New England Patriots: Two position groups highlight training camp battles

HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 05: Dont'a Hightower
HOUSTON, TX - FEBRUARY 05: Dont'a Hightower /

As training camp opens up, there are numerous storylines getting a lot of buzz surrounding the New England Patriots.

All of them are newsworthy – the addition of Brandin Cooks, the possibility of a 16-0 season, the backup QB remains on the roster (for now) as the backup (for now). These are not the headlines that have my interest though. I’m watching two position groupings that are key for the season – the running backs and linebackers.

First up is the battle at running back. Who will emerge as the starter and how many of these guys are going to make the roster? The Patriots have a very deep and stable backfield with James White, Dion Lewis, Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, Brandon Bolden, DJ Foster, and LeShun Daniels Jr. That’s not to mention fullbacks James Develin and Glenn Gronkowski.

The “locks” for the roster:

James White – besides filling in admirably for the injured Dion Lewis, I don’t think I need to remind Patriot fans about his performance in the Super Bowl. He’s progressed nicely in the system the past four years and really thought he was going to be the starter this year, meaning the workhorse, every down back. I think he can still fill that roll, but the other “locks” will prevent that type of role from existing in this offense.

Mike Gillislee – the LeGarrette Blount replacement who joins the team as a restricted free agent acquisition from Buffalo. The team invested too much to acquire Gillislee and he does very easily project as the teams “big” back. Based on his superb yards per attempt (5.7 last season…granted, only with 101 attempts), he could very well be the starter. He doesn’t appear to be a back that can catch the ball out of the backfield though. Thus enter White – or…

Rex Burkhead – another back that the Patriots have a lot invested in, $3 million a year to be more precise. That’s not necessarily “break the bank” type of money, but considering he’s a valuable asset for special teams and his paycheck, I think he’s a lock for a roster spot.

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The “this could be interesting” guys:

Dion Lewis – torn ACL’s stink, especially for running backs known for their quickness and cut back ability. To me, based on White’s performance and the addition of those other two backs, unless Lewis shows that incredible ability he had in his breakout year, he could be a roster causality.

Brandon Bolden – seems like he’s been with the Patriots for years, and he has – 6 to be exact. More of a special teams standout, he was re-signed this offseason after the other running back moves were made. I don’t foresee him getting many snaps, if any, at RB but would be in contention to remain on the roster as a valued special teamer. But competition is going to be fierce even for that all-important third phase of football. I don’t expect Bolden to stick with the squad.

The “I really want to see him make it, but it’s really crowded” guy:

DJ Foster – the kid really shined during the preseason last year, but that was mostly against the backups. He’s been “on again; off again” with the roster and I just don’t think he’s going to beat the guys ahead of him. Now, if the Patriots do decide to let Lewis and Bolden go, Foster could sneak on as a fourth back, but it’s an uphill battle for him for sure.

The “lock for the practice squad” guy:

LeShun Daniels Jr. – Do I need to say anything other than “practice squad” for the rookie?

The “you forgot about the fullbacks”:

Yes. Yes I did.

I’ll just say, James Develin is a big dude that fills the role nicely and has played H-back with the tight ends group. Coming off a big injury though, he’ll have to stay healthy. Gronk’s little bro has been on the roster before and cut and re-signed. I don’t think he’ll stick.

New England Patriots
New England Patriots /

New England Patriots

The linebacker position was one that I was very concerned about all through the offseason…until the Patriots did the most Patriot-like thing ever and signed David Harris after the Jets cut him. Now I’m very intrigued how the starters evolve.

The “that’s right, only one” lock:

Dont’a Hightower – this position grouping is full of guys who are strong at one aspect, but weak at another. Even with the Harris signing, I don’t see any of the other LBs playing every down like Hightower can…when he’s healthy. He’s already starting camp on the PUP which has me nervous, but he’s the captain of the defense and extremely important to the success of the group. The “not-so-much-of-a-secret” too is that Hightower struggles in pass coverage.

The “key addition”:

David Harris – getting a guy like Harris as late in the offseason as the Patriots did was just good fortune. Harris is also an every down LB. The only real concern is his age and the punishment he’s endured over an 11-year career with the Jets. Just based on last year’s numbers though, he’s the Patriots’ leading tackler at the LB position. And much like Hightower, I don’t want to say Harris has lost a step, but the younger, more athletic offensive players are going to be difficult for Harris in pass coverage.

The “these guys are interchangeable so how many do we need to keep”:

Shea McClellin, Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts and Jonathan Freeny – McClellin has shown some versatility and can play as a rush end on the defensive line which is why I list him first as the “most valuable” of this group. I believe Van Noy is the most athletic of this group of 4 and was a valuable addition mid-season last year. Roberts is the best pass defender amongst this group – which might seem odd to say for a guy who can lay the lumber. Freeny is coming off of season ending IR and will need to stay healthy to remain with the team.

Next: Pre-Camp Roster Predictions

The rookies:

Harvey Langi, Brooks Ellis, Trevor Bates – Ok, Bates isn’t a rookie technically, but I’m grouping him in with these guys because I don’t think he’s going to factor into the final roster. All of these guys will be strong practice squad considerations. Langi does provide some intrigue, as he was the undrafted free agent signed to the highest paying contract. And not to short shrift Ellis, a team captain at Arkansas his final two years in college, something the Patriots covet and put a lot of stock into when drafting young players.