It’s only May, but the way the Patriots roster is starting to shape up, there are going to be some intriguing positional battles that will loom this spring and summer in New England. Here’s an early look at what should be the best:
Running back: Brandon Bolden vs. LeGarrette Blount. We’re going to leave Stevan Ridley out of this one, because any running back who rushes for 1,263 yards in a season before the age of 24 has won the starting job, as far as we’re concerned. (In fact, the only back in Patriots history who had a better season before the age of 24 was Curtis Martin, who ended up with 1,487 yards in 1995 at the age of 22.) In addition, Shane Vereen will be primarily working as the third-down back and Leon Washington will show his value primarily on special teams, which leaves the two bruisers fighting for time behind Ridley as backups.
First, Blount: As a rookie in 2010, the 6-feet, 247-pounder (247 pounds? Yikes) rushed for a career-best 1,007 yards on 201 carries, adding six touchdowns. However, his production has dropped off dramatically over the last two seasons, to a point where he had 151 yards on 41 carries this past season in Tampa Bay. If he has anything left in the tank -- and it’s reasonable to assume that he does, given the fact that he’s only 26 and had just 41 carries last year -- he will almost certainly be the in the mix in 2013.
Second, Bolden: The undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss had one terrific game (he rushed for 137 yards in Buffalo against the Bills), but wasn’t used much late in the season for several reasons, including a four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances as well as the emergence of Ridley as an elite back. The Patriots saw value in the chance to acquire Blount, but he can now serve as insurance if the 5-foot-11, 220-pound Bolden starts to feel too comfortable in his position.
X receiver: Aaron Dobson, Donald Jones, Josh Boyce, Mike Jenkins. This spot is wide open for several reasons, including that fact that the Patriots have struggled to fill this position in the offense the last few years. (They thought they had someone who could be that guy in Brandon Lloyd, but that didn’t work out.) Into the mix come four new faces, but it’s clear that if Dobson shows he’s ready, he should get the bulk of the snaps at the position -- he certainly has the skill set, the physical presence and pretty much everything else you look for in an X receiver at the professional level. Jones is an intriguing prospect who could add depth to the spot, while Boyce and Jenkins likely round out the depth chart at this point.
Defensive tackle opposite Vince Wilfork: Kyle Love, Armond Armstead, Tommy Kelly. If the Patriots show a four-man front with Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich at the ends and Wilfork in the middle, the big fella needs someone to play opposite of him. Last season a variety of players rotated through, including Brandon Deaderick and Love. (According to Pro Football Focus, Love played 592 snaps while Deaderick had 468 snaps.) Deaderick is gone, which should give something of an edge to Love, as he’s the only established vet who has playing time in the New England system.
However, newcomers Armstead and Kelly will provide some serious competition. Armstead is a CFL export who brings some pass rushing skills to the table (he had six sacks last season with Toronto) while Kelly is a veteran defensive lineman who has also shown an ability to get after the passer. (He had a combined 14.5 sacks in 2011 and 2010.)
While Love is probably the leader in the clubhouse for playing time at this point, Armstead and Kelly can certainly make a case to be situational players who are part of sub-packages on third down and other passing circumstances. In a perfect world, if you’re the Patriots, Armstead gives you the interior pass-rushing presence New England has lacked since Mike Wright left, while Kelly would follow the template put forth by another former Raider, Gerard “Big Money” Warren, who was very good as part of a rotation in 2010 and 2011 with the Patriots.
(UPDATE, 5:15 p.m.: Love was released by the Patriots Wednesday afternoon, which means that Armstead and Kelly now have the inside track on the job.)
Backup defensive ends: Jake Bequette, Jermaine Cunningham, Justin Francis, Jamie Collins, Michael Buchanan. Whether you want to call them defensive ends or end-of-the-line players, no one is going to displace Jones and Ninkovich as the primary edge guys. They work well together, and as we saw at several points over the course of the 2012 season, they have shown a positional versatility that allows them to flip sides on occasion. However, there’s an intriguing mix of young players who can offer depth at the spot, as well as the occasional ability to see some significant snaps.
Francis is likely at the head of the line at this point -- he saw some serious action down the stretch when Jones went down with an ankle injury, and while he was uneven at times, flashed positively enough to warrant consideration as the No. 1 backup right here. Bequette essentially took a redshirt year as a rookie, but showed enough pass rushing ability as a collegian (he had 23.5 sacks at Arkansas) where he should at least get some consideration. Rookies Collins and Buchanan will be worked into the mix slowly, and while Collins showed plenty of potential as a pass rusher in his last two years in college (he had 16.5 sacks in his last two years as a collegian), his versatility may allow him to fill another need, at least as a rookie.
Speaking of versatility, Cunningham spent some quality time as an interior pass rusher last season, and could also prove to be a factor again this season as a situational player on the inside and outside.
Strong safety: Adrian Wilson, Steve Gregory, Duron Harmon, Tavon Wilson. A really interesting spot that will invite scrutiny over the spring and summer months. Wilson is unlike any safety the Patriots have acquired under Bill Belichick in that he’s built like a linebacker. Depending on how much he still has left in the tank, he could be called upon to play the “money” position in the Patriots defense on occasion, where he would fundamentally work as an extra linebacker.
His primary competition at the spot -- at least right now -- figures to be Gregory, who formed a really good pairing with free safety Devin McCourty down the stretch. It’s important to remember that Belichick likes his safeties to be able to play both safety spots, and Gregory has that experience at both safety positions (he’s also played some cornerback). That versatility could come into play if the Patriots wanted to use Wilson as an extra linebacker on occasion.
As a rookie, Harmon will likely be asked to make his primary contributions on special teams (alongside fellow defensive back/special teamers like Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner). Like most of the rest of the safeties, he also has some versatility in that he played both safety spots as a collegian. Meanwhile, Wilson is likely in a spot where he will be asked to provide depth, at least to start. He saw some quality snaps last year as a rookie, but when the Patriots acquired Aqib Talib in November, they moved McCourty back to safety, and as a result, Wilson’s playing time dropped off substantially.