Time to spot players who can get it done

Competition now open for Patriots

By Shalise Manza Young
Globe Staff / July 29, 2010

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The first day of training camp in the NFL isn’t completely unlike the first day back at school: There are some new people to meet, some new teachers, new lessons to learn, new accomplishments to achieve.

Only this isn’t the new girl from out of town trying to get the hang of Algebra I while accumulating new Facebook friends and figuring out how much she can get away with in Ms. Jones’s class.

This is Damione Lewis figuring out how to two-gap after a career of playing in a one-gap system.

This is Rob Gronkowski and Brandon Spikes discovering that dominating in the NFL isn’t as easy as dominating in college.

This is Corwin Brown coming back to his professional birthplace, this time as a coach helping to shape a talented group of defensive backs, and not as a fourth-round draft pick.

This is a young team trying to establish its identity and win in a difficult AFC East, and create its own legacy for a franchise that has become accustomed to tremendous success over the previous decade.

Whether they’re willing to admit it or not, the Patriots are in a time of transition. Gone are the players who answered the bell seemingly every time it rang, part of a run that is supposed to be impossible in a league built for parity. In their place are players who are largely unknown and seeking their own glory.

As with most teams in transition, roster spots are up for grabs, both starting slots and reserve roles. That will surely make for some interesting days in class — with practices serving as the proving ground for all pupils.

Which classmates will be vying for head-of-the-class status, and at what positions?

Outside linebacker — Tully Banta-Cain (eighth season), Derrick Burgess (10th), Jermaine Cunningham (rookie), Rob Ninkovich (fifth), Pierre Woods (fifth).

A position of great importance for the Patriots without a lot of quality depth, both slots might be up for grabs. Coming off a career-high 10 sacks, Banta-Cain would seem to have one of them. Burgess appeared to start putting things together toward the end of his first regular season in New England, but had just one tackle in the playoff loss to Baltimore (offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer was credited with two that day). Ninkovich played in 15 regular-season games last year, seven more than in his first four seasons combined, and Woods last year was seemingly relegated to special teams. Assuming he can quickly make the transition from defensive end in college to linebacker in the pros, Cunningham, a second-round pick, may be contributing sooner rather than later.

Starting safety — Patrick Chung (second season), Brandon McGowan (sixth), James Sanders (sixth).

This trio is essentially battling for one spot. Coming off his first Pro Bowl, Brandon Meriweather is entrenched as one of the starters (New England doesn’t typically use strong/free safety designations). Sanders finished last season as the starter, after watching McGowan surpass him on the depth chart when he missed time to a shoulder injury. But Sanders, while not a highlight-reel guy, is steady, respected, and helps keep the secondary on the same page. Chung may be his bigger challenge — player personnel honcho Nick Caserio noted Chung’s offseason development after minicamp in June.

Inside linebacker — Gary Guyton (third season), Tyrone McKenzie (second), Brandon Spikes (rookie).

This is another spot where one starter is basically a given. Jerod Mayo last season didn’t look like the rising star he was as a rookie, but he rushed back from the knee injury he suffered in Week 1 and never seemed himself. Guyton went from contributor to starter after Tedy Bruschi’s retirement, and while his athleticism serves him well in passing situations, playing the run is not his strength. Spikes impressed during spring camps, and if his instincts are as they’ve been advertised, he could be on the fast track to stardom alongside Mayo. Highly thought of by coach Bill Belichick for his maturity, McKenzie will be looking to prove that he can contribute after missing his rookie year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Right defense end — Ron Brace (second season), Gerard Warren (10th), Mike Wright (sixth).

Assuming the Patriots continue to use a 3-4 alignment as their primary look, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork need a partner. During spring workouts, Warren saw quite a bit of time with the top unit, though the versatile Wright has shown he can capably fill any role asked of him. After seeing little playing time as a rookie — and admitting that his first year was “overwhelming’’ and “humbling’’ – Brace saw snaps at end as well. Though his size (6 feet 3 inches, 330 pounds) gives him the look of a nose tackle, he may well find success as an end.

Kickoff returner — Darius Butler (second season), Laurence Maroney (fifth), Devin McCourty (rookie), Matthew Slater (third), Brandon Tate (second).

The void left by Ellis Hobbs’s departure was felt here last year, as New England could not find a consistent return game. Tate would seem the most likely candidate after setting an NCAA record for combined return yards at North Carolina. Butler and McCourty were also strong in this department during college. Maroney and Slater have yet to distinguish themselves when given chances.

Running back — BenJarvus Green-Ellis (third season), Maroney, Sammy Morris (11th), Chris Taylor (fifth), Fred Taylor (13th).

The Patriots have gone with a committee the last few years, but there should be one running back who can be counted on in the big situations, and Maroney, Morris, and Fred Taylor would seem to be the top contenders (Kevin Faulk has carved out his spot as a third-down threat, so he is excluded from this argument). This is the third straight summer observers have begun to wonder if this is the year Maroney breaks out; it looked like he put it all together midway through last season, but then he caught a bad case of fumble-itis. Morris seems to suffer an injury just as he’s ready to seize the top spot, and it is unclear what Fred Taylor has left with so many yards on his legs. Green-Ellis saw a decline in his carries after a rookie season that had some thinking he might develop into an undrafted gem, and Chris Taylor is returning from injury.

Wide receiver — Sam Aiken (eighth season), Julian Edelman (second), Torry Holt (12th), Randy Moss (13th), David Patten (13th), Taylor Price (rookie), Slater, Tate, Wes Welker (seventh).

The challenge here isn’t so much for starting spots, since two of the three belong to Moss and Welker. The challenge is for a role, since it is up for debate whether New England would keep six, seven, or eight receivers. Talked up by Tom Brady and Robert Kraft this offseason, Tate may hold the pre-camp lead for the final starting spot, but depending on the game plan or situation, Edelman or Holt could be on the field for the first snap. Aiken showed last year why he is a receiver in name only, and the special teams’ captain may not be a sure thing if another player could fill his roles in the third phase of the game. Slater faces an uphill climb to earn a spot, as does Patten. Price is intriguing, but may have a steep learning curve coming from an option system at Ohio.

Class is about to be in session. Tests will begin shortly.

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