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Three Things To Look For In Patriots Training Camp

Despite the Red Sox sitting comfortably in first place in the American League East and playing at a record setting place, the attention of New England sports fans will soon shift from Fenway Park south to Gillette Stadium when the Patriots open up Training Camp on Thursday.  All the offseason turmoil, whether real or not, will soon give way to two-a-day sessions and battles for roster spots.  Here are three things to look for heading into Training Camp.

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1.      Wide Receiver

There is no grouping with more slots up for grabs on the Patriots than the wide receiver position.  With the loss of Danny Amendola to free agency and the trade of deep threat Brandin Cooks, coupled with the absence of Julian Edelman for the first four games of the season due to his suspension for PED use, Chris Hogan is the only returning wide receiver with a virtual certainty to be on the 53-man roster when the season starts.

At least seven receivers are expected to compete for the remaining four or five roster spots after Hogan and Edelman.  (Note – while technically a wide receiver, Matthew Slater is considered a special teams player only for the purposes of this discussion).  While all bring different and valuable skill sets to the equation, none can be considered a lock to grab a roster spot. 

Former Eagle and Bill Jordan Matthews will be given a shot to replace Edelman in the slot, along with practice squad holdover Riley McCarron and sixth round draft pick (and Wes Welker clone) Braxton Berrios.  Matthews produced big numbers under Chip Kelly’s run and gun Eagles offense, and should have the inside track in the early going.  Expect to see a lot of Berrios late in the first two preseason games with the other late round picks and undrafted free agents.

The players who will fill the wide out spots are just as questionable as the slot position.  If Malcolm Mitchell, who missed all of 2017 due to injury, can return to his 2016 form he should have no problem making the team due to the trust shown in him by Tom Brady in Mitchell's rookie season.  Phillip Dorsett, who was acquired last season just before the start of the regular season, and Kenny Britt, who joined the Patriots for the stretch run last season, should each benefit from a full training camp.  Britt has the size (6’-3” – 223 lbs) the Patriots have traditionally lacked in their receiver corps, but he has also had trouble staying on the field.  One other player who could push this group is former Raider Cordarelle Patterson, though his value to the team is expected to come mainly as a kick returner.

What makes the battle even more interesting is the absence of Tom Brady from OTAs during the offseason.  Brady has not had a chance to develop any rapport or confidence with these new receivers.  With the Patriots not holding a joint practice with another team during camp this year, the only chance the receivers will have to synch up with Brady will be during the four pre-season games.  The Patriots have scaled back the number of pre-season snaps Brady has taken the last several years, and with the QB ready to turn 41, that is not expected to change.  New receivers may not get a second chance to earn Brady’s trust if they suffer or drop or blow a read at the line.

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2.      Left Tackle

Arguably the second most important player in the Patriot offense is the man who protects Brady’s blind side at the left tackle spot.  Nate Solder departed in free agency and left no heir apparent to the position.  Returning offensive linemen LaAdrian Waddle and Joe Thuney will compete for the spot, along with Trent Brown (acquired via trade from the 49ers) and first round draft pick Isaiah Wynn.  

Brown is an absolute mountain of a man at 6’–8” – 355 lbs, but has played primarily at right tackle in his two plus years in the league.  Wynn lacks the size usually associated with the left tackle slot, but he played the position well in the SEC and will be given a look.  With many spots up for grabs along the O-line, a starting five may not be firmly established until well into the regular season.

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 3.      Front Seven

It was generally acknowledged that the Patriots biggest need in the offseason was to get more athletic on defense, especially at the linebacker position.  The Patriots, for whatever reason, decided to ignore that need in the NFL Draft and instead chose to bolster the defense with a pair of trades. 

The Patriots acquired veterans Danny Shelton from the Browns and Adrian Clayborn from the Falcons to shore up their defensive line.  Shelton was the 12th overall pick in the 2015 draft, and while he has been durable in his three years in the league, he has recorded only 71 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 46 games.  Although he has not lived up to being a high first round pick, he is still only 25 and could benefit from a change of scenery and a more structured regimen in New England.

Patriot fans should not get overly excited with the 9.5 sacks recorded by Clayborn in 2017.  Six of those sacks came in one game in Week 10 against a banged-up Cowboy team.  Clayborn is 30 years old and his best games are likely behind him.

One reason that may have factored into the Patriots' draft strategy may have been the number of players the Patriots expect to return from injury.  Don’t’a Hightower is the biggest name of the group, and while he is one of the only playmakers in the front seven, he has missed large chunks of playing time in each of the last two seasons due to injury.  Don't expect to see much of Hightower in the preseason.  His playing time will be managed to keep him on the field and in one piece for a playoff run.

Two other key players returning from injury are defensive linemen Vincent Valentine and linebacker Harvey Longi.  Valentine had a strong rookie season in 2016, but was lost early in training camp last year to a knee injury and missed the entire season.  He adds depth to the defensive line along with Shelton, Clayborn, and returning players Malcolm Brown, Trey Flowers, and Deatrich Wise, Jr.

Longi missed all but one game in 2017 due to a car accident.  If he can return to health in 2018, he will enter into the mix at linebacker with returners Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, and Marquis Flowers.  One out of this group needs to step up and become another playmaker that was desperately missed in the Super Bowl loss to the Eagles.

Bonus – Late Trades

Don’t be surprised if the Patriots make a significant trade at some point before the regular season begins.  Given the number of players competing for a limited number of spots at wide receiver, offensive and defensive lines, and running back, it would not be unprecedented for Bill Belichick to flip a higher priced veteran for draft picks in favor of keeping a young, less expensive player.  The Patriots did not pick up the fifth year option in the contracts for defensive lineman Shelton, Brown or Flowers, so each could be on the block.  A similar glut of players at the wide receiver and running back positions could also see a veteran traded before the team starts playing for real in September.

What NOT to Expect

Two things we can be fairly certain we will not see (or hear) once training camp starts.  The first is any appearance of dissention in the ranks between Belichick, and Brady, Rob Gronkowski, or any other player.  Each will put on their corporate face and claim there is no problem. 

The second is any talk at all about the benching of Malcolm Butler in last year’s Super Bowl.  The media will no doubt ask the question of all returning players, but the company line will be “we're not talking about last year and we are focused on this season, we’re on to 2018, yada, yada, yada”.  Rest assured this will be drilled into all players beginning at the first team meeting, and anyone who speaks otherwise may find himself clearing out his locker.

Follow Bill on Twitter @BTravers_BSoT. 

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