Patriots Training Camp Preview: Intriguing Skill Position Battles

As the uncertainty continues to grow surrounding the start of the 2020 NFL season, the league has said they still expect training camp to start on time. The Patriots are scheduled to report to training camp on July 28. Every year when training camp rolls around there are certain position battles that everyone keeps their eyes on. Whether it’s a starting job, backup position, or guys fighting for a roster spot, there’s always competition between players. Before training camp starts, we thought we’d list the most intriguing skill position battles. (NOTE: We will cover the offensive and defensive line in part two as well as the linebackers and secondary in part three.)

Starting Quarterback

The Battle: Cam Newton vs. Jarrett Stidham

After losing Tom Brady earlier in the offseason, many wondered who would be the next starting quarterback for the New England Patriots. Up until late June, most assumed 2019 fourth-round pick, Jarrett Stidham, would take the reigns of the offense. So what changed? Well, the Patriots decided to add to the quarterback room on June 28 when they signed former MVP, Cam Newton to a one year deal. Newton came to New England to play but the job won’t be handed to him, Stidham will also get an opportunity. We gave our initial thoughts on the signing here.

Before fans choose sides between Newton and Stidham it’s important to notice the win-win position the Patriots are in. If Newton is able to win the starting spot, it means he’s healthy and ready to prove himself to the NFL world. A former MVP, with a huge chip on his shoulder, is a perfect scenario for a team that’s been doubted all offseason long. It seems very likely to us if Newton is healthy, he’ll start. There isn’t anything Stidham has shown he does better than Newton on a football field. With that being said, if Stidham beats out Newton than the Patriots have a bright future to be excited about. Imagine the bump in confidence for Stidham and the rest of the organization if he shows enough in training camp and the preseason to win the job.

The bottom line is the Newton signing was about winning now. The Patriots saw a big-time playmaker and signed him to an incentive heavy one-year prove-it deal. Anytime you can acquire someone that talented for that cheap you do it. It’s as simple as that. Just as we’ve said before, it’s completely possible Newton is the present while Stidham is the future.

Starting Early-Down Running Back

The Battle: Sony Michel (if healthy) vs. Damien Harris

It’s still unclear if Sony Michel will be able to participate in training camp, due to this foot surgery, but his starting spot may be in jeopardy. At the very least, Michel is in danger of losing major snaps to second-year running back, Damien Harris. Harris didn’t play much last season, but with the depth at running back and the Patriots general philosophy on rookie running backs, it wasn’t a surprise. After spending a third-rounder on Harris in 2019, we get the sense the Patriots would like to get him some playing time in year two. Because Michel and Harris are both typically used as early-down running backs, that puts them in direct competition for starting snaps.

By no means is Michel a bad running back, but there are doubts about his elusiveness and pass-catching ability. The lack of elusiveness showed last season. He rushed for 912 yards but only ran for 3.7 yards per carry. Michel had a much better year in 2018 when he ran for 931 yards on 4.5 yards per carry.

A growing issue that stems from Michel’s pass-catching struggles is the predictability we see with him on the field. Michel is almost exclusively used on running downs. He’s a good back but will he ever be great? Probably not. Whether good or bad, we know what Michel offers. With Harris, you get an unknown product but possibly higher potential. In college, Harris showed a ton of elusiveness but whether it translates to the NFL or not is anyone’s guess. It’s likely Michel and Harris start the season splitting the early-down snaps. This position battle will start in training camp but will likely last throughout the season.

Fifth Running Back

The Battle: J.J. Taylor vs. Rex Burkhead and Brandon Bolden

Because it’s possible Michel misses training, we thought we’d give you another running back battle to watch. There’s no doubt J.J. Taylor will have an uphill climb to make the roster. With that being said, Taylor is a chore to tackle, skilled on special teams, and offers potential as a receiving back. We see a lot of Dion Lewis when we watch Taylor. Unfortunately, Taylor is stuck on a team loaded with running backs.

The easiest path to the roster seems to be through Rex Burkhead or Brandon Bolden. Burkhead is clearly the best running back out of this group, but he’s often injured and the Patriots could use some cap space. If Taylor can show that Dion Lewis-type potential on the practice field, he would make either Burkhead or Bolden expendable. Even if Taylor doesn’t make the final roster, the Patriots should look to keep him on the practice squad.

Sixth Wide Receiver

The Battle: Damiere Byrd vs. Jeff Thomas

It seems likely the Patriots keep six wide receivers on the final roster. Maybe they keep seven, but after doing our first 53- man roster we found ourselves only keeping six. That final spot will likely come down to Damiere Byrd or Jeff Thomas. The signing of Newton could impact the decision. Byrd played the first three seasons of his career with Newton in Carolina. Even though they were teammates for three seasons, Byrd only had 12 catches with the Panthers in limited action. It remains to be seen how much Byrd’s familiarity with Newton impacts his roster chances, but it’s important to take note of.

Byrd and Thomas are both are speedsters, but at different points in their careers. Bryd is entering his fifth season in the NFL. He’s coming off his best NFL season with the Arizona Cardinals; he had 32 catches for 359 yards. While Bryd is a veteran waiting to truly breakout, Thomas is a rookie undrafted free agent. Thomas has all the talent in the world, but attitude concerns kept him from being drafted.

The reality is, this competition might not be decided on the football field. If Thomas shows up every day of training camp ready go to work, with no off the field issues, he has a good shot to make the roster. He’s got elite traits and more upside than Byrd. Unfortunately, the lack of a preseason will have a negative impact on Thomas’s roster hopes. It’s possible both have a chance to make the roster together, but that seems unlikely at this time.

Third Tight End

The Battle: Matt LaCosse vs. Ryan Izzo

The Patriots have two roster locks at tight end, Devin Asiasi, and Dalton Keene. Because both are rookies, a third tight end on the roster seems likely. As much as we’d like to see the Patriots pursue a veteran like Delanie Walker, until there’s more cap space that won’t happen. The top options for a third tight end remain Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo. Although both underperformed last season, LaCosse is a slightly better player. Even though he’s a better player, the Patriots save more money by cutting LaCosse and keeping Izzo. Both players have a lot to prove during training camp.

Which position battle will you be paying closest attention to?

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5 thoughts on “Patriots Training Camp Preview: Intriguing Skill Position Battles

  • July 3, 2020 at 5:34 am

    Maybe it could be possible that Sony will show up this season since Brady isnt there anymore. I mean with Newton you can spread the field more and make more room for him to run good.

    • July 3, 2020 at 2:45 pm

      A lot of Sony’s successor struggles will come with the play of the offensive line. Think both improve this season. Thanks for reading!

    • July 5, 2020 at 5:08 pm

      Sony needs to be targeted in the passing game. He may have been one of the players who was shunned by the goat. If he cannot catch then he will lose snaps to Damien Harris.

  • July 5, 2020 at 5:05 pm

    Regarding the #3 tight end position last year we did not get the “full” Lacosse due to injury. I do not think that he is suited to be a number #1 tight end, but could be very valuable as a #3. Izzo has had his chances and just hasn’t proven himself. Njoku, via trade, would be intriguing and would be affordable at 1.8 mil for this year.

    • July 5, 2020 at 10:20 pm

      Thanks for reading Dave! And yes, I would prefer Njoku over LaCosse and Izzo.


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