The Patriots concluded the final phase of the offseason program before training camp with the end of OTA’s this week. Coaches and players often vacation during the next several weeks and then the true grind begins with training camp.
By pretty much every account, the Patriots won the offseason. With adding the likes of Brandin Cooks, Stephon Gilmore, and Kony Ealy to an already stacked roster, it’s an easy proclamation.
Naturally, those players will be the talk of the region as the Patriots open training camp in late-July. However, which under the radar players should the fans be keeping an eye on as we inch closer and closer to the start of the season?
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CB Jonathon Jones
Malcolm Butler and Stephon Gilmore will garner most of the attention once training camp commences. And deservedly so. The duo will form one of the best cornerback tandems in the NFL next year. A guy like Cyrus Jones is expected to be well covered as the former second-round draft pick tries to rebound from a sub-par rookie campaign. Then there is Jonathon Jones.
The undrafted rookie out of Auburn made his mark on special teams last year for the Patriots. He was credited with only one pass defense but had a forced fumble and fumble recovery to go with his five tackles. Don’t let the stats mislead you. Jones only played 64 defensive plays in his rookie year. However, during May OTA practices, Jones spent significant time playing the slot alongside Gilmore and Butler.
Eric Rowe is the presumed third cornerback on this team, behind Butler and Gilmore. With that being said, do not sleep on Jones who had an opportunity for playing time on defense down the stretch. Belichick and the Patriots are never shy about letting an undrafted guy unseat a high draft pick so it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Jones will be the third corner on opening night.
WR Andrew Hawkins
Hawkins was one of the last additions to the Patriots this offseason at a position that most assumed was overflowing with talent. Nonetheless, Belichick and company always love an extra camp body or two. However, Hawkins does not come across as anything like that for the Patriots.
Another former undrafted free agent, Hawkin’s is a veteran of six NFL seasons since entering the league with the Bengals in 2011. Before that, Hawkins found success in the Canadian Football League, winning a pair of Grey Cup Championships. He enjoyed his finest season in the NFL with the Browns in 2014. That year, he hauled in 63 passes for 824 yards and three touchdowns.
In addition to his skills on the field, Hawkins is incredibly bright. He recently earned his Master’s in Sports Management from the prestigious Columbia University. The speedster and brother of former Patriot, Artrell Hawkins, seems to be the perfect Patriot-type player. However, he would have to unseat a fan-favorite such as Danny Amendola to earn a spot on this team. A story that will unfold more during training camp.
RB D.J. Foster
Just like the two players before him, Foster is a former undrafted free agent. He made the team last year, however rarely saw the field, sitting out 16 of the teams 19 games. With that being said, coach Belichick’s decision not to put him on the practice squad speaks volumes about how the Patriots feel about Foster. Being a member of a practice squad exposes the player to the rest of the NFL, and Belichick didn’t want to risk losing him. Choosing instead to use a spot on the 53-man roster for Foster.
With the addition of Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead to a group that includes Foster, Dion Lewis, and James White, it seems like a longshot that Foster remains on this roster in 2017. Similar to Hawkins, Foster would likely have to unseat fan-favorite for a spot in the crowded backfield. This time it would have to be Dion Lewis.
Although unlikely, that scenario remains a realistic possibility. Of the group, Lewis may be the most electric back, however, he is also the oldest and most injury prone. If a scenario arises that Foster gives the Patriots 75-80 percent of what Lewis does, don’t be surprised to see Patriots part ways with Lewis, in favor of the second-year pro.