By: Derek Havens
The NFL off-season is finally beginning to come to an end.
With training camps and pre-season just around the corner, the buzz has returned to the league in the past few days. The New England Patriots training camp kicks-off July 25 and there will be a lot of hot button topics being discussed. Everything from Aaron Hernandez’s murder charge, Alfonzo Dennard’s suspicion of Driving Under the Influence, potential contract extensions, and even, Tim Tebow. All and all, it should be a media circus focusing on several issues off the field, but what about the players practicing? The Patriots have changed their roster quite a bit over the past few months and have some intriguing new additions. Aside from the roster additions, there are a few players who could contribute heavily with new opportunities for players to step up. Here are five players to watch in next week’s training camp:
1.) Josh Boyce, WR — Boyce was selected by the Patriots in the fourth-round of the 2013 NFL draft and now has an opportunity to contribute immediately in the Pats offense. It’s no secret the Patriots have gone through a wide receiver “re-do” this off-season. With departures from the team by Wes Welker and Aaron Hernandez, someone will need to pick up the slack.
Boyce is a guy who reminds me of New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz, although I am not saying he will be as good. Boyce can play inside, outside, stretch the field and make plays. Many people have focused on second-round pick Aaron Dobson and Pats receiver Danny Amendola, but watch out for Boyce in training camp.
2.) Jake Ballard, TE — Ballard is an intriguing player for several reasons. For starters, the Aaron Hernandez saga put a new wrinkle in the Patriots off-season and no question Ballard’s stock shot up because of the new opportunity that presents itself. Although I am not a big believer Ballard can be the contributor some think he can be, the 25-year-old has been a productive tight end in the NFL and if healthy, should find a role on this team.
During organized team activities, Ballard seemed a bit hobbled still with a lower leg issue and his athleticism was limited. If injuries continue to plague him, I’m not sure he will find a spot on the team, however, if healthy, he could be a dependable target for Tom Brady this season.
3.) Brandon Spikes, MLB — Spikes has been off the grid for months. One of the bigger social media participants from a Patriots stand point has been missing in action since February and was the only player on New England’s roster who was not in attendance for Organized Team Activities. Instead, the 25-year-old has been training in Florida this off-season.
Spikes is now entering his fourth year and in the final season of his rookie contract. With the Patriots selecting rookie linebacker Jamie Collins as their first pick in the 2013 draft, as well as Spikes entering a contract year, this season will decide if he stays or leaves in free agency. It will be interesting to see how Spikes looks athletically and what his on field production is with so much on the line.
4.) Ras-I Dowling, CB — Dowling is the ultimate tease. He has the size, speed and skill-set to be an extremely good press-man corner. Unfortunately, his career up to this point has been riddled with injuries and he has not been able to see the field on a consistent basis. This is Dowling’s moment. If he cannot establish himself during training camp and the pre-season, it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Patriots move in a different direction. With Alfonzo Dennard’s future with the team in question after a suspicion of DUI arrest, the opportunity is there for Dowling. Now, the Patriots will see if he has what it takes to seize it.
5.) Adrian Wilson, S — Wilson is an absolute animal. For years, the 33-year-old defensive back has been one of the NFL’s top safeties, but no question he is on the downside of his career. New England has struggled — to say the least — enforcing the back of their defense and getting consistent defensive play in the secondary, something they hope Wilson can help fix going into the 2013 season. A combination of Wilson and McCourty could prove to be an excellent, complimentary tandem that propels the Patriots defense to the next level.
On the flip side, we have seen this movie before. The Pats sign a veteran, whom everyone pencils in as a starter, and then he is released before the season starts. While I believe Wilson makes the team and contributes, his performance in training camp will not only be a good indicator of his play next year, but also for his stance with the team moving forward.
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