By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots have plenty of new veterans hitting the practice field on Thursday for the start of training camp. some of them may be counted on to be key players right away.
Bill Belichick added several new faces on both sides of the ball in the offseason, seemingly in the hopes that they can seamlessly replace departed players. If not, they could represent upgrades at their respective positions. If they don’t contribute meaningful snaps quickly, the Patriots may need to lean more on their rookies and sophomores to take on bigger roles than expected.
But with training camp officially getting underway on Thursday in Foxborough, the new veterans are among the most important players for attendees to watch for. Here’s who should be on everyone’s radar this week.
DE Michael Bennett
A longtime premier pass rusher in the NFL, the brother of ex-Patriot Martellus Bennett came over from the Eagles along with a 2020 seventh-round pick in exchange for a 2020 fifth-rounder. The hope is that Belichick and the Patriots get the most out of Bennett’s still-considerable talent. He logged 30 quarterback hits last season, which ranked fourth in the league.
The assumption is that Bennett is immediately entrenched as a three-down starter on the edge. But it’ll be interesting to see if he moves around the line and how he mixes in with other pieces in the defensive front.
TE Matt LaCosse
LaCosse begins camp at the top of most hypothetical depth charts, but only by default. In the wake of Rob Gronkowski’s retirement and the departures of Jacob Hollister and Dwayne Allen, the Patriots’ tight end group has undergone a complete overhaul. LaCosse may be the one depended on to be their best combo tight end.
Sophomore Ryan Izzo and undrafted rookie Andrew Beck may be able to prove themselves in the blocking department, while former Texans TE Stephen Anderson is more of a pure pass-catcher. Particularly when Ben Watson sits out for the first four games of the season, LaCosse is likely going to have to be the team’s best option for both. If he can’t be at least serviceable in both areas, the dropoff from Gronk would be palpable.
WR Maurice Harris
Harris looked better than expected in his appearances at Patriots minicamp in June. He showed good hands and length when he went up and got the ball from Tom Brady, which was often right over the middle of the field. Brady looked Harris’ way at what felt like an intriguingly high rate, which tells us he liked what he saw out of the former Redskins wideout in terms of route-running. His size (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) also makes him an uncommonly large target for a Patriots inside receiver.
The 26-year-old Harris has had trouble staying healthy over his first three seasons in the league (only 28 games played out of a possible 48). So there’s a Long Way To Go™ with him as far as how he factors into the Patriots’ plans, if at all. But he’s already shown why his physical tools and ability to catch the football haven’t been his real issue.
DT Mike Pennel
Of all the Patriots’ newest veteran additions, Pennel has the best chance of representing a marked upgrade. The former Jets defensive tackle ostensibly replaces the departed Malcom Brown, who signed with the Saints in the offseason. Brown was a four-year starter on the Patriots’ defensive interior, but never played with enough consistency to live up to his first-round status.
Pennel has a chance to improve the Patriots’ run defense between the tackles simply by delivering a consistent effort. He’s a large individual at 6-foot-4 and 330 pounds, known as a heavy run-stuffer who makes it hard on teams to move the ball up the middle. We’ll be on the lookout to see what kind of reps he gets on a defensive interior that still includes Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler.
DB Terrence Brooks
Brooks will call New Egland his fourth home after spending his first five NFL seasons with the Ravens, Eagles, and Jets. He’s been a core special teams player at every stop and got $1.3 million guaranteed from the Patriots. His presence could put special teams cornerstones like Nate Ebner, Brandon King, and Jonathan Jones on notice.
But the Pats also need to replace Albert McLellan and Ramon Humber, two special teams mainstays from the second half of 2018. So Brooks could simply slide in to their spots. We’ll keep an eye on how the Patriots deploy their personnel in kick & punt return drills, but it’ll be hard to gauge as long as Ebner is on the PUP list.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.