Predicting the New England Patriots training camp battles
NFL training camps are upon us and with that it means that position battles are set to begin.
With the New England Patriots possessing arguably the best under-25 talent in the game today, it may come as a bit of a surprise that there are plenty of position battles to be won all over the field. Head coach Bill Belichick has never been one to simply “hand-out” jobs. Players young and old are going to have to come into training camp, compete, and earn their way into playing time on this football team. Any lack of effort, any anyone is in danger of being cut. It’s the reason that the New England Patriots have been one of the most successful franchises in football over the past decade.
Here are a couple of the key position battles and how I see them playing out.
The Players: Devin McCourty, Ras-I Dowling, Kyle Arrington, Sterling Moore
This may come as a shock to many, but Ras-I Dowling was the opening day starter for the New England Patriots last season. No really, it’s true. There is a lot to like about Dowling. He is big for the corner position standing at 6’1, 198 pounds and has an even bigger wingspan than that. Bill Belichick has always liked physical corner-backs and it’s no secret that he likes Ras-I Dowling and if he continues to impress like he did last year, he is likely to win the starting role again. It’s just that injury issue that’s plagued him since high-school is a bright red flag.
The other three, McCourty, Arrington, and Moore had up and down seasons throughout 2011. To call both McCourty and Arrington “bi-polar” would be putting it lightly. There were times when both these players flashed brilliance and made us as Patriots’ fans think they were turning the corner and apologize for every mean thing we had said about them. Then they got burned deep and made us curse their name and give them mean nicknames. Devin McCourty was so bad at times that whenever an opposing receiver caught a deep ball, I assumed that McCourty was covering him.
McCourty was so bad as a corner (and the Patriots had so many secondary injuries) that they moved McCourty to safety and… well he was actually good. Much better than he was at corner. Could it be a sign for 2012?
Moore got better as the season progressed, ultimately saving the season in the AFC championship game. I don’t think he is talented enough to win the starting job, but stranger things have happened.
The Winners: Ras-I Dowling, Kyle Arrington
I know Devin McCourty was a pro-bowler in 2011 and a lot of his issues last year could be blamed on a vanilla Patriots defensive system that could be attributed to the lack of preseason practice due to the lock-out. I get all that. I just look at who the Patriots are throwing out there at safety and I can’t shake the feeling that McCourty is going to start the year at free-safety. So there, McCourty will win a job, just not the cornerback job.
Back to the corners. Again, Dowling started opening day last year and barring no injuries in the preseason (big if) I will assume he will win it again. Then I’m taking Arrington over Moore.
The Players: Stevan Ridley, Shane Vareen, Joseph Addai
Granted, the New England Patriots are a pass-first team and will again use a running back by committee approach that has been torturing fantasy owners since Corey Dillon left town. Even so, someone has to get the bulk of the carries.
Ridley would seem to be the favorite given the fact that he actually sort of won the starting job last year even with the Lawfirm still in town. He averaged 5.1 yards per attempt and ran hard whenever he was in the game. The fact that he is a big kid helps him considering they need someone to score the ball inside the five with the same frequency as the Lawfirm.
Now if I have learned anything over the years it’s these three things:
- Never get too excited about preseason, spring-training or summer league games
- Never read too much into what the New England Patriots do at practice.
- Never think I know what Bill Belichick is thinking because I probably don’t.
Having said all that, don’t you think its odd that Shane Vareen was taking first-team snaps coming off a year where he barely played because he was hurt all the time? That doesn’t seem fishy to you?
Yes, I am writing off Joseph Addai. For starters he is a former Indianapolis Colt and I don’t really like those guys and secondly, he has murdered way too many of my fantasy teams that I have nothing but spite for him.
The Winner- Stevan Ridley
See previously aforementioned “three-things”. It’s going to be Ridley. I’m reading way too much into the OTA’s. It doesn’t really matter anyway. They both are going to carry the ball and Danny Woodhead is still going to play half the snaps because Josh McDaniels is going to throw 70% of the time.
The “Other” Wide-Recievers
The Players: Donte’ Stallworth, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman,
This is assuming that Brandon Loyld, Jabar Gaffney, Matthew Slater and Wes Welker are locks. Again, never assume anything with a Bill Belichick team. I’m just guessing because Loyld and Gaffney were large sum free-agent signings, Wes Welker is the best slot-receiver in football and Matthew Slater is the special-teams captain.
Now here is where things get tricky. Depending on how you interpret the tight-end long jam will go a long way in determining who will stay on the roster as a wide-receiver. They already have Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and they added Jake Ballard and Daniel Fells too. Most teams at most carry three tight-ends. Granted, one of those guys is on the PUP to start the year and with no time-table for a return, but that is still four quality tight-ends that the Patriots employ.
Or three, if you do what I am doing and grouping Aaron Hernandez in as a wide-receiver. Remember, we aren’t dealing with Bill O’ Brien’s 2 tight-end, H back offense anymore that likes to utilize a highly versatile H-Back everywhere on the field (example, Aaron Hernandez). This is Josh McDaniels’ spread-it-out-stretch-the-field-sideline-to-sideline offense that likes to throw one back, a tight-end, two split-ends and a slot guy. Tight-ends are Gronkowski, Fells or Shiancoe and Ballard, split-ends are Loyld, Gaffney, Stallworth and Branch and slot guys are Welker, Edleman and Hernandez.
Now I’ll ask you this. Whose better as a slot-man, Hernandez or Edleman? This shouldn’t really be a question as 99 percent of you should have just said “Hernandez” that spells trouble for Edleman even if he a versatile guy that can play defensive-back if they need him too.
Question number two, who are the top three split-ends on that list? Most would say Loyld is definitely the number one then probably Gaffney, Stallworth and Branch based on personal preference. Likely they can only keep three of them.
So three split-ends, two slot guys, three tight-ends (with one being inactive each week) and one special-teams demon. Who do you have?
The Winner: Deion Branch
Of the three names listed in “The Players” above, I have basically determined you can only keep one. Edleman gets tossed because the Patriots’ aren’t keeping three slot-guys and god forbid one gets hurt in a game Josh McDaniels will just throw Danny Woodhead out there and call it a day.
The split-end battle comes down to the fact that I think Branch has a better relationship with Tom Brady. If Belichick came to Tom and said “we have to cut one, sorry” I feel like Tom would cut Stallworth. This would give the Patriots with the falling depth chart.
Split-Ends: Loyld, Gaffney, Branch
Slot-Guys: Welker, Hernandez
Tight-Ends: Gronkowski, Ballard, Fells/Shiancoe (Whoever wins this. I won’t go into it)
Special-Teams captain: Matthew Slater
I can live with that. Only two things I can see changing this:
1.) Nate Ebner explodes onto the scene as a special-teams guy and Bill Belichick decides he doesn’t have to keep Mathew Slater. The chance of this happening is, well, I couldn’t think of a funny hyperbole. Sorry.
2.) Jake Ballard hits the IR. This is more likely, but I still think he will make it.
Screw it. I’m going with my original predictions.
The Players: Tom Brady (I kid! I kid! Don’t burn me!) Brian Hoyer, Ryan Mallet
Preferably, we NEVER, EVER, EVER, EVER HAVE TO DEAL WITH THIS EVER AGAIN, but as we learned in 2008, things can change in the blink of an eye.
(Why am I watching this video again? Why do I keep watching this video? OH GOD WHY WON’T IT EVER STOP! WE COULD HAVE WON AGAIN IN 2008!)
Okay, okay I’m good.
This boils down to one question. Do the Patriots prefer experience or upside?
I also think that 2008 should tell us a lot. Remember Matt Gutierrez? I do. When Brady went down I remember sitting in the stands and pleading for Belichick to put Gutierrez in the game. Matt Cassel just had an awful, awful preseason and I broke the previously aforementioned rule number one “Never get too excited about preseason, spring-training or summer league games” when it cam to Gutierrez. Three plays later and a 50 yard pass to Randy Moss down the side-line and I was all-in on this Matt Cassel thing.
The Winner: Brian Hoyer
In won’t matter how well Mallet plays in the preseason. Hoyer is winning this job because he has the experience, just like Cassel did in 2008.
The Players- Jonathan Fanene, Brandon Deaderick, Jake Bequette, Alex Silvestro, Rob Ninkovich, Dont’a Hightower,Chandler Jones, Trevor Scott, Jermaine Cunningham, Ron Brace
If you’re wondering, yes, I just listed everyone who is an OLB or a DE. Want to know why? We have no, fucking, clue what the Patriots’ are planning.
How much are they going to use sub-packages? What’s the base defense? How often are they going to rush the passer? How often are they going to play straight up?
Because of these questions and more, it’s almost impossible to predict. The only certainty is they will select the guys with the most versatility.
The Winners- Jonathan Fanene, Dont’a Hightower, Chandler Jones, Jermaine Cunningham, Trevor Scott, Rob Ninkovich, Jake Bequette
Hightower and Jones are both either 4-3 ends or 3-4 outside-linebackers so they’ll play majority of snaps. Cunningham fills those roles as well but a poor mans version of it. Trevor Scott and Jonathan Fanene are prototypical 3-4 defensive ends but can also play some 4-3 tackle to increase their odds of making the roster. Ninkovich does nothing great but nothing bad either. Jake Bequette is a luxury. A tenacious pass-rusher, they will use him when its time to dial up the heat.