Cyrus Jones could contribute on defense and special teams as a rookie. (Joe Murphy/Getty Images)
Training camp is still a ways off — roughly three months — but with the moves the Patriots have made this spring in free agency and the draft, the lines have been draw for some clear positional battles. At this point on the calendar, here’s our pick for the top 5 positional battles looming in Foxboro:
Outside wide receiver: Draft picks Malcolm Mitchell and Devin Lucien join an already crowded picture on the outside, as they are added to a conversation that includes (in no particular order) Nate Washington, Keshawn Martin and Aaron Dobson, as well as back-end-of-the-roster types like Chris Harper. Complicating things are the versatility of guys like veteran Danny Amendola and newcomer Chris Hogan, two pass-catchers who have also spent time inside and outside the numbers over the course of their careers. With the departure of Brandon LaFell this past offseason, the opportunities will be there for someone to make an impact as a moderate to occasional deep threat in the receiving game. It’ll be interesting to see who steps up over the course of the spring and summer sessions to claim the gig.
Nickel corner: The Patriots put several different candidates through their paces at this position last year, but never really seemed to find a long-term solution. (Frequently, New England relied on the position versatility of the likes of Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung and Duron Harmon as safeties in coverage, which managed to offset some of the issues.) The selection of Cyrus Jones will put him smack dab in the middle of the action this spring, and given his body of work, his pedigree and his skill set, it suggests he could have the inside track on a handful of other candidates. (As a collegian, Jones also has experience on the outside. That, as well as his special teams value, make him one to watch this spring.) Justin Coleman and E.J. Biggers could be the primary competition for Jones at the position.
Backup defensive end: The likelihood is that the Patriots will utilize Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard as the primary end-of-the-line edge types, but there will be some chances to fill in at that spot as a backups. Newcomer Frank Kearse and youngsters Geneo Grissom, Trey Flowers and Rufus Johnson will all square off in the fight for playing time to serve as the primary backups. One of our favorites in this fight is Johnson, an intriguing but raw prospect who flashed all sorts of potential before he went on season-ending injured reserve last year.
Backup/swing tackle: So everyone thinks that the Patriots will go out and get a tackle to help shore things up off the edge. Wrong! New England will roll into the year with Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer as the primary tackles, but barring a last-minute addition via the bargain basement, they’ll choose one or more to serve as backups at the spot: La Adrian Waddle, Cameron Fleming or Marcus Cannon. (According to offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, rookie Joseph Thuney could be an emergency tackle if needed.) Based on how the Patriots finished 2015, the belief is that Waddle should get every chance to compete for the job, provided he’s healthy enough.
Kick/punt returner: Jones has kick and punt return skills on his resume (in 2012 and 2014 at Alabama, he returned a combined 14 kicks and averaged 23.4 yards per return), and so he could be just the sort of dependable presence who could take some of the workload off the likes of Amendola and Julian Edelman. If they want to give the rookie a shot there, training camp should be a pretty good indicator of Jones’ potential readiness as a returner. If he’s one of the first guys on the field working with special teams coach Joe Judge and the JUGS gun, that could be a sign the team will be asking him to take some return reps. (Edelman went through a similar routine when he was a rookie in 2009.) From a big picture perspective, Amendola, Edelman and Martin were the primary punt returners last year, while Martin and Amendola led the team in kick return attempts. Expect that same group to vie for both jobs in 2016.