Candidates: Spencer Larsen and Tony Fiammetta
The Patriots went after the fullback position in free agency, which shows me they are going to add another dimension to the offense this year. I believe Josh McDaniels is going to utilize more screens passes than we’ve seen in recent years and with the Patriots personnel thats a good thing. I can’t see anyway the Patriots keep two fullbacks and all four running backs we discussed earlier so there is one roster spot for two players.
Larsen and Fiammetta are two different players. Larsen is the more versatile player. He can catch the ball out of the backfield, play special teams and be an effective lead blocker. Fiammetta is more of the traditional fullback. He earned the reputation last year as one of the best lead blockers in football and was vital to the Cowboys running game. When he went down the Cowboys running attack suffered.
In my opinion you have to give the edge right now to Spencer Larsen. Not only can he play special teams, which is vital to making the Patriots, but he also has experience in Josh McDaniels offense, which is a big advantage.
How it plays out: Spencer Larsen
Candidates: Dan Connolly and Dan Koppen
Both Connolly and Koppen were unrestricted free agents entering the off-season and I didn’t think there was anyway both players would be back with the Patriots. Both players received multi-year deals with a good amount of money to sign, so it’s likely to be an open competition to win the starting center job.
When Koppen went down week one last year, Dan Connolly stepped in an the offense didn’t miss a beat. Connolly played very well, he held up in both run and pass blocking and showed he can shotgun snap. Koppen is going to have to win the job back from Connolly, which is not a long shot.
Koppen has been a solid and steady player throughout his time with the Patriots. He doesn’t have experience playing any other position, so he doesn’t provide the position versatility that Connolly does. The coaching staff might decided that the team is better with Connolly being the back-up because of his ability to play both guard and center.
The Patriots have been known to rotate offensive lineman and Connolly has shown his value when injuries have popped up the past two seasons. Both Koppen and Connolly are solid options at center and both will have to battle it out in camp.
How it plays out: Dan Connolly gets the nod right now, Koppen will have to win it back.
Defensive End/OLB/Edge Rusher
Candidates: Chandler Jones, Jermaine Cunningham, Trevor Scott, Jake Bequette and Markell Carter
No position will be watched as closely or a scrutinized in camp this year than the edge pass rush position. The Patriots possess an interesting young group of pass rushers this year and there is a chance that all five of the players mentioned make the team in a varying capacity. Who will receive the most playing time?
Let’s start with Chandler Jones. He is a lock to make the roster and he will garner the most attention. Patriot fans have been longing for Bill Belichick to trade up in the first round and draft a pass rusher and he finally did it. Jones will be given every opportunity to make an immediate impact. Jones is at his best when he has his hand in the ground. He will have to learn how to play on his feet a little bit better, but he should at least make an impact on passing downs. His long wingspan is a weapon that the Patriots have lacked in the past.
No player faces a bigger “make or break” training camp than Jermaine Cunningham. Cunningham was a favorite of Bill Belichick coming out of Florida in 2010 and was over-drafted by about two rounds. Cunningham flashed some pass rush ability in 2010, but last season was a complete waste. Cunningham was injured most of the season and barely saw the field at all. In fact he registered only ONE assisted tackle all season, which came in the Jets game.
With two high draft picks spent on players at the same position as well as free agent Trevor Scott being brought in, Cunningham is going to have to prove he can play football. While he may never live up to the 2nd round billing, if he can provide some situational pass rush he could see the field and make an impact. If he fails to improve this off-season, he could be the next 2nd round pick to be cut early in his Patriots career.
Each position battle appears to have at least one wild card player, who could either steal a roster spot from a veteran or one who could emerge as a key contributor. At DE/OLB the wild card player for me is Trevor Scott. Scott was signed as an UFA from the Oakland Raiders. Scott’s career got off to a very promising start totaling 12.5 sacks in his first two seasons. He then tore his ACL in November of 2010 and wasn’t the same player last season. Scott is now two years removed from the injury and should be ready to make an impact.
I am looking for Scott to play a similar role to what Mark Anderson did last year. Someone who can start off as a situational pass rusher and possibly earn more and more playing time.
Jake Bequette and Markell Carter will also battle it out for playing time. Bequette was a productive pass rusher at Arkansas and showed at the Senior Bowl and combine that he has the ability to play on his feet. While Carter, a 6th round draft pick in 2011 out of Central Arkansas spent last season on the Practice Squad and putting on playing weight.
How it plays out: Chandler Jones, Jake Bequette, Trevor Scott and Markell Carter all make it. I believe if healthy Jermaine Cunningham makes it as well.
Candidates: Devin McCourty, Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling, Alfonzo Dennard, Sterling Moore, Will Allen
No position on the Patriots roster was a bigger disappointment last year than the corner backs. Devin McCourty took a major step backwards after and All-Pro season as a rookie. Ras-I Dowling who looked very good for two weeks essentially missed the whole season. The long bright spot was Kyle Arrington who tied for the NFL lead in interceptions and the emergence of Sterling Moore down the stretch and in the playoffs.
The Patriots as of right now have about six corner backs who could end up starting a game. I believe that Devin McCourty is going to be given every opportunity to regain the #1 CB job. McCourty returning to 2010 form is going to be a huge key entering the 2012 season not only for the secondary, but for the entire Patriots defense.
If McCourty is the #1 CB, I would give the inside track to Kyle Arrington for the #2 spot. He was the most consistent performer last season and was one of the few reliable secondary players. Perhaps the biggest wild card on the entire roster is Ras-I Dowling. So much of this secondaries success is going to hinge on his ability to remain healthy. If Dowling is healthy he slots in as the #3 CB and everything else kind of falls in to place. If the injuries crop up again then the Patriots maybe left playing a rookie in big situations, which really cost them last year.
Sterling Moore and Alfonzo Dennard should provide nice depth as the #4-5 CB. Depth in the secondary was really the downfall last year and the Patriots have protected themselves against injuries by improving the depth this off-season. Will Allen could provide a veteran presence and can even play free safety if need be. Allen was getting reps at slot corner back during OTA’s and Bill Belichick has been a big fan of Allen’s from his days in the AFC East.
How it plays out: Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington (Starters), Ras-I Dowling (3rd), Sterling Moore (4th), Alfonzo Dennard (5th)
Starting Safety opposite Patrick Chung
Candidates: Steve Gregory, Tavon Wilson
The Safety position was the biggest revolving door last season and was really the Achilles heel of the team all season long. Patrick Chung (if healthy) is entrenched as one starter and the Patriots spent some resources to add another starter this off-season.
First, the team signed UFA Steve Gregory to a three year deal at starter money. Gregory has been a rotational player in San Diego and has been inconsistent at times. The Patriots didn’t sign Gregory to sit on the bench, so he is going to see the field a lot.
The wild card here is controversial second round pick Tavon Wilson. The Patriots used a 2nd round pick on Wilson and made him one of the top safeties drafted so he’s going to have to play.
Did Bill Belichick outsmart everyone again or did he over think the pick and reach for Wilson?. Wilson is going to be heavily scrutinized in training camp and he is going to have to prove he was worth such a high pick.
How it plays out: Steve Gregory has the inside track, but Tavon Wilson will have to play and make an impact.
One thing is certain, this is as deep a roster as the Patriots have ever had. There is competition all across the roster and it should make for a competitive training camp. There are going to be a number of good NFL players who won’t make this roster and the coaching staff is going to have to make some tough decisions. It’s going to be fun to watch.