Monday, August 15, 2022

Patriots training camp 2022: Three battles to watch as passing-down RB, outside CB take center stage

It’s back to school time for the New England Patriots, as training camp has already opened up for rookies, and veterans are set to report July 26. As is the case at every camp, there will be a number of positional battles worth monitoring over the final summer weeks and as we head into the regular season opener in Miami on Sept. 11. 

The Patriots made several moves throughout the offseason, adding depth at various spots on the roster and creating some fascinating roster battles that are about to unfold right before our eyes in Foxborough. Below, we’re going to highlight three of some of the more notable battles and dissect each contender. 

Passing-down back

Contenders: James White, Pierre Strong Jr., J.J. Taylor, Rhamondre Stevenson

If everyone is healthy, this is probably James White’s job. After all, he’s held this post in New England for years and has been one of the more effective players in this spot throughout the NFL. And that stretches beyond his time with Tom Brady. In the two full games he spent with Mac Jones at the beginning of last season, White caught 12 of his 13 targets (92.3%) for an average of 7.8 yards per reception. However, White suffered a hip injury in Week 3 against the Saints and was forced to have season-ending surgery. The 30-year-old back — who signed a two-year, $5 million deal with the club this offseason, may not be 100% to begin camp, which opens the door for other competitors to emerge.

The next logical candidate to adopt some targets may be rookie Pierre Strong Jr., who was taken in the fourth round out of South Dakota State. He ran the fastest 40-yard dash of any running back at the NFL Scouting Combine and does have experience as a pass catcher. In 24 collegiate games, the 5-foot-11, 205-pounder hauled in 42 receptions and averaged 7.8 yards per catch, which is coincidently the same White had in his short sample with Jones in 2021. 

Another contender — who may also be fighting for a spot on the 53-man roster — is J.J. Taylor. Over the previous two years in New England, the 24-year-old has shown an explosiveness that has been lacking within the Patriots offense. That said, he’s hardly seen the field, playing no more than 16% of the offensive snaps in a given season. In that limited sample size, Taylor has averaged 3.5 yards per carry and hauled in five of his six targets for 12 yards.

Finally, second-year back Rhamondre Stevenson shouldn’t be overlooked for this role. While he’ll likely worth as the 1B in this backfield to Damien Harris on early downs, he did show an ability to catch the football during his rookie season in 2021. He caught 14 of his 18 targets for 123 yards in his 12 games played last year. With more playing time in Year 2, he could flash that potential even more. 

Left tackle

Contenders: Trent Brown, Isaiah Wynn

Could we see a swap at the tackle positions? Back during minicamp, Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown flipped sides, leaving one to wonder if this change will continue into camp. 

When healthy, Wynn has been slotted as the team’s left tackle ever since they drafted him in the first round in 2018. In 2021, all of his 914 total offensive snaps came at the left tackle spot. Meanwhile, Trent Brown played exclusively at right tackle when he was on the field last year. That said, during Brown’s first stint with the team back in 2018, he was the club’s blindside tackle after Wynn suffered a torn Achilles over that summer. As the blindside tackle, the 6-foot-8, 380-pounder was a reliable piece to what was a Super Bowl LIII winning club.

So, the big question is whether or not the minicamp swap was really just some offseason maneuvering by Bill Belichick to build up some versatility along the O-line or if it’s something more that could evolve into a bigger switch for 2022.

Outside cornerback

Contenders: Malcolm Butler, Jack Jones, Jalen Mills, Terrance Mitchell

There has been quite a drop-off at the cornerback position over the last calendar year. Heading into the 2021 camp, New England had both J.C. Jackson and Stephon Gilmore (recovering from injury) on the roster. Fast forward a year: Jackson has departed in free agency and Gilmore was traded during last season, leaving a ton of question marks lingering at outside corner. 

While it may be a competition for each spot, Jalen Mills should be a favorite to claim one of them. After all, he did start 16 games for the Patriots last season, giving him a leg up against the rest of the field. Six hundred ninety of his 931 total defensive snaps (including playoffs) came as an outside corner in 2021. In coverage, he allowed opposing receivers to catch 58.3% of their targets for a 12.6 yards per reception average. 

Another contender will be a familiar name in Foxborough: Malcolm Butler. The former Super Bowl hero made a surprising return to the Patriots this offseason after retiring due to personal reasons just before the 2021 campaign as a member of the Arizona Cardinals.

Butler’s best days in the NFL came with the Patriots, so it’s possible that he can rekindle his magic in the secondary. That said, this also isn’t the same player that departed after the 2017 season. Butler is now 32 and just missed an entire year. If he can look more like the player the Titans had in 2020, when he allowed 62% of his targets to be completed and quarterbacks to average a 78.6 passer rating against him, he’ll be a valuable piece to this secondary, but it’s wise to take more of a wait-and-see approach here. 

Terrance Mitchell signed with the Patriots back in March on a one-year, $3 million deal. The 30-year-old has bounced around the league quite a bit over his career and is coming off a poor season with the Houston Texans during which he allowed a career-high 104.7 passer rating against him. That said, it also wasn’t too long ago when he was a solid piece in the Browns secondary and allowed a 72.3 passer rating in 2019. 

Lastly, and arguably the most promising, is fourth-round rookie Jack Jones. The Arizona State product impressed at minicamp and looks to be a legit contender for a starting spot. Jones was particularly lauded for his ability to work in man coverage, and Bill Belichick noted his pro system experience during his collegiate days at both USC and Arizona State this offseason. 

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