NFL training camp is underway, with teams transitioning to padded practices over the next week. Despite limited time to make decisions this year, there are still plenty of battles to keep an eye on.
Probably the least surprising pick on this list, the quarterback battle could decide how the season goes. On one side you have 31-year-old former MVP Cam Newton. His competition is second year QB Jarrett Stidham. At first the decision appears simple. But the deeper you dig, the closer the two options are.
Cam has not been a superstar since that MVP campaign in 2015, and his passing performances have been average at best. His ground game, while still one of the best among quarterbacks, is not strong enough to make up for his issues with accuracy. Add that onto the fact he was injured for basically the entire year last year, and he is an OK option for the starting role.
Stidham is definitely not perfect either. While he hasn’t shown any signs of being injury-prone, he also has practically no experience in the NFL. When he did play, one of his four passes went for an interception. But the talent is certainly there, and it was apparent when watching him throw. Stidham may have the edge simply because he is the younger option, who also happens to be under contract for another few years. Neither choice is terrible, but it definitely feels strange in this new era of Patriots football.
After Edelman and Sanu in the receiving depth chart, things get a bit blurry. We know who will likely take those last three spots, but the order is unclear. It will all come down to second-year receivers N’Keal Harry and Jakobi Meyers, and recent signing Damiere Byrd. In a seemingly strong receiving core, at least compared to recent history, no option seems to be a bad one.
The front runner of the three seems to be Harry. Technically, he had a worse season than the other two last year. He is still recovering from an injury and adjusting to the NFL. He was possibly even rushing back to assist in a potential playoff run. Harry has so far appeared healthy and far more comfortable in training camp and you can’t forget the potential he has shown.
Meyers may be the safer pick. He played in 15 games last year, starting one for the Pats. Jakobi caught for 359 yards by the rather picky Brady last year. If he can get Brady’s trust as a rookie, you know he has the talent and work ethic to succeed. The undrafted rookie is in prime position to compete, so don’t count him out just yet.
As for Byrd, he has far more experience and had the best season of the three last year. But injuries are a concern, and he doesn’t have the same potential as Meyers or Harry does. Just like Meyers, though, don’t be surprised if we see a bit of Byrd this season.
This battle is completely dominated by the rookie class. With the loss of two starters in free agency and Hightower opting out, the unit will be seeing major changes. Bentley is the only guy who was on the team last year that has the expectation of starting. The inside linebacker could be a breakout this year and continues to show signs of being a potential star. And while Bentley is practically a lock, the other linebacker’s potential impact is less clear.
Copeland was an under the radar signing in this year’s free agency. He began his career with the Lions as a backup before moving to the Jets and breaking out in 2018 following an injury that caused him to miss all of 2017. He failed to be as impactful in 2019, which is why the Pats got him for cheap. Copeland could definitely find his form again, especially with the talented New England coaching staff.
Two rookies, Uche and Simmons, also have a shot. Bentley’s most likely situation is Bentley grabs the MLB spot, and Copeland gets the LOLB. That leaves the ROLB role open, where both rookies can play. Both are relatively similar, though Jennings is more of a do-it-all linebacker while Uche focuses on attacking the pocket. The ceiling in the group is high, but it could just as easily be the weakest position this season. It all starts with this training camp battle.
Safety: Phillips vs. Dugger
Potentially the most exciting training camp battle comes at the safety position. Devin McCourty has the free safety position locked up, but the strong safety position is wide open. Starting safety Patrick Chung opted out, though there would’ve been a battle here regardless of whether he stayed or not.
Once again, the two players stand out as top options. The first is rookie Kyle Dugger, who was selected in the second round. He was dominant in college, though he didn’t play for a D-1 school. Dugger has the size and athleticism as well, but the question around how he plays against stronger competition will be the deciding factor.
Adrian Phillips signed to a cheap two-year deal this offseason, joining from the Chargers. he was an All-Pro safety in 2018, though failed to repeat that last season, partially due to a broken arm. If Phillips can even get close to his 2018 performance, the Patriots will have a secondary that is even more dominant than in past years.
Courtesy of Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports