Many eyes will be fixed on Patriots wide receiver Aaron Dobson at the start of training camp this weekend at Gillette. Credit: Getty Images Many eyes will be fixed on Patriots wide receiver Aaron Dobson at the start of training camp this weekend at Gillette. Credit: Getty Images

The Patriots begin training camp Thursday, with sessions open to fans starting Friday, and for the first time in a long time there will be heated battles for starting roles at several key positions. In other words, this year’s training camp is vitally important to New England, moreso than perhaps any other since Bill Belichick’s first summer guiding the franchise way back in 2000.

Here are a few positions to watch:

Receiver
Danny Amendola replaces Wes Welker and will undoubtedly get the starting nod in the slot. But on the outside, where will the Pats turn?

 

Gone is Brandon Lloyd, who racked up 911 yards in receiving last season. Rookie Aaron Dobson, out of Marshall, has excited many with his highlight-reel ability. TCU rookie Josh Boyce, 30-year-old veteran Michael Jenkins, 24-year-old free agent signee Kamar Aiken and fellow 24-year-old free agent signee Kenbrell Thompkins will compete for a job.

Tight end
Gone, of course, is Aaron Hernandez. Could Michael Hoomanawanui be the solution opposite Rob Gronkowski (when he eventually returns to form?). “The Hooman” filled in for Hernandez last year and played well when given the opportunity. He is a “Josh McDaniels guy” for what that's worth, having played in St. Louis and he caught five balls last year from Tom Brady for 109 yards. The fifth round draft choice (2010) is still young at 25-years-old and offers Belichick the versatility he covets. Hoomanawanui can line up in the backfield, in the slot and can work as an in-motion tight end.

Jake Ballard has often been mentioned as someone who could fill in for Gronkowski given his similar frame, but the former Giants TE has looked somewhat slow in the short time he has been seen on the field this offseason. Many are high on Nevada rookie Zach Sudfeld and veteran Daniel Fells should also contribute. Rookie Brandon Ford and listed fullback James Develin could also see time at tight end in the preseason.

Defensive backs
Adrian Wilson was arguably the Patriots top signing this offseason and is expected to start at safety. But we’ve learned in the past that veteran signees in the defensive backfield are no certain thing for New England. Remember Leigh Bodden and Deltha O’Neal?

Tavon Wilson, Steve Gregory and Rutgers rookie Duron Harmon will battle Wilson for a starting job with Devin McCourty likely to be the other starting safety. Aqib Talib, Alfonzo Dennard, Kyle Arrington, Ras-I Dowling, Logan Ryan will battle at the corners.

Follow Metro Boston sports editor Matt Burke on Twitter @BurkeMetroBOS

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