The developing chemistry between Brady and Cooks is one of many camp storylines to watch. John Tlumacki/Boston Globe
Happy training camp eve! By this time tomorrow, Patriots players will have officially reported to training camp in advance of Thursday, when this year's squad hits the practice field for the first time in front of the public. To celebrate the glorious return of football, I've gone through the roster position-by-position, with a focus on the bubble guys who could win (or lose) a roster spot in the coming weeks.
Quarterback Locks: 2 (Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo) Near locks: 1 (Jacoby Brissett) Bubble: None
There's little to see here. Brady vs Garoppolo could be an interesting discussion next offseason, but there's no debate regarding who will start in 2017. The Pats have preferred to roster only two quarterbacks in the past, but it would be shocking if they jettisoned Brissett just one season after spending a third round pick on him. The team's decision to use their IR designated to return spot on Brissett certainly hinted at their high hopes for him, and he'd represent a very important second level of depth should anything happen health-wise to one of Brady or Garoppolo.
Running back Locks: 3 (James White, Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee) Near locks: 1 (Dion Lewis) Bubble: 3 (Brandon Bolden, DJ Foster, LeShun Daniels Jr)
The big question here is how the Patriots divvy up the early down workload that was handled largely by LeGarrette Blount last season. Blount is now a Philadelphia Eagle, with free agent additions Burkhead and Gillislee the top candidates for early down work. Super Bowl hero White returns with a freshly signed contract extension that will keep him in Foxborough through the 2020 season. His emergence as the clear cut passing down favorite combined with Lewis' injury history to bump Lewis out of the locks here, but Lewis' explosive ability when healthy should keep him here for the final season of his contract. The interesting name on the bubble is DJ Foster, whose explosive quickness and potential as a return specialist and passing down back kept him on the active roster throughout his rookie season. If Foster shows enough in camp, it could prompt the team to dangle the older and more injury prone Lewis on the trade market. Brandon Bolden's special teams prowess will make him a tough guy to cut once again, while 225 pound undrafted rookie Daniels Jr gives the team another depth option for early down work.
Develin appears safe, as his return from a broken leg last season had a noticeable impact on the team's improved running game. His status as one of the best lead blocking fullbacks in football will make it tough for baby Gronk to make the roster, although he could stick on the practice squad with a strong camp.
Wide receiver Locks: 5 (Julian Edelman, Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Matthew Slater) Near locks: 1 (Danny Amendola) Bubble: 3 (Austin Carr, Devin Lucien, Cody Hollister)
Carr is a prototype Pats slot receiver, but faces an uphill battle for a spot
An already stacked position group became even more loaded this offseason with the addition of Cooks, whose pure speed should add an explosive element to this offense. With Cooks and Edelman entrenched as the clear top two here, it will be interesting to see how the rest of the targets get split up, with promising second year man Mitchell nipping at the heels of the veteran Hogan. Slater remains a lock for his leadership and special teams ability, while the trust Amendola has earned from Brady will make him tough to cut despite his advancing age and expiring contract. The numbers are working against the bubble guys, but one or even two of them could make the practice squad. Devin Lucien showed enough to stick around on said practice squad all last season, while Carr is a noteworthy undrafted rookie who excelled from the slot in college. Fellow undrafted rookie Hollister is more of a long shot, although his size (6'4") is noteworthy amongst a relatively small position group.
Tight end Locks: 2 (Rob Gronkowski, Dwyane Allen) Bubble: 4 (Matt Lengel, James O'Shaughnessy, Jacob Hollister, Sam Cotton)
There's little doubt at the top of the roster, where trade acquisition Allen replaces the departed Martellus Bennett as a versatile backup/compliment to Gronk. However, Allen comes with a nearly as troubling injury history as Gronk, making the battle for the number three spot one to keep an eye on. Lengel has the leg up experience-wise after spending much of 2016 with the Patriots. He projects as more of an early-down blocker with limited upside as a possession receiver, while trade acquisition O'Shaughnessy is more of a move tight end with some untapped pass catching potential. The competition is rounded up by undrafted rookies Hollister and Cotton, both of whom lean more towards the "athletic pass catcher" side of the tight end spectrum.
Offensive tackle Locks: 3 (Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon, Antonio Garcia) Near locks: Cameron Flemming Bubble: 5 (Connor McDermott, LaAdrian Waddle, Cole Croston, Andrew Jelks, Max Rich)
Garcia has starting upside, but can he win the swing role as a rookie?
The Patriots got excellent play from the starting duo of Solder and Cannon but still added two draft picks to this position group, likely with Solder's impending free agency in mind. As a third round pick with starting left tackle upside, Garcia is safe. In fact, it will be interesting to see whether the rookie can beat out Fleming for the swing backup role that Fleming held down capably last season. It would be surprising to see the team keep more than four tackles on the roster, which is bad news for the veteran Waddle. Waddle was beat out for the swing role last summer by Fleming and now faces steep competition for his roster spot. Sixth round pick McDermott has intriguing talent but is raw and needs plenty of coaching before he'll be a match for top NFL competition. He'd be an ideal practice squad candidate, although he could be hard to sneak through final cuts if he shows well in the preseason. The rest of the competition is rounded out by undrafted rookies Croston (Iowa), Jelks (Vanderbilt) and Rich (Harvard), each of whom will aim to show enough to stick around on the practice squad.
Offensive guard Locks: 2 (Shaq Mason, Joe Thuney) Near locks: 1 (Ted Karras) Bubble: 2 (Jamil Douglas, Jason King)
Another position where the starters are entrenched. Mason came into his own last year, particularly as a run blocker, and the Pats will look for a similar second year leap from Thuney after last years promising rookie season. Legendary line coach Dante Scarnecchia appeared to take a liking to Karras during his rookie year, which combines with his ability to fill in at center to put him on the near lock list. Douglas is an intriguing name on the bubble, as he's still only two seasons removed from being a fourth round pick. He was highly regarded as an athletic prospect in that draft (the same one that landed the Patriots Mason) but struggled mightily in spot starts with the Dolphins before being released. If he shows enough improvement, he could land the final backup job amongst the interior linemen, as his athleticism makes him a scheme-fit in New England. King, an undrafted rookie from Purdue, rounds out this competition.
Center Locks: 1 (David Andrews) Bubble: 1 (James Ferentz)
Andrews' rise from unheralded undrafted rookie to Tom Brady's preferred pivot was solidified this summer with a contract extension that runs through 2020. He's entrenched as the starter, with Iowa product James Ferentz in a battle with Karras for backup duties. Ferentz, the son of noteworthy Belichick coaching ally Kirk, spent the past two seasons in Denver, where he saw very limited playing time behind emerging star Matt Paradis. His toughness and work ethic scream Patriots, but his age (at 27, he's an old guy on this offensive line) and lack of positional versatility could make it tough for him to win a job from the younger Karras.
Defensive line (edge) Locks: 4 (Trey Flowers, Rob Ninkovich, Kony Ealy, Derek Rivers) Near locks: (1) Deatrich Wise Bubble: 1 (Geneo Grissom)
Will the Pats get a big contract season out of trade acquisition Ealy?
A good amount of turnover at this position, as Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard parlayed their Super Bowl success into solid paydays elsewhere. Many eyes will be on Flowers, who made a major leap in his second season and could blossom as a bona fide star with more playing time this year. It will be interesting to see how the Pats divvy up the snaps across from him between Ninkovich, a beloved veteran who is now 33 and coming off of a forgettable individual season, and Ealy, a super talented former second round pick whose consistency has never matched his talent level in three NFL seasons. On paper, Ealy and Flowers should be starting, with Ninkovich benefitting from a lighter workload, but much will depend on whether Ealy puts it all together in his contract season. Top draft pick Rivers is battling for a role as a sub rusher, which is likely all the Pats will put on his plate until he gains enough muscle to hold his own on rushing downs. Meanwhile, Wise will likely make it as a fourth round pick with developmental upside as an edge setting/interior rushing hybrid, albeit one who is unlikely to make a major impact as a rookie. The addition of Wise and Rivers likely means that 2015 third round pick Grissom has run out of time to develop into more than a special teams contributor, although his ability in that area will give him a fighting chance to sneak onto the back end of the roster.
Defensive line (interior) Locks: 3 (Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Vincent Valentine) Near locks: 1 (Lawrence Guy) Bubble: 4 (Woodrow Hamilton, Darius Kilgo, Josh Augusta, Adam Butler)
Unlike their counterparts on the edge, this position group saw very little turnover in the offseason. The re-signing of Branch ensured the return of the top three rotation from last year. This group was tough to run against last year, but the team will still look from continued improvement from recent high draft picks Brown and Valentine, each of whom flashed in 2016. The one noteworthy change here is the free agent signing of Lawrence Guy from Baltimore, a solid veteran brawler who can play a variety of roles and techniques up and down the line. With four likely locks, it could be tough for the bubble guys to make it. Hamilton leads the pack going in after show flashes against the run in limited rookie year snaps. The rest of group consists of Kilgo, a 2015 sixth round pick of the Broncos, and undrafted rookies Augusta and Butler, with Augusta's size (347 pounds) standing out even amongst this group of enormous humans.
Linebacker Locks: 2 (Dont'a Hightower, David Harris) Near locks: 3 (Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, Shea McClellin) Bubble: 4 (Jonathan Freeny, Harvey Langi, Trevor Bates, Brooks Ellis)
Another big time competition to watch is the fight for snaps behind the top duo of Hightower and Harris. The Patriots mixed and matched a number of different players with different skill sets following last year's midseason trade of Jamie Collins and seem poised to do so again barring one of the near lock wild card players demanding a larger role with their play. Second year man Elandon Roberts had some highlight moments as a downhill thumper against the run, but was exposed at times in pass coverage. His role could be impacted the most by the late offseason signing of Harris, who has similar strengths and limitations as a player. Van Noy and McClellin's athleticism in space led to more passing down work, but they face stiff competition this year from Langi, a versatile and physical athlete whom the Patriots made the highest paid undrafted rookie in football this year. It would surprise no one amongst the Pats beat if Langi upset one of last year's roster members for a job this summer. Veteran Jonathan Freeny was the top backup prior to losing all of last season to injury, but the additions of Van Noy, Roberts, McClellin, Harris and Langi during his time off could make earning a job tough for him this time around. The rest of the depth chart consists of Trevor Bates, a 2016 seventh round pick who was poached from the Colts practice squad late in the season, and undrafted rookie Brooks Ellis, an instinctive and productive college player whose lack of top end athleticism was concerning to scouts this spring.
Cornerback Locks: 3 (Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe) Near locks: 1 (Jonathan Jones) Bubble: 6 (Cyrus Jones, Justin Coleman, DJ Killings, Will Likely III, Dwayne Thomas, Kenny Moore)
Can Jones win the nickel corner job this summer?
The top three seems entrenched for this team, with the presence of both Gilmore and Rowe giving the team rare ability to matchup with teams that feature multiple big receivers. The question is how they'll match up with teams that feature multiple small, shifty receivers, as there's a question mark behind Malcolm Butler in that department. Second year man Jonathan Jones (he of the 4.33 speed) was manning the slot in minicamps and appears to have leap frogged fellow sophomore Cyrus Jones for the first crack at that job. His ability in coverage remains a question mark until he gets more snaps, but his job should be safe due to his excellence on special teams. The fact that Cyrus Jones is on the bubble just a year removed from being the team's top draft pick speaks to how horrendous his rookie year was. He still has the talent to win a job, but will have to prove his coverage ability after introducing a ton of doubt in his ability to contribute on special teams as a rookie. It looks like Jones will get another chance to seize the punt return job he excelled at in college, and winning that job would dramatically improve his chances in this roster crunch. If he flounders again as a returner, 2015 slot corner Justin Coleman remains on the roster as competition. The rest of the competition consists of undrafted rookies who will have to impress in their limited opportunities this summer. Based on previous level of competition faced, LSU product Thomas has the best chance to acclimate quickly in camp.
Safety Locks: 3 (Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon) Near locks: 2 (Nate Ebner, Brandon King) Bubble: 4 (Jordan Richards, Damarius Travis, David Jones, Jason Thompson)
Not much turnover here, as the offseason re-signing of Harmon ensured the top three from last season would return for another year. Their skillsets have proven to compliment each other perfectly, with Chung as more of an in the box option who can man up on tight ends and McCourty and Harmon both best utilized in deep coverage. Nate Ebner looks safe after earning a contract extension following a career season on special teams, while Brandon King remains one of the teams better special teams players as well. The biggest question mark here is the status of 2015 second round pick Jordan Richards, who has showed very little so far in his two NFL seasons. A jump from him would likely keep him around as valuable depth behind the aforementioned top three, but failure to improve could leave him vulnerable come cutting time, as he'll be competing with intriguing names at other positions with a little more depth. In his favor is the lack of new competition at safety, where the only new faces are undrafted rookies Travis, Jones and Thompson.
Special teams Locks: 3 (Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Joe Cardona)
The specialists all return with no camp competition as of now. The only question here is how Gostkowski rebounds from a sub-stardard (for him) 2016 season.
Final breakdown: 50 locks/near locks (24 offense, 23 defense, 3 special teams)