OTAs begin next week for the Patriots and with training camp starting in July it is an opportune time to discuss some key position battles that will be fun to watch this summer.
Lead-Running Back: James White v. Mike Gillislee v. Rex Burkhead
Either of these backs can win the starting job in the Patriots backfield. James White, the SuperBowl 51 hero, recently signed a contract extension and is in a great position to be the lead back this season as we head into OTAs. This is because of his knowledge of the offense combined with his ability to run the ball hard and run routes like a receiver while catching the ball with ease.
Newly acquired backs Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead will look to prove their ability to learn the offense, carry the load and be all-around backs that the Patriots love to utilize in different ways. As of now, Gillislee looks to be the front-runner to win the starting job as the lead back and would be used primarily on first, second downs and short yardage situations. He runs with a combination of both power and speed that makes him a very tough tackle and that showed last year while averaging 5.7 yards per rush.
Rex Burkhead has been a backup behind both Jeremy Hill and Giovanni Bernard for the Bengals and I am sure does not want to be the no.3 option (again) for the Patriots. Expect Burkhead to work and compete very hard to be the starting running back. He was given the opportunity to start last season for the Bengals and played lights out. He rushed for over 100 yards and 2 touchdowns. Burkhead also caught 2 passes for 25 yards which showed his versatility as a pass option. Burkhead can win the starting job if he can prove he can consistently perform at that level.
No. 3 Tight End: James O’Shaughnessy v. Matt Lengel v. Jacob Hollister
Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen provide a solid 1-2 combination for the Patriots and if both can stay healthy should have very productive seasons. Keyword “healthy.” Both Gronkowski and Allen have missed games due to injury last season and therefore could potentially miss some games this season so it will be important to have a solid third option.
The Patriots may only carry three tight ends on the official roster so it will be stingy competition to see who will be the third tight end.
Matt Lengel was the no. 2 tight end after Gronkowski went on IR and will look to build off last season after catching his first career TD. Lengel is a tall, big, athletic player at 6 feet 7 inches and 267 lbs. and fits the mold for a Patriots tight end who can both run routes and block, which makes him a clear favorite as of now.
Then comes James O’Shaughnessy who the Patriots acquired via trade along with a 6th round pick from the Chiefs for a 5th rounder. O’Shaughnessy is not as good of a blocking tight end as Gronkowski or Allen but he can be used to stretch the seams, has good hands, and could be used as a red-zone threat. If the Patriots can find out how to utilize him in the passing game then he may be able to find his way onto the roster and contribute. He will have to beat out another good receiving tight end first though.
That brings us to priority undrafted free agent signee Jacob Hollister out of Wyoming.
Hollister has a ton of athleticism and receiving ability that can allow him to be a tough matchup for opposing defenses. He will not be asked to block much but can run crisp routes, stretch the seam, and can be lined up in multiple ways on offense. If Hollister can make enough plays consistently during camp and show he can keep up as a rookie I would not be surprised if he beat out both Lengel and O’Shaughnessy or finds his way onto the roster. At the very least he will be a strong candidate for the practice squad.
No. 4 Cornerback/Slot Corner: Cyrus Jones v. Justin Coleman v. Jonathan Jones
Perhaps the most exciting battle to look forward to, the no. 4 cornerback spot. The top three options at corner for the Patriots defense are solid with Malcolm Butler, Stephon Gilmore, and Eric Rowe. When offenses decide to use four receivers is where things are still up in the air.
Cyrus Jones is entering his second season in the NFL and is looking to redeem himself after his disappointing rookie season. The expectations remain high for the former Crimson Tide second round draft pick, as they should. He will once again be expected to contribute on defense and be returning kicks for the Patriots. Jones has a ton of talent and will look to flourish in his second year and prove he belongs contributing at cornerback. He will have a tough task with the two other players he is competing against.
Justin Coleman is another strong candidate to be the fourth cornerback for the Patriots. Justin produced mostly on special teams last year and when called upon also on defense. The DB is quick as evidenced by his 6.61-second 3-cone drill, best at the 2015 draft combine. He’s provided good run support from the corner position. With a strong camp, Coleman may be able to win the job as the fourth cornerback and be valuable depth at a crucial position.
This leaves us with Jonathan Jones and this is another player entering his second season in the NFL but he was undrafted out of Auburn. The Patriots gave him an opportunity and he ran with it. He made an impact mostly on special teams but also on defense and even a team-high three special teams tackles in the AFC championship. Jones is also a smaller corner but shows the willingness and strong ability to tackle as well as quick feet and speed to stick with receivers and compete for the ball. This is a good opportunity for him and if he wins this roster battle it will only further secure his position on the team.
Thank you, now we are on to more sports talk.