New England Patriots' Sleepers to Watch in Training Camp
AP Photo/Stephan Savoia via ESPNBoston.com
The New England Patriots have some under-the-radar players trying to avoid anonymity in training camp.
They may not have the name appeal of a Tom Brady or a Brandon Lloyd, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth watching.
Some are unheralded free agents, while others are draft picks who haven't panned out. But they all are fighting for the same thing: a job.
For New England’s sleepers, training camp is more than a warm-up for the regular season. Because without an excellent camp, they won't be on the team this regular season.
Here are five Patriots who should turn heads as they strive to make the 53-man roster.
Brandon Bolden, Running Back
Brandon Bolden could power onto the final roster. (Image via Keith Nordstrom/TheSunChronicle.com)
Bolden's 5'11", 220-pound frame makes him a tough runner—just what New England's running back corps needs.
In four seasons at Ole Miss, Bolden amassed 2,604 rushing yards, 807 receiving yards and 33 total touchdowns, while also tossing some passes and returning some kicks.
He can catch the ball, has some skill in the passing game, and he had some production in the running game in college. We’ve only seen that in drills, we haven’t seen that in live competition yet, but based on college, it looked like he could run the ball. He’s a pretty smart guy who can catch, play in the kicking game.
Getting any sort of rise out of the stoic Belichick is not easy, but Bolden's been able to do that because of his all-around aptitudes.
If Bolden can continue to impress the coaching staff, he will cement a job on the final roster.
Donald Thomas, Offensive Guard
Donald Thomas has taken advantage of his opportunities.
Marc Piscotty/Getty Images
Patriots guard Donald Thomas played in 10 regular-season games last year, notching one start. And with a solid performance this summer, the five-year pro should make some more appearances during the 2012 campaign.
On July 31, Mike Reiss and Mike Rodak of ESPNBoston.com made note of Thomas's efforts in camp:
One additional personnel note: Guard Donald Thomas’ strong start to camp seemed to be rewarded by the coaching staff. He saw extended opportunity in this practice.
Thomas is the beneficiary of some roster misfortune.
Former No. 2 overall draft pick Robert Gallery has called it a career, reports Zuri Berry of Boston.com. In addition, starting right guard Brian Waters has not reported to Gillette Stadium for training camp, cites Greg A. Bedard of the Boston Globe. And lastly, Rotoworld.com indicates that starting left guard Logan Mankins is on the active/physically unable to perform list.
Without these three blockers, the 26-year-old Thomas has seen a spike in reps. He will be someone to keep a lookout for in the preseason games.
Justin Francis, Defensive End
Justin Francis has been a pleasant surprise in camp. (Image via WEEI.com)
Justin Francis wasn't a full-time starter at Rutgers University until he was a fifth-year senior, according to Tom Luicci of the Star-Ledger. Yet he flashed enough for the Patriots to sign him as an undrafted free agent this May.
In camp, Francis has looked like a guy who should have heard his name called in April's draft. ESPNBoston.com's Field Yates has monitored what the versatile D-lineman has done in practice:
He’s been an active rusher during 1-on-1 drills, showing power to drive through his opponents' anchor, quickness from the edge and closing in on the quarterback, and unique ability to bend in his movements. He may be a little bit of a tweener between end and tackle based on his frame (6-foot-2, 278 pounds), but he continues to makes plays, both on defense and special teams.
Francis has some playmaking abilities and put up excellent numbers in 2011 with the Scarlet Knights: 60 tackles, 6.5 sacks and an interception.
He's no guarantee to make the final cut this year, but don't tell him that.
Francis's high motor makes him an exciting pass-rusher to watch through the month of August. If he keeps believing in his abilities, he will forge his way onto the 53-man roster.
Jermaine Cunningham, Defensive End
Jermaine Cunningham is due for a big year. (Image via BostonHerald.com)
The Florida Gator showed talent as a rookie in 2010, starting 11 contests at outside linebacker while totaling 34 tackles, one sack and two forced fumbles.
But in his sophomore campaign, Cunningham moved to defensive end and dropped off the map. His season ended with a hamstring injury after nine games of special teams play. He collected just one tackle.
Embarking on a pivotal third year with the Patriots, Cunningham has a lot to prove. And thus far, he's well aware of that.
On August 3, the Boston Herald's Karen Guregian assessed the how the 6'3", 255-pounder has fared in camp:
Cunningham has been one of the camp standouts thus far, even being elevated to the first-team defense Wednesday night for the first time. He’s been a consistent performer, showing off both speed and power from the edge, with a variety of spin moves that have been tough to contain.
With his back against the wall, Cunningham is stepping into the spotlight and finally playing like a top draft choice.
Ron Brace, Defensive Tackle
Ron Brace has a lot to prove. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey via ESPNBoston.com)
Another former second-round pick, defensive tackle Ron Brace has been a forgotten man in New England.
The 6'3", 330-pound Boston College product has played in just 29 of a possible 48 regular-season games since 2009. He hasn't showcased much conviction in the pros, accumulating 35 combined tackles, a forced fumble and no sacks.
Although, Brace may finally be turning the corner.
Jennifer Toland of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette found the lane-clogger to be a bright spot in the early days of camp:
Brace, the former Burncoat High star, has been one of the most consistent performers in training camp so far. A strip sack of backup quarterback Brian Hoyer and an impressive one-on-one battle with offensive lineman Dan Connolly are among his highlights.
Brace must have a distinguished preseason to land a job at defensive tackle behind Vince Wilfork and Kyle Love. It will be entertaining to see if Brace can dodge the "bust" label that's been bestowed upon him.