New England Patriots Training Camp: 5 Battles Worth Watching

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5 Battles Worth Watching

New England Patriots
Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots are heading into the 2013 season with more question marks than at any other time in the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era.

Four out of their top five pass catchers from last year will not be on the team when training camp starts, all five if you include the perpetually injured Rob Gronkowski.

They made headlines, something they usually don’t like to do in the offseason, when they signed Tim Tebow, the most polarizing athlete we’ve seen in a long time. Typically when you bring a free agent in, you might wonder about where he’ll land on the depth chart. I mean whether he’ll start or come off the bench, not what position he’ll be listed under like you wonder with Tebow.

Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned that their starting tight end is sitting in a jail cell right now.

Amazingly, it looks like there are more question marks on the offensive side of the ball than the defensive side, something that’s shocking for a team that’s ridden their high scoring offense deep into the playoffs for the last few years.

So yeah, this is going to be a summer of change in Foxboro. There are more spots than ever up for grabs, even on a perennial championship contender like the Patriots.

They still have the big two, Brady and Belichick, but newcomers and young players are going to have to step up and grab jobs this summer if the Patriots want to avoid taking a step back and relinquishing the AFC East title.

Ben Sullivan is an NFL writer for Follow him on twitter @bensullivan52, “Like” him on Facebook and add him to your network on Google.

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5. Second Cornerback

Second Cornerback
Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

Well, at least we don’t need to talk about looking for a number one cornerback, something the Patriots have been doing for a few years now. That job got locked up when Aquib Talib signed a one year deal for $5 million this spring.

But the job on the other side of the field from Talib is still in doubt. The leader heading into camp is second year man Alfonzo Dennard, who had a promising rookie campaign. Dennard has the skills to be the guy, but his off the field behavior is concerning.

This offseason Dennard was sentenced to 30 days in jail for an incident involving an assault on a police officer outside a bar when he was in college at the University of Nebraska. Needless to say, the leash is going to be very short in Foxboro for players who get in trouble with the law from now on.

If Dennard doesn’t lock up the job look for either Ras-I Dowling or Kyle Arrington to get a chance to start this summer.

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4. Running Back

Running Back
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Stevan Ridley had a breakout year in 2013, but he also took a lot of pounding. Ridley was sixth in the league in rushing attempts last year with 290, just 10 carries short of the magical 300 number that usually spells doom for NFL ball carriers.

Ridley’s hold on the top job has always been a question, with talented Shane Vereen nipping at his heels. I’ve never really understood why Vereen hasn’t seen the field more since being a second round pick in 2011.

If you're into conspiracy theories--they’re so much fun who really isn’t--you could say that Belichick is saving Vereen and his legs for a few years from now, after Ridley leaves town when he gets overpaid as a free agent after the 2014 season. But I’m just saying.

Vereen has shown a spark when he’s gotten the chance, including 124 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns against the Houston Texans in the playoffs last year.

Vereen and the newly acquired LeGarrette Blount, will compete for carries with Ridley this year.

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3. Backup Quarterback

Backup Quarterback
Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

I know you were probably getting worried that we got this far into the column and I hadn’t even mentioned Tim Tebow yet. Well, fear no more, things are about to get very Tebow heavy. In fact, Tebow Heavy would be a good name for the package you would bring in with Tebow as a red zone closer.

When the Patriots signed Tebow, I thought there was no way they were going to use him as a backup quarterback. If you’re going to use him there you have to tailor your whole offense around him, both his strengths and his limitations, like the Denver Broncos did in 2011. The Patriots would never do that, they already have one of the best offenses in the league built around one of the best quarterbacks ever.

But all the talk out of Foxboro so far has been that Tebow is going to get a shot at being the backup quarterback, so I guess we have to take it seriously.

Ryan Mallett has held the job the last two years since New England took him in the third round of the 2011 draft. The Patriots usually only carry two quarterbacks, so if Tebow is going to be a quarterback that doesn’t leave any room on the roster for Mallett.

Both will likely get time under center this preseason, and if Tebow really is going to be a quarterback, he’ll need to prove he’s better than Mallett.

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2. Tight Ends

Tight Ends
Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Remember when the Patriots had the best tight ends in the NFL? Of course you do, it wasn’t very long ago at all.

Now one of the two young tight ends that the Patriots were planning to build an offense around is sitting in jail, and the other can’t stay healthy.

Jake Ballard, Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells are the tight ends currently listed on the depth chart, but we all know that the Tim Tebow shadow will hang over this spot all summer.

No matter how much the Patriots insist that Tebow is going to play quarterback and only quarterback, the loss of Aaron Hernandez makes tight end a position of need.

When Tebow signed with the Patriots I thought there were several reasons he could succeed, and one of them was that he had been humbled and would be willing to do whatever the team needed him to do.

I guess we’ll find out if I was right when we see if he’s willing to line up at tight end this year.

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1. Wide Receiver

Wide Receiver
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Wide receiver has been a frustrating position for the Patriots. They haven’t had any success finding them in the draft, and bringing in veterans via either free agency or trade has been feast or famine. Some new players have been huge successes, like Randy Moss or Wes Welker, and some have been huge failures, like Chad Ochocinco.

But none of those players are in the picture this year. In fact, the Patriots only bring back two players from last year, Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater, to compete for a roster spot at receiver this summer.

New additions Danny Amendola, Michael Jenkins, Aaaron Dobson and Lavelle Hawkins will be counted on to not only make the roster, but to contribute early and often.

The Patriots offense is notoriously hard for receivers to learn, but the new faces in Foxboro this summer will all be fighting for roster spots and playing time when camp begins.

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