About 48 hours from now, the New England Patriots open their preseason schedule by playing host to the Washington Redskins.
Eighty-nine players currently comprise New England’s roster, but that figure will be sliced nearly in half to the 53-man unit still kicking around Foxboro come the team’s season opener against the Houston Texans on Sept. 9.
Battles that have taken place thus far in training camp have shed at least a little light on who figures to still be standing on the depth chart by the time final cuts are announced. Here’s a look at five positional battles still in progress for the Patriots as temperatures soared into the 90s on Tuesday.
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Already things have started to sort themselves out at the logjam here following the release of Jordan Matthews and Malcolm Mitchell.
That said, it remains unsettled and then some beyond Chris Hogan and Julian Edelman, the latter of whom is suspended for the first four games of the regular season.
Veteran Eric Decker was a full participant for the first time in Tuesday’s practice, officially putting his name into the ring along with Philip Dorsett, Cordarrelle Patterson, Kenny Britt, Devin Lucien, Riley McCarron, Braxton Berrios and Paul Turner.
Dorsett has stood out through two weeks of training camp, developing a rapport with quarterback Tom Brady that simply didn’t exist during his first season in Foxboro. Though he had only 12 catches last season, Dorsett, 25, believes he now has New England’s complex playbook down pat.
“I feel a lot more comfortable now,” the fourth-year pro said. “Even just going into the spring I was comfortable. After going the whole season, week-by-week learning the playbook, I’ve pretty much got it down pat. I just tried to build on it once I got to the spring and once I got to camp. Just keep building, keep getting better every day.”
Britt didn’t join the Patriots until mid-December last season and after catching just two passes from Brady in three games, was a healthy scratch for the duration of the postseason. He began camp on the PUP list and while he’s since been removed, Britt was limited during Tuesday’s practice.
Patterson should make the team no problem as a kick returner – in addition to other special teams duties – but is this the year he finally shows off the talent that made him a first-round pick in 2013? Patterson has topped 30 or more catches in four of his five NFL seasons, but is yet to go over 500 yards receiving for a year.
Decker, Berrios, Lucien, McCarron and Turner appear to be battling for a single spot, no more than two given Edelman’s status in September. There’s no question Decker’s credentials lap the rest of the group combined, but given his age (31) and late arrival to the scene, the next two weeks feel crucial for the former Bronco, Jet and Titan.
“It’s early,” Decker said when asked what Patriots fans could expect from him this year. “Again, trying to come in, trying to get to know my teammates, be a good teammate. Obviously work hard, know my role, my position – earn one and let it develop from there. I just hope to get an opportunity to play and help this team win.”
From the first day of training camp, Trent Brown stepped in with a group resembling the starting offensive line at left tackle. He hasn’t stepped back since, and the first team-issued depth chart of the season seems to confirm what had been assumed: the 6-foot-8, 380-pound Brown will be protecting Tom Brady’s blindside in Week 1.
That’s not to say any of the other candidates to fill Nate Solder’s void are losers in this situation, a group including LaAdrian Waddle, Isaiah Wynn and Matt Tobin.
Marcus Cannon, the team’s projected starter at right tackle, left practice early on Aug. 1 and hasn’t returned since. Though the injury reportedly isn’t serious and is unrelated to last year’s ankle injury that cost him the final eight games of the regular season plus playoffs, Cannon is still 30 years old.
Waddle has the ability to play both left and right tackle – he did it well in 2017 before getting hurt himself – while Wynn was the No. 23 overall pick in April’s draft. There looks to be plenty of opportunity for each player come the regular season, with those roles still to be determined.
No. 2 Cornerback
Though replacing him won’t be nearly as mysterious as what precipitated his departure from New England, the competition to fill Malcolm Butler’s old job looks wide open.
Stephon Gilmore is the team’s bona fide No. 1 cornerback, that much is clear. Starting opposite him – as well as who will fill in a slot corner role – remains very much up for grabs.
Eric Rowe, now with two seasons in New England under his belt, is listed as the starter opposite Gilmore on the team’s website. Others in the mix include Jason McCourty and a glutton of youngsters in Ryan Lewis, J.C. Jackson, Duke Dawson, Jonathan Jones and Cyrus Jones.
Lewis spent the bulk of last season on the practice squad for the Patriots, while Jackson was signed as an undrafted free agent in May. Dawson was New England’s second-round pick in April.
Each of the Jones’ were activated off PUP on Thursday. Jonathan Jones has the ability to play corner but is of equal value as a core special teamer, while Cyrus Jones’ last gasp looks to be more as a punt returner than a defender.
Counting reps at the Patriots’ preseason opener on Thursday at cornerback should definitely make for an interesting exercise.
Just when it appeared Belichick was ready to head into 2017 with three quarterbacks, he spun Jacoby Brissett to the Indianapolis Colts for Dorsett five days shy of the season opener.
The Patriots have kept three quarterbacks for a full season only twice in the last 10: 2011 and 2016 – you may recall Deflategate necessitating that two years ago.
The candidates this year are Brian Hoyer, Brady’s understudy from 2009-11 and again for the second half of last season, or one of the team’s seventh-round draft picks from April in Danny Etling.
Finances are always a consideration, but in the worst-case scenario permutation in which Brady gets hurt, Hoyer could still help the Patriots stay competitive, a la Matt Cassel in 2008. Etling still looks raw, though hardly a lost cause. He was 19 for 29 in 11-on-11s Tuesday but was picked off by Dont’a Hightower at one point. If Belichick could stash Etling on the practice squad for a year, that could be the best outcome for all involved.
Admittedly, it’s hard to gauge a frontrunner in the faceoff between incumbent Ryan Allen and newcomer Corey Bojorquez. Just know that Allen initially gained the punter’s job in 2013 in the same fashion Bojorquez is attempting to do: he signed with the team as an undrafted free agent and beat out Zoltan Mesko, whom the team had used a fifth-round draft pick on in 2010.
If it comes down to experience, advantage Allen, to state the obvious. If it comes down to finances, Allen is slated to make $2 million this season, the final year of his contract. Bojorquez is due only a base salary of $480,000 and would cost nothing if released. That’s nearly identical to the cap hit New England would take should it cut Allen ($500,000). Usage of each player in the preseason games will be the biggest tell.