It’s just about that time of year again. Training camp is days away, and this year’s Patriots training camp will be among the most competitive the team has had in the Bill Belichick era.
Position battles are always the highlight of camp. Of course, the Patriots have a major one set for the starting quarterback job between 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton and rookie first-round pick Mac Jones. While that competition should and will get plenty of attention, it’s hardly the only one on the roster.
Putting the Newton/Jones battle to the side for a moment, there are other consequential jobs to be won on the roster. What spots should fans be keeping an eye on heading into camp? Let’s take a look.
While the Newton/Jones battle will draw the most attention, it’s not the only one among the quarterbacks. Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer are likely competing for the third quarterback spot, and heading into camp it feels like a toss up.
Of course, Stidham offers both youth and upside. Even though Mac Jones is the Patriots’ future right now, they’ll still need a backup going forwards with Newton and Hoyer on one-year contracts. Plus, if Jones is slow to develop, he gives them another young QB to work with.
It’s been just two years since the Patriots used a fourth-round pick on Stidham. He showed some flashes of ability in minimal action last year, and it may have been enough to convince the team it’s too soon to give up on their investment.
That’s not to say Hoyer doesn’t offer his advantages. Namely, he’s an ideal mentor for Mac Jones, and anything that helps Jones become a better player in the long run should ultimately be viewed as a primary option, even if it may be less advantageous in the short term.
Of course, there’s the possibility the Patriots keep just two quarterbacks. However, that could prove to be costly, especially when it comes to Jones’ development. If Stidham or Hoyer are not on the roster to run the scout team, the responsibility will initially fall on Jones, assuming Newton is named the Week 1 starter. If Jones is busy trying to mimic other teams’ playbooks and other quarterbacks’ styles, he’ll have less time to focus on his own development. That could be prevented by adding a quarterback to the practice squad, but both Stidham and Hoyer bring a chemistry element an outside QB wouldn’t.
Stidham opening camp on PUP means we may have to wait for this battle to really get going. But once he’s back, remember to watch all four quarterbacks, not just the top two.
Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor, and Kendrick Bourne should be the Patriots’ top three receivers this season, pending any injuries. For a team that projects to be heavy on two WR sets, they’ll get the bulk of the usage. Gunner Olszewski is also a lock to make the roster as an All-Pro punt returner, and as he did last year will add depth as a pass catcher.
That likely leaves one spot remaining in the wide receiver room. There’s a number of players who will push for it, and each brings something different to the table. N’Keal Harry would likely be the favorite heading into camp, but his trade request takes him out of consideration, at least for now.
Isaiah Zuber is somebody in perfect position to capitalize on Harry’s potential departure. As we saw briefly last season when he was elevated from the practice squad, Zuber can maneuver in the open field, and opens the door for gadget plays on offense. On top of that, he brings kick return experience from college, and the team is looking to fill that role as well (more on that in a bit).
This spring, Zuber showed refined route running skills, and looked more polished overall as a receiver. If he can keep that up, and contribute on special teams, it will be hard for Bill Belichick to leave him off the roster.
Devin Ross is another player to watch. He was with the team in training camp last year and had a strong summer, but just missed the final roster. Perhaps this year, with preseason games to prove himself, he can get over the hump.
Kristian Wilkerson and rookie Tre Nixon could be factors here as well. Wilkerson popped as a rookie in Titans camp last year, and was added to the Patriots’ practice squad in September. Meanwhile, Nixon would provide the team with another field stretcher, and could be used to spell Agholor if/when needed.
Like at quarterback, there’s always the possibility that the Patriots simply don’t fill this role, and only keep four receivers. That’s not completely out of the question, especially given the depth at tight end. If Olszewski proves to be a more polished receiver in year three, the team may lean instead towards keeping a player like Dalton Keene on the roster over an extra receiver.
With Dont’a Hightower returning as the starting MIKE linebacker, the position is already in a much better place than it was last year. Behind Hightower, there’s some competition brewing.
Ja’Whaun Bentley is the presumptive favorite for the immediate backup role. He started in that spot last year when healthy, and is one of the more experienced depth linebackers on the team. However, Bentley is in the final year of his deal, and if another player steps up, his trade value (on a team that needs roster spots wherever they can find them) may exceed his roster value.
The group of players chasing Bentley for depth spots all bring tremendous versatility to the table. Terez Hall, who filled in for Bentley at times last year, doesn’t have the prototypical size of a Patriots middle linebacker, but he’s not exactly small at 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, and can lower the boom at the point of contact. He also offers more sideline-to-sideline range.
Then there’s free agent signing Raekwon McMillan. A second-round pick out of Ohio State in 2017, injuries have slowed McMillan down at times in his career but he’s still managed to be effective, recording 177 tackles in his first 29 games. Like Hall, he brings more athleticism to the position. He also has plenty of special teams experience.
Finally, Chase Winovich could factor into this conversation. He likely won’t displace any of the players mentioned above, but he may work himself into the rotation. Winovich is primarily an edge rusher, but given the depth at that spot he may need to demonstrate added positional versatility to lock up his place on the roster. His best game last season came against the Baltimore Ravens, when he was used as a middle linebacker often. It would make sense for the team to try him in that spot again in camp.
Getting Stephon Gilmore back in the building before camp begins is a huge development, even if he begins the season on PUP. This battle was nearly for a starting job, although it still may be if Gilmore isn’t ready to start the season.
For the past three years, the Patriots have had Jason McCourty to spell Gilmore and J.C. Jackson as the team’s outside corners. That group, plus slot corner Jon Jones, was one of the best in football, and it was an impressive feat to keep them together as long as the Patriots did in the salary cap era.
But after McCourty left for Miami in free agency, the Patriots never brought in a true replacement. He played 65 percent of the team’s defensive snaps last season that now need to be replaced internally. That leaves the Patriots looking for, in the best case scenario, a new third outside cornerback to keep Gilmore and Jackson rested, which could grow into a bigger role if Gilmore can’t go.
Due to the unprecedented depth at outside corner over the last few years, 2019 second-round pick Joejuan Williams hasn’t played many meaningful snaps for the Patriots. Now that the depth chart has thinned out a bit, he will have a chance to show why he was a top-50 pick.
At 6-foot-3, 212 pounds, Williams is built like a prototypical Patriots corner. In his limited role covering tight ends last season, he showed he’s not afraid to play physically like a Patriots corner either. If he can show consistency throughout camp and into the preseason, he should be the guy here.
Michael Jackson Sr. will likely also get a look at this spot. Acquired from the Lions for a conditional seventh-round pick last August, he spent most of the season on the Patriots’ practice squad before being elevated to the active roster for the final game of the season. Jackson is another big corner, but with only four NFL snaps under his belt over his two-year career, it’s harder to project what he’ll bring to the table.
Beyond Williams and Jackson, the Patriots could try moving guys from other positions to the outside spot. The obvious option here is Jalen Mills, who began his NFL career as an outside corner before moving to safety in 2020. But maximizing Mills’ ability means moving him all around the defense, which wouldn’t happen if Gilmore is out and he’s locked in as the second outside cornerback. Myles Bryant played outside in college, but has been primarily a slot corner and safety in the pros. This is a likely spot for an in-camp or post-camp signing to come into play.
For the later part of the 2010’s, it wasn’t uncommon to see the Patriots’ defense in a three-safety look, with Duron Harmon joining Devin McCourty on the back end, while Patrick Chung played in the box. The team is well-equipped to handle Chung’s retirement, but never truly replaced Harmon after trading him to the Lions last spring.
In 2020, the Patriots used cornerbacks out of position in that role, namely Jason McCourty, who is now in Miami. That once again opens up snaps on the back end of the defense.
Late in the season, Myles Bryant started seeing more time as a deep safety, and showed some promise. There were certainly teachable moments, but his progression will be something to watch for as camp begins.
As mentioned above, Jalen Mills should see snaps all over the field in 2021, so expect him to factor into the deep safety rotation in some way. According to ESPN, Mills was the only player in the NFL last season to line up at all seven pre-snap defensive back locations last year, but his second-most common spot was at deep safety, behind only box safety.
In the spirit of versatility, Kyle Dugger shouldn’t be left out of the equation here either. Dugger excelled playing in the box last year, and for the most part will likely stay there in 2021. But with Mills and Adrian Phillips being able to play that role as well, Dugger can be rotated deep when needed without a drop off in the box.
When it came to special teams last year, the Patriots’ kick return unit didn’t quite reach the level of the other elements of the kicking game. Gunner Olszewski proved to be an All-Pro punt returner, but neither he nor any other players displayed the same explosiveness as kick returners.
As mentioned above, Olszewski’s development as a receiver is worth keeping an eye on this summer, but so is his development as a kick returner. If he can match his kick return skills to hit punt return skills, that may even provide more value to the team than he would in the passing game.
If Olszewski isn’t the answer, expect the team to cast a wide net to find the guy. Running back J.J. Taylor and safety Kyle Dugger both got chances to return kicks last year as rookies, so it would make sense for the team to give them another shot and see what they learned with their experience.
Don’t rule out other wide receivers besides Olszewski either. The battle for that fifth spot, as mentioned above, will be a close one. Proving added special teams value, especially in a role that needs to be filled, could be the difference. Given Isaiah Zuber’s history as a returner in college, this could give him an upper hand.
The Patriots’ first practice of training camp will take place Wednesday morning, and will be open to the public.
Alex Barth is a writer and 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. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at abarth@985TheSportsHub.com.