The Patriots look to get back to work as they gear up for the 2014 season. (USA TODAY Images)
The NFL is back! Ok, maybe not quite yet, but training camp is nearly upon us. It’s hard to believe the New England Patriots haven’t played a game in over six months. The offseason is coming to a close and players are heading back to Gillette Stadium as the 2014 season is only a few weeks away.
Training camp opens up Thursday and 90 players will be fighting to make the team. Here is an early 53-man roster prediction.
Brady is the face of the franchise, the only real question is who will be the backup? Expect Mallett and Garoppolo to battle it out in camp.
Running Back: 3
Ridley, Vereen and White all seem like locks to make the roster. Brandon Bolden will be in the mix along with undrafted free agent tailbacks Roy Finch and Stephen Houston, but I’m not sure any of the three carry enough weight to make the team.
Full Back: 1
Last season, Develin carved out a solid role within the offense. He brings toughness in short-yardage situations and performs on special teams. The Pats experimented moving him around — even lining up at tight end — in OTAs, could we see an expanded role this year?
Wide Receiver: 6
This will be one of the biggest positions under the microscope over the next few weeks. As of now, six wide receivers seem like they have a legitimate shot at making the roster, but health questions make the situation unclear. Second¬†year receivers Thompkins and Boyce will have the opportunity to step up while Dobson and LaFell work their way back.
Tight End (2)
By far the thinnest position on the roster. Essentially, it’s Gronkowski or bust for the tight end position. It seems possible he returns week one, but it’s not a guarantee. “Hooman” will have another chance to show he offers more than run blocking.
While I see Solder and Vollmer as the set starters, both Cannon and Fleming have the versatility the Pats covet in lineman.
The number of three guards is somewhat misleading because of the great versatility on the Patriots roster. Mankins will start at left guard, but what about the right side? Cannon, Connolly, Stork, Kline, Halapio — it’s up for grabs.
Wendell¬†had a very good season two years ago, but came up small in 2013. Stork has the size and talent to start from day one, which¬†should make this training camp battle fun to watch.
Defensive Ends: 5
After Jones and Ninkovich, there’s a noticeable drop off. Buchanan offers intriguing upside, Smith could be valuable as long as he returns healthy from a knee injury sustained last season and Moore might need some time to develop. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the team look for some veteran help.
Defensive Tackles: 5
The defensive tackles could be a dominant force this season, but it could be a weak spot for the team depending on health. Wilfork (achilles), Kelly (knee) and Easley (knee) are all returning from serious injuries so how they return could be critical for the team’s defense. Jones and Siliga hope to pick up where they left off last season.
The three starters are set — assuming the Pats run a 4-3 base defense — Mayo, Hightower and Collins. The backup roles are up for grabs, however, and undrafted free agent Cameron Gordon is someone to keep an eye on. Every year New England keeps a UDFA or two on the 53-man roster and I project Gordon for a spot this season.¬†Anderson provides versatility and Beauharnais looks to make an impact after¬†a quiet rookie year.
The big name left off is Brandon Browner. I believe he makes the team, but he won’t be able to start the year on the Patriots 53-man roster so first-year cornerback Daxton Swanson is kept for depth for the first few weeks. After Browner’s suspension is over, Swanson may be put on the practice squad or Injured-Reserve with the “Foxboro Flu” (wink, wink) if the team doesn’t want to lose him. The other four players aren’t much of a surprise and will likely see significant action throughout the season.
McCourty and Harmon are slated to start for New England. Sixth-round selection Thomas provides versatility and depth, while Ebner’s presence on special teams helps his cause for a spot.
Special Teams: 4
Punter: Ryan Allen
Long Snapper: Danny Aiken
Specialist: Matthew Slater
No surprises here, Gostkowski and Allen are locks. Aiken will battle UDFA long snapper Tyler Ott, but I don’t think he’ll be able to make the team. Slater, a special team standout and team captain, also earns a spot on the roster.
Breakdown –¬†Offense: 24 ¬† Defense: 25 ¬†Special Teams: 4
Do¬†you have a Twitter account?¬†Be sure to follow me:¬†@PatriotsHaven!