After losing four cornerbacks this offseason, as well as their top two running backs, there was no question the New England Patriots would feature a number of new faces in significant roles in 2015. While high-round draft picks and high-profile external free agents often get most of the attention, mid-round rookies and low-priced veterans are often the Pats' players of choice.
With a handful of training camp practices under their belt, these new faces could make big impacts this season.
We begin with the two headline external free agent signings — defensive end Jabaal Sheard and tight end Scott Chandler — both of whom have been thrown right into the fire. Chandler will combine with Rob Gronkowski to form twin towers of power in the red zone especially, while Sheard has been seen lining up in three-defensive end packages along with Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones.
Sheard and Chandler were handpicked for their perfect fit into the defense and offense, respectively, in New England, and both appear to be fitting right in.
The Patriots signed multiple free agent cornerbacks this offseason, and early on it is former Oakland Raider Tarrell Brown who is standing out, making multiple pass breakups in Sunday's practice. Slot corner Robert McClain also has drawn some praise from Belichick, while Bradley Fletcher has remained under the radar so far, but is sure to get plenty of reps in the preseason.
Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler appears to be the Patriots' best cornerback, while Logan Ryan remains in the mix with his smarts and versatility. It's still early but the Pats' secondary hasn't been the disaster many thought it might be, at least in practice. We'll see how they do against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers next week, a challenge for even the best secondaries out there.
With at least two running back roles available, the competition will be fierce. LeGarrette Blount looked unstoppable in his first practice after spending a couple extra days on the PUP list until he passed his conditioning test. Tyler Gaffney took a vicious hit in Saturday's first padded practice and hasn't been seen since while Jonas Gray hasn't garnered much early attention.
The passing down role is more wide open, with James White and Travaris Cadet both getting reps with the top offense and both making some notable plays. Proficiency in pass protection could be the difference in this battle, but both could find themselves on the roster.
Finally we end at the guard spot where Dan Connolly's retirement and Ryan Wendell's recovery have left the Pats with holes at both starting guard spots. The Pats have inserted rookies Tre Jackson and Shaq Mason right out of the gate, with both showing flashes. Mason, whose size (6-1) could be a concern, made a notable hit on monstrous defender Zach Moore, demonstrating Mason knows how to utilize his leverage.
It would be quite a feat to start the season with two rookie guards, but with Wendell's eventual return we should get more clarity on how a realistic competition will play out. At this point Jackson seems a lock to step right into the fire.
There's a still a long way to go and possible injuries to overcome, but the position battles are off to a strong start with a number of new faces playing prominent roles.
(Photos by David Silverman, courtesy of www.patriots.com)