The Patriots are 10 days away from preseason game No. 1 at the Detroit Lions on Aug. 7. As the summer heat continues to swelter in the meantime, the team will continue training camp with positional battles up and down the 90-man roster that’ll ultimately be pared to 53.
The depth chart at several positions comes with a bit more intrigue than others, however. Here are the five positional battles most worth watching for New England as July turns to August:
Jarrett Stidham should have no trouble making New England’s roster as its No. 3 quarterback after it selected him in the fourth round of the draft last April. Clearly, he’s ahead of Danny Etling in that regard, given Etling’s sudden position change to wide receiver.
The biggest thing as it pertains to Stidham is whether or not he can do enough to supplant Brian Hoyer as Tom Brady’s backup, which in turn would open up a roster spot at another position. There would be no point in keeping Hoyer, 33, as a third-string quarterback who’d wind up inactive on game day. Stidham has been solid in practice so far for the Patriots, but until he does it in a game situation, there’s no telling if he could really make a run at Hoyer – or if he could factor into New England’s plans post-Brady, but that’s another story for another time.
This is Isaiah Wynn’s spot to lose. But he hasn’t been healthy enough to participate in 11-on-11 drills during practice yet, which means that if nothing else, the team is getting a good look at who its swing tackle will be beyond Wynn and right tackle Marcus Cannon.
Wynn has lined up with what would resemble the first-team offense during walk-through portions of practice. This means that Joe Thuney, one of several players who’s slid over to left tackle in training camp, likely isn’t going to make a permanent switch off of left guard that would only further complicate things on the offensive line.
Thing is, no one else vying for a backup spot behind Wynn – who himself has never taken a snap in the regular season – comes with much NFL experience. Cole Croston, Dan Skipper, Yondy Cajuste, Tyree St. Louis, Tyler Gauthier and Cedrick Lang have combined to appear in six NFL games. Croston has spent the bulk of the last two seasons on New England’s practice squad, giving him a slight leg up on the others, but there is still all sorts of laundry to sort out when it comes to the protection of a 42-year-old quarterback’s blindside.
Wide Receiver After Julian Edelman
I don’t think this is a dire situation at wide receiver, but it warrants mentioning that the only sure thing in Edelman – currently on the non-football injury list – is the third-oldest receiver currently under contract in the NFL.
There are enough guys with a pulse beyond Edelman between rookie N’Keal Harry, Phillip Dorsett, Braxton Berrios, Maurice Harris, Dontrelle Inman and eventually, Demaryius Thomas or Josh Gordon, that Tom Brady won’t be completely hung out to dry like he was at times in 2018.
Figuring out how the pieces line up is another matter entirely. Harris, who spent the first three years of his career in the NFL purgatory that is Washington, D.C., has flashed a bit in terms of developing a rapport with Brady early on. Can Harry do what so few wide receivers drafted by the Patriots through the years do and get on the same page as Brady early on? Is Dorsett merely who he is at this point, or is there another level of untapped potential there? Will Thomas get healthy? Will Gordon be reinstated? Is Berrios going to Wally Pipp Edelman someday? Without Rob Gronkowski on the roster, production at tight end will be lessened to the point that the Patriots will probably keep an extra wide receiver.
Cornerback Across From Stephon Gilmore
The possibilities here are seemingly endless and exciting. J.C. Jackson and Jason McCourty are both starting-caliber cornerbacks in the NFL, while rookie Joejuan Williams has the potential to be based on his drafting in the second round.
No one who misses out on a starting role in Week 1 will be in any danger of losing their roster spot, either. There could be lots of matchup-based starting assignments during the regular season, with no true No. 2 cornerback running away with playing time – especially given how often the Patriots will roll out three or even four corners based on personnel.
Expect a healthy competition for the initial role, and further action into the regular season. For what it’s worth, McCourty played every single snap on defense in Super Bowl LIII.
Not once in Bill Belichick’s first 19 seasons as head coach of the Patriots has he gone into the regular season with a right-footed punter.
Barring a dramatic change in circumstances, however, that looks like how New England will begin the 2019 season, with Stanford’s Jake Bailey holding the edge over incumbent Ryan Allen.
And that’s through no fault of Allen, who has spent the past six seasons flipping field position for the Patriots – longer than any other punter in the Belichick epoch. It comes down to the outer edges of the salary cap, even if Allen’s $1.5 million cap hit in ’19 is peanuts. The Patriots are spending big at kicker, where Stephen Gostkowski will be the sixth-highest paid at his position in the NFL in 2019. Given how much money New England doles out to several other core special teamers (Matthew Slater, Nate Ebner, etc.), Allen appears to be the casualty of a numbers game.
Bailey can boom it though, no question. Unless he gets hurt, he’ll be pinning Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers deep come Week 1 – right foot and all.