As the summer swelters on, the NFL season draws closer. For the New England Patriots, their first preseason game versus the New Orleans Saints is less than a month away meaning training camp is even closer, nine days away to be exact.
And for all the big moves and roster building the Pats have gone through this offseason, one would assume things are all set for a strong follow-up campaign to last season’s Super Bowl run. But things are not as simple as they appear.
Yes, future the Hall-of-Fame duo of head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady are back as well as a cast of familiar faces. But as every training camp proves — battles will ensue and the Patriots have no shortage of interesting battles to watch for this offseason:
1.) Who’s Carrying the Rock?
Joseph Addai vs. Danny Woodhead vs. Stevan Ridley vs. Shane Vereen
Having the second best passing offense in the NFL means the ground game, usually, is less of a focus, which was evident for the Pats and their 20th ranked running attack last season. But the ground game is important and the Patriots have not rushed the ball well in recent years.
The Pats have had one 1,000-yard rusher since Corey Dillon’s 1,600-yard season back in 2004. That one runner, BenJarvus Green-Ellis in 2010, left to sign with the Cincinnati Bengals this offseason.
That leaves do-it-all Danny Woodhead, whose averaged 5.1 yards per carry in New England, and veteran Joseph Addai, the former-Colt who was signed this offseason, as the team’s possible replacements — along with a pair of rookies from last season.
Stevan Ridley, a former LSU Tiger like Addai, exploded onto the scene in Week 4 against the Raiders with 10 carries for 97 yards and a score. He’s the leading candidate to be the primary ball-carrier even though his season ended on a sour note as Belichick benched him due to fumbling issues.
The former Cal Golden Bear, Shane Vereen, is the dark horse. His rookie season was plagued by injuries and as a result had only 15 carries. But his potential was shown against Kansas City in Week 11 when he rushed eight times for 39 yards and a touchdown. Vereen left Cal after his junior season and ranked 4th all-time in all-purpose yards. There’s something to be said for that.
2.) Guarding the Guard
Robert Gallery vs. Dan Connolly
Tough, gritty play is a necessity down in the trenches, and All-Pro guard Logan Mankins proved that when he played in the Super Bowl with a torn ACL. But due to the time of the injury (he had surgery a few weeks following the game) it is likely that Mankins will start the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. That leaves a huge hole to fill.
The Pats signed the veteran Gallery for depth. Gallery, a former second-overall pick by the Raiders in ‘04, seemed headed for the title of “draft bust” until he was moved to guard and his play became more consistent. Considered a better run blocker than pass protector, Gallery will have to fight for his chances to begin the season as a starter. The challenge comes from Connolly. Since joining the team in 2004, Connolly has developed into a reliable backup and has started 24 games the past two seasons, 11 which came last season.
Connolly stepped into the starting center position after long-time starter Dan Koppen went down in Week 1. And while he could battle Koppen for the starting job at center, it seems more like he will challenge Gallery.
3.) Rookie on Rookie
Chandler Jones vs. Jake Bequette
The Patriots moved up into the first round to snag Syracuse end Chandler Jones, who has the versatility to play multiple positions and in Bill Belichick’s hybrid defense. That’s a big plus, and yet in his time at ‘Cuse, he never posted big numbers.
His biggest year came in his final season where he had 4.5 sacks in seven games. Jones is also coming off a season in which he missed five games. Look for Jones to take over in his sophomore season, like the Giants’ Jason Pierre-Paul did.
While the wait is in, there’s the possibility of seeing more of the former Razorback, Bequette. In his final three seasons at Arkansas, he posted 21 sacks. And like Jones, his best season came in his final year where he had 10.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks while missing three games to a hamstring injury.
If that injury lingers, who knows if he will be on the field either. But don’t be shocked if you hear Bequette’s name before Jones’.
4.) Old School – New School
Rob Ninkovich vs. Dont’a Hightower
Belichick is known for having his type of player and Ninkovich is it. A consummate professional who takes the game seriously and is versatile and willing to do whatever it takes. In his three years with the team, Ninkovich’s production has risen each year, culminating with last season in which he started all 16 games for the first time in his career.
With respectable numbers (74 tackles and 6.5 sacks), Ninkovich mentioned during OTAs how this year he looked to build on last season: “Having last year help me out with a lot of the experience I had and all the game-time plays and situations, it was a good year for me and now I want to build on that and continue to do well out there.”
The only problem is the 6’4”, 260-pound rookie, Dont’a Hightower. Hightower manned the middle of Alabama’s National Championship defense but is projected to move outside with the Patriots. A big help in Hightower’s ability to land a starting spot comes from having been coached by former Belichick assistant Nick Saban at Alabama.
The colossal rookie has made his way back from a torn ACL in 2009 and ended his time with the Crimson Tide posting 85 tackles, 11 of which went for negative yards, and four sacks — all while starting 13 games.
But for all Hightower has in his favor it doesn’t bother Ninkovich one bit. “It really doesn’t hurt me at all. I’ve been through a lot in my NFL career, so it really doesn’t affect me, as far as guys coming in. I look at it as a plus that the team is getting better.
5.) Breaking into the Bank?
Wes Welker vs Managment
Monday’s 4 p.m. deadline came and went without Welker getting his long sought contract extension; leaving him to play under the franchise tag of one-year $9.5 million. It was reported by Comcast SportsNet New England’s Tom Curren on Sunday that the two sides were as far apart as ever and that a deal being reached by Monday was grim — stating: “Talks remain stagnant and by stagnant I mean non-existent.”
Because the two sides failed to reach an agreement, it means contracts discussion can’t be had until after the season. That leaves plenty of time for the 31-year old receiver to prove his worth — which shouldn’t be too hard. Since joining the team in 2007, Welker has been a 4-time Pro Bowler, 4-time All-Pro, led the league in receptions three times, been a recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award twice, and led the league in receiving yards last season.
By Nathan Rickard