receivers are: Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Brandon Lafell, Kenbrell Thompkins, and special teams standout Matthew Slater. At the moment, the player on the outside looking in is second year wideout Josh Boyce. If Dobson ends up on the PUP list to start the season, Boyce is in, but if not, the Patriots have a hard decision to make. That decision will depend largely on what Boyce is able to do in preseason action, both as a receiver and on special teams. Interestingly, the Patriots listed Boyce as their top kick returner on their unofficial depth chart released a few days ago. At times last season, Boyce showed flashes of explosiveness, but his inability to stay on the field hurt his stock. Tom Brady has spoken highly of Boyce thus far in camp, however, and if he shows some value in preseason action the team should keep him on the 53 man roster because of the relative value he can add to the offense and on special teams.
If the Patriots do decide to keep seven receivers, the team will be looking at other positions to go lean at. The safety position could be one of those areas, as it’s possible the team will carry only four safeties with such a talented and versatile group of cornerbacks. Beyond starting free safety Devin McCourty, there is real competition at this position. While second year safety Duron Harmon seems be the front runner to start opposite McCourty at strong safety, he will see competition from both Patrick Chung, who returned to the Patriots this offseason, Nate Ebner, and Tavon Wilson. This is Harmon’s race to lose, however, and the real question here from an evaluation standpoint is whether these additional safeties offer more special teams value than players at other positions. At the end of the preseason, the team is likely to come to the conclusion that’s simply not the case. Of these players, Tavon Wilson may be the odd man out as Ebner likely offers more special teams value. Regardless, the competition at strong safety is worth watching through the preseason.
Preseason football is just getting started and it’s likely that many players’ stock will rise and fall as we inch closer toward the start of the regular season. We’ll check back on these positional battles and more as the preseason continues.