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, in part three of the series, we thought we’d list the most intriguing position battles at linebacker and in the secondary.
Backup to Dont’a Hightower
The Battle: Josh Uche vs. Brandon Copeland
After losing Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins, and Elandon Roberts in the offseason, the Patriots will have to rely on several newcomers for linebacker depth. It’s pretty clear to us that Dont’a Hightower and Ja’Whaun Bentley will be the two starting off-ball linebackers. We also expect safeties Patrick Chung and Adrian Phillips to help out in hybrid linebacker roles. With that being said, there are still major roles at linebacker up from grabs.
Backing up Hightower means playing off-ball and on the edge. Both Josh Uche and Brandon Copeland can give you that. We see Uche mainly playing on the edge as a situational pass rusher in year one, but the versatility to play off-ball and in coverage is there. At Michigan, Uche was almost exclusively used to rush the passer from the edge spot. His smaller body size (listed at 226 lbs on the Patriots’ official website) will likely prevent him from a big role as an edge run defender. What Uche does give you is great pass rush ability (7.5 sacks in 2019) and enough athletism to play in coverage. Ultimately, Uche will need time to develop but he’ll be most successful in a linebacker/edge hybrid role like Hightower.
One of the more overlooked signings this offseason came when the Patriots signed former New York Jet, Brandon Copeland. Copeland is a nice veteran addition that can play all over the field. He can play on the edge or off-ball. Copeland also has experience dropping back in coverage, but it likely won’t be a big part of his role for New England. He’s not a bad pass rusher, but the strongest part of his game is stopping the run, whether it be at edge or linebacker. Copeland had a career-high in total tackles last season with 42. He’s not a roster lock, but his versatility and special teams ability make him a near lock.
A big part of this postion battle comes down to how much Uche picks up without much of an offseason. He has all the potential in the world but the Patriots may opt for a veteran like Copeland, especially at the beginning of the season. We expect this postion battle to extend beyond training camp as Uche continues to develop.
Backup to Ja’Whaun Bentley
The Battle: De’Jon “Scoota” Harris vs Cassh Maluia
Unlike Hightower, Bentley’s role is a lot more straightforward. Bentley is an off-ball linebacker that will rarely, if at all play on the edge. With Bentley set to see increased playing time, the Patriots need a new backup at the postion. To backup Bentley, the Patriots will likely use De’Jon “Scoota” Harris or Cassh Maluia.
In our first 53-man roster projection, we had the Patriots keeping five linebackers. We have Hightower and Bentley as locks, then Brandon King and Copeland as near locks. Harris and Maluia will be battling for that fifth and final spot. Harris is an undrafted free agent out of Arkansas. He had four productive years with the Arkansas Razorbacks. Harris had over 100 combined tackles in three of his four seasons. Harris is a thumper with great tackling ability. However, we worry about Harris in coverage, as his athleticism is a weak part of his game.
Maluia, a rookie drafted in the sixth round, doesn’t have the same run-stopping skills that Harris does. On the flip side, Maluia has better athleticism and pass coverage potential. On top of that, Maluia projects as a solid special teamer. It’s hard to say which rookie will earn the spot. It will likely come down to what the Patriots are looking for. We see Harris as a direct replacement of Elandon Roberts, but Maluia gives you more speed and he’s an instant contributor on special teams.
The corner depth chart is set. The one thing to watch in training camp is where Joejuan Williams lines up. Will he make the switch to safety?
Starting Strong Safety
The Battle: Patrick Chung vs Adrian Phillips
Adrian Phillips was a steal in free agency— so much so that Patrick Chung may be in temporary of losing his starting spot. Either way, we expect both will still get a ton of reps. In fact, the Patriots will very likely play a good amount of three safety formations.
Chung has been one of the more underrated defenders in part two of the Patriots’ dynasty. Chung is still a valuable piece but he’s getting older. At 33 years of age, it’s time for the Patriots to get younger at safety. Chung’s coverage play dipped last season. He’s still good against the run and he’s an excellent tackler, but Phillips gives the Patriots another option in coverage against tight ends and running backs.
Phillips, only 28 years old, is your typical Patriots player; extremely underrated, high football IQ, and a great special teamer. Phillips is best as a box safety, but he also played some free safety with the Chargers. Phillips winning the strong safety job isn’t out of the question, but even if he doesn’t, the position versatility will still allow Bill Belichick to get Phillips on the field early and often. Just like Chung, Phillips is good against the run and a good tackler. The big difference is at this point in their careers, Phillips is better in coverage. Phillips will need a big offseason to take the starting spot, but we think it’s closer than most people think.
Backup Free Safety
The Battle: Cody Davis vs. Kyle Dugger vs. Terrence Brooks
After Devin McCourty, the Patriots don’t have a ton of proven talent at free safety. For years, the Patriots have used Duron Harmon to backup McCourty but he was traded to Detroit in March. McCourty tends to play a majority of defensive snaps (94% in 2019 according to Pro Football Reference), but the Patriots will need someone in that Harmon role. The Patriots could use Phillips there, but we like him better at strong safety. That leaves Cody Davis, Kyle Dugger, and Terrence Brooks to fight it out behind McCourty.
Davis is a great special teamer but he’s never had a huge role on defense. When he has played on defense, almost all his snaps came at free safety. Dugger, on the other hand, could be a strong or free safety. We like him playing the Chung role best but he’s got enough cover skills to play at free safety. It’s hard to know where the Patriots will have him playing; he’s likely another chess piece for this Patriots secondary. The best chance for Dugger to get defensive snaps in year one is at free safety. The signing of Phillips makes Dugger low on the strong safety depth chart.
Brooks is another interesting case. Brooks played a majority of snaps last season at strong safety. His style of play stacks up very similarly to that of Chung and Phillips. With that being said, in 2017 and 2018 with the New York Jets, Brooks played a majority of his snaps at free safety. With all the depth at strong safety, it’ll be interesting to see if the Patriots give him a look at free safety.
We see the Patriots keeping five safeties on the final roster. The only roster lock in this group is Dugger. Davis and Brooks will not only be battling for the backup free safety spot, but also a roster spot. Both are great special teamers but Davis has a slight advantage due to this natural position as a free safety.
Let us know in the comments below who you see winning these position battles!