One surprise group leads Patriots position battles to watch in 2022

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The real football won't start for the Patriots until late July, and Bill Belichick was quick to remind everyone Monday that OTAs and mandatory minicamp are about teaching rather than truly evaluating players.

But a quick glance at New England's roster on Monday foreshadows a few interesting roster decisions down the road for a team that could be undergoing a makeover going into 2022 and beyond.

The defensive side of the ball, especially the secondary, could be as wide open as it's been in years as the Patriots seek to get younger and faster on that unit. The offense, by contrast, is much more stable from top to bottom. But might New England be evaluating yet another big shift to its offensive line going into the season after trading away a mainstay in Shaq Mason?

Here are four position battles to keep an eye on as the Patriots begin to prepare for the 2022 season.

Left tackle

There could be a number of acceptable reasons Isaiah Wynn wasn't at Day 1 of voluntary OTAs on Monday.

But his absence gave the Patriots a glimpse of what an offensive line could look like without Wynn, with Trent Brown sliding over to left tackle and Justin Herron slotting in on the right side. Here's a thought: what if New England decides it likes that configuration better than what they had last year?

Brown successfully played left tackle for the Patriots for their full 2018 championship run, and Herron, though struggling at times, held his own when tasked with filling in at left and right tackle last year. Also, New England's possible shift to a more perimeter-based offensive scheme fits better with Herron's abilities than a pure downhill, brute-force scheme.

We just saw New England ship Shaq Mason -- a far better player than Wynn -- out of town and simply replace him with Michael Onwenu at right guard. Perhaps they could consider playing Herron if they believe he could produce at more or less similar level to Wynn at a tenth of the price.

Wynn's contract is perhaps even more of a bargain than Mason's when accounting for position, which could entice an offensive line-needy team to take a chance on him. Regardless, Wynn's spot at left tackle might not be guaranteed, especially after he reportedly showed up to camp out of shape.

Cornerback

On paper, the Patriots have their top-line cornerback jobs tentatively filled out with Malcolm Butler, Jalen Mills and Jonathan Jones faintly penciled in as starters.

In practice, though, those positions might actually be wide open.

New England may have offered a hint at that by frequently mixing fourth-round rookie Jack Jones in the boundary corner spots on Monday. While he and third-round pick Marcus Jones were all but certain to make the team anyway (barring any mishaps), the idea of them playing meaningful defensive roles as rookies felt far-fetched at first. The way Jack Jones was gliding around in coverage and plucking the ball out of the air in defensive back drills on Monday, though, that notion might need some adjustment. The Patriots don't have such amazing talent in front of the Arizona State star that he can't play right away if he impresses enough.

Money could also factor into who remains on the roster at corner.

Though Butler and Mills are fairly locked in due to their contracts, the Patriots could save money by cutting or trading players like Jonathan Jones, Terrance Mitchell, and Shaun Wade. As solid as Jonathan Jones is when healthy, the depth and positional versatility in the defensive back room could render him less necessary to keep if they believe Mills, Myles Bryant or even Marcus Jones could jump right in and produce at a lower price tag.

The bottom line: be ready for another surprise or two with this secondary by the time training camp ends.

Inside linebacker

The Patriots didn't draft a dynamic linebacker to revamp the middle of their defense this spring, so they must like what they have in-house next to newly re-signed thumper Ja'Whaun Bentley.

Both second-year linebacker Cameron McGrone (didn't participate Monday) and veteran Raekwon McMillan have recovered from their respective ACL injuries, with McMillan already factoring into the linebacker rotation in a big way.

One other important note: Josh Uche played both as a stand-up edge and an off-ball linebacker Monday, suggesting the Patriots might experiment more with him in that capacity than they did in 2021. That suggests the Patriots could find ways to keep Uche's athleticism on the field whether they play a 3-4 or 4-3 front, play sub packages (nickel or dime, for example) or give Ronnie Perkins more playing time opposite Matthew Judon.

Additionally, the Patriots have three hybrid-style safeties -- Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, and Jabrill Peppers -- who can play linebacker when offenses go lighter and try to spread New England out. So it's possible the team keeps fewer linebackers on their 53-man roster than usual and simply uses three and perhaps even four-safety lineups more.

Assuming Bentley, McGrone, and McMillan make the first 53-man roster with Uche floating between outside and inside linebacker, that could leave players like Harvey Langi, Anfernee Jennings, and Jahlani Tavai potentially fighting for one spot.

Wide receiver

The Patriots might already have five receivers locked in to make the team -- DeVante Parker, Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers, Nelson Agholor, and Tyquan Thornton.  (The only way Agholor won't be on the squad is if someone decided to trade for him.)

Last year, New England only kept five receivers on its initial 53-man roster, so this might be all she wrote.

But what if another position -- say, running back -- ends up a bit lighter than usual? Who might be a dark horse to snag one of the extra spots?

Ty Montgomery worked at multiple offensive spots on Monday and has played both running back and receiver in the past. Malcolm Perry could be an interesting option as he can slot in as a receiver, returner and emergency/gadget-play quarterback. And don't forget last year's seventh-round pick Tre Nixon, who showed off nice speed and quickness to go with improved hands on Day 1 of OTAs.

The Patriots probably can't go wrong with any of these special teamer-type options. It might just be a matter of who makes the best impression.