Mike Giardi

Camp Battles: Allen finds some punting competition

Camp Battles: Allen finds some punting competition

FOXBORO -- For the second time in three years, the Patriots postseason went awry in part because of special teams. 

Whether it was the failed extra point in the 2015 AFC title game in Denver or the shanked field goal in this past Super Bowl, kicker Stephen Gostkowski has been in the middle of that mess. So, you’d think perhaps the Pats would bring in some competition for the 34-year-old  kicker. You’d be wrong. Instead, it’s incumbent punter Ryan Allen who’s facing the challenge from undrafted rookie Corey Bojorquez. 

Allen has been fairly steady for the better part of his five-year career in New England. Yes, his yards per punt have come down from a high of 46.4 in 2014 to a career-low of 43.4 this past season but he did manage to drop 24 of his 58 punts inside the 20-yard line, the second-highest percentage of his tenure. Couple that dependability with his job as full-time holder for Gostkowski, and Allen would seem to have the inside track on retaining his job.

However, Bojorquez has what appears to be a bionic leg. He has boomed punts with regularity both in the spring and in the first week of camp. He’s outdone Allen with both hang time and distance, but his problem has been both consistency - he’s had a couple of shanks - and sometimes he’s displayed too much leg, which would have resulted in touchbacks. If he can find a more even approach, the New Mexico product might just unseat the vet. Bojorquez will also have to prove he can hold kicks as well as Allen has. That will certainly play a role in the final decision.

Camp Battles: A look at the front four competition at Patriots camp

Camp Battles: A look at the front four competition at Patriots camp

FOXBORO -- Lost amidst the conversation surrounding Malcolm Butler’s Super Bowl disappearance was that the Patriots run defense was also missing in action. They got gashed by the Eagles for 164 yards on the ground in that 41-33 defeat. 

That served as an imperfect bookend to the way the 2017-18 season started: a loss to the Chiefs that saw Kareem Hunt & Co. reel off 185 yards. With a coach that wants to commit fewer bodies to stopping the rushing attack and more toward eliminating big passing plays, Bill Belichick and his staff could never quite find the right formula or right players.

So, what did the organization do after those debacles? Get to work remaking the front four. They added veteran Adrian Clayborn via free agency and swung a trade for former first-rounder Danny Shelton. While it's early in camp, both have made an impact and should help solidify what was a porous group prior. 

Clayborn has fared okay in pass rushing drills and if he can man one end consistently, that should allow Trey Flowers to kick inside in passing situations and cause havoc on interior offensive linemen. But thus far what’s been more impressive about the former Falcon is his ability to hold his ground against the run. Perhaps it was too much time spent watching players such as Cassius Marsh try and fail a year ago but more likely, it’s just that Clayborn is a solid pro who can potentially be a third-down end. Wouldn’t that be nice?

As for Shelton, the 343-pounder has gotten consistent first-team reps alongside Lawrence Guy and over another fellow first-rounder, Malcom Brown. Considering the Pats declined to pick up the options on both Shelton and Brown, it seems like this isn’t just a competition for this year but for a future contract as well.

Shelton may have that early edge, displaying excellent lateral quickness for a man that size but also showing the ability to root down and be difficult to move. That’s something that Alan Branch did so well a couple seasons prior. Perhaps had Branch decided to, you know, actually show up last season, maybe the Eagles wouldn’t have sliced and diced the Pats defense...

As for other defensive linemen who have caught the eye so far, DE Keionta Davis has gotten plenty of reps with the second unit and has had his moments. At 6-foot-4, 280, he's an athletic freak but will it translate consistently? He missed all of last season with an injury. Defensive tackles Frank Herron and John Atkins have also been involved and while they're likely on the outside looking in for a roster spot, they could be in competition for a practice squad spot.

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Camp Battles: Running backs face stark competition

Camp Battles: Running backs face stark competition

FOXBORO -- Dion Lewis was the best pure runner to wear a Patriots uniform since an inspired Corey Dillon back in 2004. That’s a mighty long time to go between elite backs but that’s also what happens when you have the best quarterback in NFL history on your side. 

But despite his terrific skills and season, it wasn’t as if the Pats let Lewis be the team’s bell cow back until the final two weeks of the regular season. It was then the shifty yet powerful Lewis put the offense on his shoulder, combining for 61 total touches against AFC East foes Buffalo and New York. That amounted to essentially 30% of Lewis’ workload for the entire season (180 rushes/32 receptions).

So how will the Pats change with Lewis gone but not forgotten (they’ll see him week 10 at Tennessee)? Not a hell of a lot. Bill Belichick has approach that position with a by committee approach and there’s nothing to suggest that will change less than a week in training camp. What is clear, however, is that the best back on the roster to this point has been Rex Burkhead.

The veteran runner impressed during his first season with New England and earned a three-year contract in the offseason. It’s safe to say Burkhead’s ability warrants more than the 64 rushes he got a year ago but that was in part because the 28-year old was plagued by injuries, missing a half dozen games, and Lewis’ re-emergence at the position. Burkhead looks as quick as ever during the early days of camp, and his jump cut ability is damn near close to what Lewis provided. He should bring some big play pop to the attack both as a runner and, of course, as a pass receiver, where you could see Burkhead find himself in the slot on occasion.

First-round rookie Sony Michel has shown signs that he can handle the early stages of the team’s passing attack and also brought some power to the goal line. There is no question the staff is high on his ability (duh) but Michel will have to work hard to prove he’s reliable, especially when it comes to holding onto the rock. That was an issue in college and has flashed again during spring and summer camps.

No one ever worries about the team’s top passing back, James White. He has come a mighty long way from his rookie season when several defensive players privately thought Belichick had swung and missed. Now White is as reliable as they come, a terrific receiver out of the backfield but also someone who has improved his run ability between the tackles. Pencil him in for 55 catches, maybe more with the concerns at wide receiver.

After that, there may be an open spot for a power back. Mike Gillislee scored three touchdowns in the season opener last year then regressed. By the end of the year, he was a healthy scratch although to his credit, didn’t make waves publicly or otherwise. Due about 2-and-a-half million dollars this year, he would seem to be very much on the bubble, duking it out with a much cheaper one-year contract alternative, former Bengals RB Jeremy Hill. Hill and Gillislee have both had their moments in the red zone early in camp but the latter missed Sunday’s session and availability - as we know - is very important to Belichick. I guess Brandon Bolden could be an option as a big back too but we’ve read that story and it always seems to end the same way. 

Former Vanderbilt star Ralph Webb seems ticketed for the practice squad if he can show any signs this summer. Belichick walked and talked with the rookie for a good 7 or 8 minutes Saturday before the start of practice and it’s also important to remember the team coughed up a decent chunk of change for the undrafted runner to get him on their roster. 

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