Phil Perry

Hottest position battles set to be waged at Patriots training camp

"Competition camp" is set to begin in Foxboro. Phil Perry highlights the five position battles to keep tabs on.

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If you've been around Bill Belichick long enough, you know that he calls training camp a "competition camp." That's not to be confused with the "teaching camp," which occurs in the spring during OTAs and mandatory minicamp.

That means now is the time to battle. And while many of those battles will come into clearer focus as the summer wears on, some are already readily apparent. Here are the five that -- should you make the trip to Gillette Stadium to see a practice in person -- will be the most entertaining to watch.

And, no, you won't see the quarterback position listed. Explanation here.

1. Kendrick Bourne vs. Tyquan Thornton

Now that we know DeAndre Hopkins won't be coming to New England, it's up to one of these two to establish himself as a dependable option here. DeVante Parker looks like the team's outside-the-numbers "X." JuJu Smith-Schuster should have dibs on the slot role. Then it could come down to Kendrick Bourne or Tyquan Thornton to serve as the movable "Z" in three-receiver sets. This player usually has the versatility to play inside and out and often goes in motion.

It's hard to ground any strong opinion in what the Patriots put on the field last season, but it's interesting to look at what these two did on third (and fourth) down last season. Both ran 96 routes, per Sports Info Solutions. Bourne was targeted 15 times and caught 11 for 144 yards (9.6 yards per target) that included 37 yards after the catch and 14 yards after contact. Thornton was targeted 13 times and caught eight for 101 yards (7.8 yards per target) that included 16 yards after the catch and just one yard after contact. Both reeled in seven first downs.

Bourne was more productive not only from a yards standpoint, but also in terms of expected points added on those third and fourth-down plays (6.04 to 0.16). While Bourne had two drops (Thornton had none), and while he admitted this spring that he was not pleased with his performance last year, he should be given ample opportunity to earn a role as a regular in the team's 11-personnel packages. His 800-yard season in 2021 wasn't all that long ago, but there's a second-year player with ridiculous speed who'll push him. 

2. Nick Folk vs. Chad Ryland

That's right. Kicker talk, baby. You waited all offseason for this. 

In all seriousness, this one matters. Nick Folk has been Steady Eddie since he arrived in Foxboro in 2019. He made 86.5 percent of his kicks last year, including 14 of 19 from 40 yards or more. 

The Patriots didn't need to draft a kicker higher than they've ever drafted one under Bill Belichick when their second pick came up in the fourth round. But that's exactly what they did when they took Chad Ryland out of Maryland.

For his part, Folk is up for the challenge. "Let's go have fun," he said last month when asked for his reaction to the team drafting a rookie at his position. The job should be Ryland's, who showed a strong leg during the spring, but just in case he's at all shaky in camp, Folk remains as a failsafe.

The Patriots could keep both -- Ryland for kickoffs, Folk for place-kicking duties -- but it would take a scuffling performance from a rookie at camp for that to happen.

3. Calvin Anderson vs. Riley Reiff

The Patriots have no choice on one side; they need Trent Brown to play and play well. On the other side? There's Calvin Anderson, Riley Reiff, Conor McDermott, Andrew Steuber and Sidy Sow. Not exactly a who's who of tackle play in the modern-day NFL. 

Anderson and Reiff got real money this offseason as free agents so they seem like the front-runners to work opposite Brown. Anderson has played all but one game in his three-year career on the left side. Reiff, meanwhile, has played the vast majority of his career at left tackle but has played right tackle the last two seasons.

Who has the edge? Their numbers are strikingly similar from last season. Reiff allowed 18 pressures on 271 pass-blocking snaps, per Pro Football Focus. Anderson was credited with 22 on 272 pass-blocking snaps. They graded out as the No. 52 (Anderson) and No. 55 (Reiff) tackles in the league, according to PFF. Reiff had four penalties called on him to Anderson's one.

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Sports Info Solutions offers a little more detail as to how both performed. Reiff had 14 "blown" blocks, while Anderson had 15 "blown" blocks. Each had 12 blown pass-blocking snaps in an almost identical number of pass-blocking snaps.

This may come down to where the Patriots feel Brown is at his best. He's played both tackle spots but played left tackle last season -- the team moved Isaiah Wynn to an unfamiliar spot on the right side in the process -- so keeping him there would be sensible. That means Reiff, based on his performance last year and his recent work on the right side, might be deemed the best option. But it'll be interesting to see how the 34-year-old holds up in camp.

4. Kevin Harris vs. Ty Montgomery vs. Pierre Strong

The Patriots are going to need someone to lighten the load for Rhamondre Stevenson. Even with the help of Damien Harris last year, Stevenson looked tired by season's end. Getting someone to replace Harris' reps -- he's now with the Bills -- and perhaps do even more in the passing game won't be easy. But until they find someone who can do it, that role will likely fall to one of these three.

Kevin Harris is the best bet to do what Damien Harris did. He's built to run between the tackles. But if there's a player the Patriots would like to handle both the duties of a Damien Harris as well as an elevated role on third down, that would likely fall to Ty Montgomery or Pierre Strong.

Montgomery is back after suffering a season-ending injury in Week 1. He's a known commodity and when healthy would be a steady, experienced presence. 

Strong, when drafted, looked like a dynamic athlete built for a West Coast run game. That run game may be out the window now that Bill O'Brien is in place and the Patriots look poised to go back to their identity as a varied ground attack that includes gap-scheme plays like power, counter and duo. But Strong (listed at 212 pounds) appeared to bulk up some this offseason and may be ready for more work between the tackles. 

5. Demario Douglas vs. Kayshon Boutte vs. Malik Cunningham

For those who like to try to find some potential in rookie pass-catchers, this is the battle for you. Demario "Pop" Douglas looks like a quick-as-a-whip slot. Kayshon Boutte was a do-it-all wideout at LSU who ran into injuries and some character questions before he was drafted in the sixth round. Malik Cunningham, meanwhile, played quarterback at Louisville but looked like a receiver in the spring -- he plucked multiple passes out of the air, arms extended and away from his body, over the middle of the field during spring workouts -- and he has all kinds of confidence

Without Hopkins, there may be a spot for one of these three on the roster as the fifth wideout. Cunningham brings some intrigue as a possible practice quarterback option. But Douglas has some special-teams ability that could put him over the top here. As is the case with all young unknowns who are still developing, how they perform in preseason games -- what the rest of the league is able to see of them on tape -- could determine whether or not they're protected from waivers by the Patriots and given a spot on the 53.

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