By William Bendetson
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Tom Brady. Backups -- Brian Hoyer, Danny Etling.
Coming off another MVP season and Super Bowl trip as he approaches his 41st birthday early in training camp, Brady shows no signs of slowing down on the field. He did, however, stay away from voluntary OTAs workouts this offseason, work he's emphasized the importance of in the past. Brady will need to find a rapport with some new targets and faith in a new left tackle, but remains arguably the best in the game. The backup spot isn't nearly as secure. Hoyer is little more than a journeyman backup at this point, though his familiarity with the team where he began his career is a plus. Etling impressed New England enough to earn a late-round selection, but the raw rookie is a project coming from LSU's offense.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- Rex Burkhead, FB James Develin. Backup -- James White, Sony Michel, Jeremy Hill, Mike Gillislee, Brandon Bolden, Ralph Webb.
Despite the loss of lead back Dion Lewis to the Titans in free agency, New England enters 2018 with arguably the deepest, most versatile committee of options the team has had in years. Burkhead re-signed after a breakout first season in Foxborough (eight total touchdowns) while the Patriots then took the explosive Michel with their second of two first-round picks. The two will likely share the load as early-down options both as runners and in the Patriots' pass-first offensive approach. White remains one of the most productive third-down options in the game with a combined 156 catches the last three seasons, while the free-agent addition Hill and Gillislee will likely battle it out for one roster spot as the big back for goal line, four-minute and short-yardage situations. Develin does the dirty work as a Pro Bowl fullback and lunch-pail leader who earned a contract extension this offseason.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Rob Gronkowski. Backups -- Dwayne Allen, Troy Niklas, Jacob Hollister, Ryan Izzo, Will Tye, Shane Wimann.
Eight years into his career, the All-Pro Gronkowski is considered a future Hall of Famer. Coming off his fourth 1,000-yard season and sixth year with eight or more touchdown catches, the oft-injured Gronkowski admitted to considering retirement this offseason. But he's back as one of the most dynamic offensive threats in the game. Beyond that there is little on the depth chart. Allen struggled mightily to catch the ball a year ago in his first season in New England and the blocking backup will have to take a paycut from his $4.5 million salary to even remain on the roster. Niklas, who has just 19 catches in four NFL seasons, was added to compete with second year former undrafted rookie Hollister and late-round rookie Izzo for depth roles.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan. Backups -- Jordan Matthews, Malcolm Mitchell, Kenny Britt, Matthew Slater, Phillip Dorsett, Cordarrelle Patterson, Braxton Berrios, Riley McCarron, Cody Hollister.
Brady's receiver group has plenty of questions. Last year's leading receivers Brandin Cooks (65 catches) and Danny Amendola (61) are now in Lops Angeles and Miami, respectively. Edelman missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL and at the age of 32 will also miss the first four weeks this fall with a PED suspension. Hogan should be the No. 1 returning option, but he missed seven games over the second half of last season with a shoulder injury and didn't have a great spring. Matthews brings more size than a traditional Patriots slot option and is a proven NFL producer when healthy, but he will need to build a rapport with Brady. Mitchell missed all of last season with a knee injury after showing promise as a productive rookie in 2016. The former fourth-round pick just can't be counted on to stay on the field -- practice or game -- given his health history. Britt and Dorsett were both in the mix last fall, but will need to make major strides to earn regular roles, something Patterson has never really been able to do in his career in either Minnesota or Oakland. As a returner and gimmick offensive option, he's in the crowded mix of guys trying to prove themselves to Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels this preseason.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Trent Brown, LG Joe Thuney, C David Andrews, RG Shaq Mason, RT Marcus Cannon. Backups -- T/G Isaiah Wynn, T LaAdrian Waddle, C/G Ted Karras, G/T Matt Tobin, G/T Cole Croston, OL John Ulrick, OL Luke Bowanko, T Andrew Jelks, C James Ferentz, OL Jason King.
Longtime line coach Dante Scarnecchia returns four of five starters, but the key here is the battle between Brown and Wynn for the vacant left tackle spot opened up by Nate Solder's free-agent departure. Scarnecchia was very vocal this offseason in support of his group of linemen, including the left tackle options. Mason is developing into a Pro Bowl-caliber run blocker heading toward free agency next spring, while Andrews has gone from rookie free agent to trusted starter and captain. Cannon missed all but seven games a year ago to an ankle injury, but has been the most talented guy in the group when healthy in recent years. Health will be an issue to monitor in camp with Brown (shoulder), Wynn (shoulder), Thuney (foot) and Cannon all having missed practice time this spring after offseason procedures. Waddle and Karras have been trusted backups/fill-in starters in recent years, while Tobin, Ulrick and Bowanko add experienced depth as veteran newcomers.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LDE Trey Flowers, DT Malcolm Brown, DT Danny Shelton, RDE Adrian Clayborn. Backups -- DT Lawrence Guy, DE Deatrich Wise Jr., DT Adam Butler, DE Derek Rivers, DE Eric Lee, DT Vincent Valentine, DE Geneo Grissom, DT John Atkins, DT Frank Herron, DE Trent Harris.
With offseason additions Shelton (trade, Browns) and Clayborn (free agent, Falcons) projected as starters in their first year in Foxborough, New England's defensive front will have a much-needed new look in 2018. The unit struggled against the run and failed to put forth a consistent pass rush a year ago. Flowers is a consistent, reliable option against the run and has been the top pass rusher for the last two years, though he's not an elite edge presence. Clayborn is in the same mold, and should stabilize an end spot that was a rotating cast of disasters in 2017. Rivers, the team's top pick a year ago, could also add to the edge mix as he works back from a torn ACL to join fellow sophomore Wise as youthful pass rushers. Guy was a true find as a free-agent addition a year ago starting 15 of 16 games while showing the ability to move around the line and put up serviceable production regardless of his specific role each week. Valentine returns after missing 2018 to injury, while Butler and Lee battle for roles after serving as depth options last fall. The group may not have any elite talents, but fields more overall potential heading into a new season.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Kyle Van Noy, MLB Elandon Roberts, SLB Dont'a Hightower. Backups -- OLB Marquis Flowers, MLB Ja'Whaun Bentley, OLB Christian Sam, OLB Nicholas Grigsby, OLB Brandon King, OLB Harvey Langi.
This is very much Hightower's group and the front seven very much missed the Pro Bowler when he played in just five games last fall due to knee and pectoral injuries. His return to health brings not only leadership, but the most versatile playmaker to the position. Van Noy has carved out a solid role as a starter since arriving via trade two seasons ago, but his performance is far more valuable alongside Hightower than trying to be the top option in his absence. Roberts is an undersized guy in the middle who has battled to stay healthy. He will face competition from draft picks Bentley and Sam. Flowers saw more action on defense after arriving via trade early last season than he had in his time in Cincinnati, but he, Grigsby and King are all options in the kicking game. Langi showed potential as an undrafted rookie last summer before missing much of the season because of injuries suffered in a car accident. Really, though, the linebacker position is wide open after Hightower and Van Noy.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Stephon Gilmore, RCB Eric Rowe, SS Patrick Chung, FS Devin McCourty. Backups -- FS Duron Harmon, CB Jason McCourty, CB Jonathan Jones, CB Duke Dawson, S Jordan Richards, S Nate Ebner, CB Cyrus Jones, CB Keion Crossen, CB JC Jackson, CB Jomal Wiltz, CB Ryan Lewis, S David Jones, DB Damarius Travis, DB A.J. Moore.
The secondary may just be the deepest, most proven aspect of the New England roster. Which is a little strange, considering the Patriots had the 30th-ranked pass defense in the NFL a year ago. The safety position essentially has three starters, even though the first-year captain Harmon actually opened the game just three times last season. The former Pro Bowler and team captain Devin McCourty is the glue in the back end, while Chung is a physical presence in the box. It will be interesting to see if the two veterans can continue to stay healthy and play a high percentage of snaps as they enter their ninth and 10th seasons, respectively. Gilmore was arguably New England's best defender by the end of his first season in Foxborough as a $60 million free-agent addition last fall. Now, with Malcolm Butler in Tennessee, Gilmore is the clear No. 1 corner. The rest of the cornerback roles are up for grabs. Veterans Rowe and the trade addition Jason McCourty, Devin's twin brother, will vie with undrafted rookie Jackson and third-year player Jonathan Jones for the other starting job. Jones, Cyrus Jones (returning from a torn ACL) and second-round pick Dawson will compete for sub work in the slot.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Stephen Gostkowski, P Ryan Allen, LS Joe Cardona, KOR Cordarrelle Patterson, PR Cyrus Jones, P Corey Bojorquez.
The former All-Pro Gostkowski has been up and down in recent years on field goals and even PATs, though he's consistently been one of the best kickoff men in the game. The latter will be something to watch this fall with the league's new rules governing kickoffs. The sixth-year veteran Allen struggled last fall ranking 30th in gross average and 18th in net, earning him camp competition for the first time in his career in the form of the undrafted rookie Bojorquez. Cardona just got a contract extension this spring despite some off-target snaps a year ago, including one in the Super Bowl that led to a missed kick. Patterson is one of the best kickoff returners in NFL history, so it will be interesting to see if the adjustments to new kickoff rules magnify or decrease his value. The punt return job is open thanks to Amendola's departure and Edelman opening the year with the four-game suspension. Jones is coming back from a torn ACL and struggled in the role in his first year-plus, but the former second-round pick should get one last chance to prove his value the way he did in college as an elite punt returner for Alabama.