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Plenty to Look for As the Defending Super Bowl Champs Take the Field

May 23, 2019

What do we know about the 2019 New England Patriots?

Well, we’ll get our initial look at the roster this week.

The Patriots are holding their third Organized Team Activity (OTA) on Thursday, and it’s the first time since January that the media will see the team on the practice field.

Here are five things we’ll be watching at Thursday’s practice:

FIRST IMPRESSIONS IN PASSING GAME —

Like last offseason, the Patriots are rolling the dice on several newcomers in the passing game.

They’re hoping this year’s crew pans out better than Cordarrelle Patterson, Kenny Britt, Jordan Matthews, Malcolm Mitchell, Braxton Berrios and Eric Decker, who combined for 247 receiving yards with the Patriots a season ago.

Additions to the pass-catching corps include first-round pick N’Keal Harry, five-time Pro Bowler Demaryius Thomas, veterans Dontrelle Inman and Maurice Harris, undrafted rookies Ryan Davis and Jakobi Meyers, and tight ends Ben Watson, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Matt LaCosse.

Of the players in that group, only Harry and Watson are sure bets to make the squad. The pass-catching competition is wide open. Not only are roster spots up for grabs, but legitimate roles within the offense will be sorted out.

And several players are in position to get a leg up on the competition this week.

With Thomas (Achilles) and Josh Gordon (suspension) sidelined, Phillip Dorsett, Harry and Inman should see extended reps. These few weeks are important for Berrios as well. He’s attempting to stick as a backup slot receiver (the Pats never truly replaced Danny Amendola last season, and were fortunate that Julian Edelman made it through the year unscathed).

First impressions matter. How much has Dorsett improved in the offseason? Is Berrios coming back a much better player in Year Two? Will Inman pick up the offense quickly like he did with the Colts?

The next few weeks will provide some answers as a wild competition at wide receiver begins to unfold.

EXTRA REPS FOR STIDHAM —

Tom Brady is expected to follow the same path he took in the 2018 offseason, bypassing the voluntary OTAs and resurfacing in Foxboro come minicamp.

The decision takes away from potentially valuable reps between Brady and new (or inexperienced) pass-catchers like Harry, Inman, Berrios, Seferian-Jenkins (also missing OTAs this week) and LaCosse.

Brady’s absence also opens the door for rookie Jarrett Stidham to handle a high percentage of the quarterback reps.

That’s a tremendous opportunity for the fourth-round pick out of Auburn.

Bill Belichick, Josh McDaniels, and the Patriots coaching staff will be watching closely over the next 16 months or so to determine if they have a potential future starter on their hands. That’s how long they gave Jacoby Brissett before trading him at the end of his second training camp. By that point, Belichick had determined that Brissett was not going to be the next starter (why else would Belichick trade Brissett for a No. 4 receiver?)

Now it’s Stidham’s turn to audition.

One thing Stidham has working in his favor: Brissett received a limited number of reps during OTAs, minicamp and training camp because of the presence of Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo. The Deflategate suspension, and the need to get Garoppolo ready to be the starter for four games in 2016, didn’t help Brissett’s cause, either.

Brady skipping OTAs — something he hadn’t done when Brissett was around — creates some extra opportunity for Stidham.

EARLY POSITION BATTLES —

Aside from the logjam at wide receiver, we’ll get an early indication on the following position battles:

No. 2 cornerback: Are we sure it’s J.C. Jackson’s job to keep? Jason McCourty might get the nod in certain matchups. And the Pats drafted Vanderbilt’s Joejuan Williams in the second round for a reason. It’s entirely possible that he earns the No. 2 spot.

Running back: All indication is that Sony Michell will lead the backfield this season. But the Pats became just the second team in the past 20 years to spend a top-100 pick on a running back one year after addressing the position in the first round.

Damien Harris, this year’s third-round pick out of Alabama, will factor into the equation.

Michel proved to be a highly efficient between-the-tackles back as a rookie. He offered little in the passing game, though, both as a pass protector and receiver. If Harris is markedly better in both categories, it’s not crazy to envision a true split in the Pats backfield.

Because there is no contact in OTAs, the passing game takes center-stage. We’ll see how Michel and Harris stack up against one another in that regard.

Offensive tackle: Projected swing tackle Jared Veldheer was placed on the reserve/retired list Tuesday. Rookie Yodny Cajuste is still recovering from quadriceps surgery and isn’t expected to take the field until training camp. Isaiah Wynnn, the projected starter at left tackle, is working his way back from a torn Achilles suffered this past August.

The O-Line competition won’t heat up until training camp, but valuable reps are available for a young offensive tackle — like third-year pro Cole Croston — to showcase and fine-tune technique skills during OTAs.

Punter: The Pats traded up for Stanford’s Jake Bailey in the fifth round. That means six-year starter Ryan Allen will have his work cut out for him.

TIME TO STEP UP —

This is a huge offseason for a pair of young players — cornerback Duke Dawson and defensive end Derek Rivers.

FIRST LOOK: Patriots rookie cornerback Duke Dawson, a second-round pick, walks off the field after speaking to the media yesterday at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro.

A second-round pick in 2018, Dawson faces a steep climb to playing time. The Patriots are loaded in the secondary, and veterans Jonathan Jones and Jason McCourty are capable of covering small, shifty slot receivers (which would be the preferred matchup for Dawson). After a redshirt rookie year, Dawson needs to make his presence felt early this offseason.

A torn ACL robbed Rivers of his rookie year, and he was buried on the depth chart in Year Two. With Deatrich Wise reportedly sidelined for spring workouts and Michael Bennett not expected to be in attendance, Rivers will be in position to handle significant reps on the edge.

INJURY REPORT —

Safety Patrick Chung, who underwent multiple offseason surgeries following a broken arm in Super Bowl LIII, has been spotted on the practice field.

Second-year offensive tackle Isaiah Wynn (Achilles) was shown taking part in warmups, but the extent to which he’ll practice in the spring is unknown.