Projection of the Patriots’ most competitive positions

1 – The Patriots announced this week that training camp at Gillette Stadium will begin on July 27. That means that after a spring spent learning and developing, the fierce summer competition for rosters and roles on the 2022 New England team is just over a month away.

Heading to camp, Bill Belichick’s team has an interesting composition. There aren’t many new faces, with the majority of the roster made up of returning contributors combined with people who have been in the system for a year or more and will be trying to make their mark at this point.

With the competition now just five weeks away, we’ve been thinking about what the most competitive positions could be at the upcoming Patriots training camp.

Wide Receiver certainly has to be high on the list. The additions of veteran DeVante Parker and second-round rookie Tyquan Thornton add two guys who are likely to secure spots if healthy. Sophomore Tre Nixon looked like a spring player who will weigh in on roster talks, while veteran Ty Montgomery is a versatile option whose potential dual roles of receiver and return could be needed. Even the burly Lil’ Jordan Humphrey could join the competition as a late addition to the roster.

Add these to a corps of proven recurring contributors like Jakobi Meyers, Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor, and the recipient pool includes at least seven men worth seeing in training camp reps and preseason games.

While the receiver competition includes many experienced options, this summer’s linebacker competition could be just as hot among a group of mostly unproven, unknown candidates. Ja’Whaun Bentley is leading the court, which is undergoing a youth movement, while veteran Raekwon McMillan (ruptured ACL in 2021) and Mack Wilson (Trade signing from the Browns) have starting experience on their earlier NFL résumés. After that, the likes of Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings, Ronnie Perkins, and Cameron McGrone are a who’s who of guys with almost no NFL representatives to speak of. They will all be battling for big chances at the second tier of the Patriots defense in August.

Perhaps the competition with the most interesting mix of veteran experience and untried youth resides in the cornerback spot. With New England rising from two Pro Bowl No. 1 cornerbacks in less than a year with the trade of Stephon Gilmore and the departure of JC Jackson as a free agent, cornerback jobs are wide open. Malcolm Butler returns after a year of retirement in a possible feud with Jalen Mills for job #1. Jonathan Jones returns from injury to reclaim his slots role. Rookie draft picks Marcus Jones and Jack Jones, the latter one of the stars of spring training, are very strong in the mix. Veteran journeyman Terrance Mitchell will likely play a contributing role, while second-year trade entry Shaun Wade is a minor wildcard.

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Of course, there will be competition across the field at training camp – and in a way, across the coaching staff! – This summer at Foxborough, the battles for wide receiver, linebacker and cornerback should provide the most intriguing action for the media and fans in attendance.

2 – The average NFL career lasts just over three years, and some members of the Patriots 2020 draft class are facing the reality of short-term job security in football as they attempt to stay in New England for even a third season. While 2020 top pick Kyle Dugger has established himself as a talented, reliable option for safety who may just be entering a breakout season, the rest of this draft class is on far less stable ground. Sixth-round pick Mike Onwenu is looking to return to the grid after a year of being relegated to the reserves. Additionally, second-round linebacker Uche, third-round player Jennings, and two third-round tight ends Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene could all be fighting for their professional lives this summer without making much of a difference on the field.

3 – While members of the 2020 draft class may reach the defining moment of their careers at the 2022 training camp, some guys from the 2019 class may already be working their final days at Foxborough. While the wide receiver and cornerback positions are winnable in some ways, 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry and second-round cornerback pick Joejuan Williams don’t feel like they’re in the middle of those fights. Neither have made much of their opportunities over the past three years and, at this point, almost feel like they’re surprises to make the roster rather than being seen as surprise cuts despite their high draft status.

4 – Pro Football Focus loves to use their proprietary grades and analysis to rank pretty much anything there is to rank in terms of the NFL. One of those rankings, which appeared on the Instagram feed this week, was PFF’s rundown of the top offensive lines heading into the 2022 season. The New England New Look group, which features Ted Karras (free agent) and Shaq Mason (Trade) has lost two starting supervisors and is still the No. 7 pick in the NFL, according to the PFF. If the Patriots line of Trent Brown, first-round pick Cole Strange, David Andrews, Mike Onwenu and Isaiah Wynn is healthy, it clearly has the potential to be the foundation of offense. But the group is not without questions. Both Brown and Wynn have struggled to stay on the field in the past, while Wynn’s possible left-to-right transition needs to be kept in mind.
Strange makes a big leap into the FCS Chattanooga competition, with the left guard spot seemingly his loser. And Onwenu has played much better tackle than guard in his first two NFL seasons. Could the Patriots have one of the best lines in the NFL in 2022 as PFF suggests? Absolutely. But with limited apparent backup talent on the depth chart, the group will need to stay sane and answer a few questions to prove they’re worthy of this predicted status.

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5 – Tully Banta-Cain made his mark as a seven-round pick for the Patriots who eventually became a relatively effective NFL pass rusher. Banta-Cain had 27.5 career sacks in New England and San Francisco, including 10 for the 2009 Patriots. Now the two-time Super Bowl champion is on a whole different stage before a national TV audience. Banta-Cain is part of the NFL Players Chorus who recently sang their way to the next round of America’s Got Talent contest. The NFL Player Chorus was formed more than a decade ago. The group performs annually at the Super Bowl Gospel Celebration and sang the national anthem at the Pro Bowl in Las Vegas last winter.

6 – Coach Cam Achord’s special teams will be looking to recover this fall from a hell of a 2021 season that included too many blocked punts, too many costly penalties and overall poor play. But there’s every reason to hope that New England 2022 will bounce back a year in the kicking game. Kicker Nick Folk is back to keep his job as one of the best in the game, even if his elite status has survived the last few seasons seem to have flown a bit under the radar. Based on Spring Action Punter Jake Bailey is back to health and ready to return to the All-Pro status he achieved in 2020 with one of the best punting seasons in franchise history. Matthew Slater and Justin Bethel remain two of the better core special teamers in the league while the second leg could come to life with All-American Marcus Jones drafted. Sure, 2021 was a special team season that Achord and Belichick would probably like to forget, but Phase 3 has the potential to be a strength for New England again this year.

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7 – Size and speed are far from the only attributes that count at the receiver position, where Belichick has emphasized that players simply “have to open up and catch the football”. But it’s hard not to note the fact that the Patriots have gained significant size and speed at receiver this offseason. New England traded for the 6-3, 225-pounder Parker and then drafted the 6-2 Thornton, who ran the fastest 40 time at the NFL Combine. The receiver size trend continued last week with the addition of Humphrey, who measures at 6-4, although he doesn’t add much in terms of speed after running a 4.75 40, worst of all, at the 2019 NFL Combine present recipients Indy this year. It will be interesting to see Humphrey at the camp practice field this summer to see how he capitalizes on his size and overcomes his apparent lack of speed by joining Harry (6-4) as larger, slower receivers in the competitive mix at the position. For what it’s worth, Humphrey has averaged 18.4 yards per catch over three NFL seasons in his limited production, including 19.2 yards per catch on his 13 career highs for the Saints last year with a 56-yard haul -Long.

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