With 90 players on the team’s active roster, the Patriots have a surplus at a number of positions that will have to be reduced prior to the start of the regular season. The addition of so many extra bodies has already allowed a number of intriguing position battles to take form.
ESPNBoston.com's Patriots reporters each pick one position battle that intrigues them most after watching organized team activities and mandatory minicamp (in some cases, not all players involved in the competition are mentioned).
MIKE REISS (running backs)
BenJarvus Green-Ellis led all Patriots backs last season with a 34 percent playtime clip, but he's in Cincinnati now. Danny Woodhead (33 percent) is almost like a starter in the "passing back" role, and he returns, so the question could be simplified to this: Will Vereen/Ridley/Joseph Addai be an upgrade over Green-Ellis and Kevin Faulk?
The view here is that the '12 group has more upside, but they'll still need to prove it. Also, losing Green-Ellis' reliable ball-security can't just be overlooked.
Vereen, who played just 25 offensive snaps as a rookie, has the type of speed not often seen around these parts at the position. That was evident from his first practice here. Ridley, who played 189 offensive snaps as a rookie, has already displayed his explosiveness in game action.
The versatile Addai looks like a nice veteran presence to pair with them in case the development of the youngsters is knocked off course. Also, rookie free-agent Brandon Bolden could be a factor.
In what figures to be a time-share situation, it will be interesting to see how it all unfolds.
MIKE RODAK (linebackers)
When the Patriots drafted Dont’a Hightower two months ago, the biggest question was: Where will he play? The rise of spread offenses in the NFL and greater use of sub packages to defend against them is putting a squeeze on playing time for front seven players such as Hightower. With the Patriots practicing nearly exclusively in sub packages during OTAs and minicamp, their case is no different.
Hightower received some breathing room this offseason after a full-time starter at linebacker last season, Rob Ninkovich, appeared to make the switch to being a defensive end/sub rusher. However, journeyman linebacker Bobby Carpenter, an under-the-radar signing deep into in free agency, has emerged this spring and looks to be on the fast track for a roster spot.
The Patriots have been without Brandon Spikes for spring practices. With the team in a two-linebacker sub-package look for most of those sessions, it has been Jerod Mayo and Dane Fletcher earning first-team reps on a consistent basis. When the team had three linebackers on the field, it was Carpenter, not Hightower, getting the nod. Hightower, the first-round pick, has been lined up with veteran special teamer Niko Koutouvides in second-unit sub packages, while also leading the second wave base defense as the ‘Mike’ linebacker.
When the Patriots put the pads on for training camp in six weeks, the use of sub packages may dip as the running game becomes more of a factor in practice. But with only two linebackers likely on the field in the team’s normal 4-2-5 nickel defense, which two players get the nod? Mayo, a defensive captain, should stick. That leaves Hightower and Carpenter in a battle this summer for the other sub 'backer position and a significant role within the defense.
FIELD YATES (interior defensive linemen)
As the NFL continues to shift toward a league dominated by passing offenses, the role for hulking, run-stuffing interior defensive linemen would seem to be mitigated. Vince Wilfork provides the rare exception of a 325-plus pound player who can affect the game on all three downs, and he should continue to thrive in 2012.
Alongside Wilfork, there could be an interesting battle brewing between a number of other linemen vying for a limited number of spots. Kyle Love had his best season as a pro in 2011, and also figures to be a lock for the 53-man roster.
Besides him, if you examine the pool of Ron Brace, Marcus Forston, Marcus Harrison, Myron Pryor and Gerard Warren as other candidates to play an interior role, it’s difficult to peg any as shoo-ins to stick around into the regular season.
Warren returns to New England for what would be his third season with the team, and is a steady, reliable veteran who both knows the system and has contributed previously.
Pryor, who has missed significant time over the past two seasons, enjoyed a rookie year that suggests he has promise when healthy.
Brace is hopeful to piece together the talent that landed him in the second round of the 2009 draft, while Harrison hopes to return to his form from his rookie season with Chicago in 2008, during which he recorded 28 tackles.
Forston is a relative unknown at this point, having been signed as an undrafted free agent after leaving Miami early.
It’s too soon to project how many interior defensive linemen the Patriots will hold onto, but this position group and role will be an interesting one to monitor when the team kicks off training camp in late July.