For the 2013 New England Patriots, the offseason has been a time of turmoil, adjusting, learning and adjusting some more.
Seriously, the roster underwent a bigger overhaul than Michael Jackson’s skin pigmentation.
They trimmed the proverbial fat (if only I could shed real fat as easily) by releasing 2012 starters Brandon Lloyd, Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick. They let Wes Welker test the free-agent market and he called the team’s bluff by joining archrival Peyton Manning in Denver.
It was a painful breakup for fans, and the local media reacted like a spurned high-school cheerleader when the Patriots signed Danny Amendola, proclaiming in essence, “Wes didn’t leave us, we dumped him. Danny was the guy we wanted the whole time. Besides he’s, like, way hotter and taller and he’s totally perfect for us.”
Danny Woodhead joined the exodus by plugging in with the Chargers, and Deion Branch is still swaying in the free-agent breeze.
Out with the old, in with the new. Change is constant for the Patriots and even though they bid farewell to many familiar faces, they welcomed even more newcomers to Foxboro.
Through it all, they kept plugging away in free agency and the draft, ultimately entering mid-June with 90 players competing for 53 roster spots.
Upcoming mandatory minicamps and next month’s training camp will go a long way towards shaping the final roster, as will the preseason, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of the spring months. Rookie minicamps and OTAs (organized team activities) present players with their first opportunities to turn some heads.
Here are eight Patriots who’ve done just that, giving themselves an early edge to build on during the offseason’s ongoing roster competition.
It’s fair to say the Patriots always had high hopes for Ras-I Dowling, seeing as they drafted him 33rd overall in 2011. It’s also fair to say he has fallen woefully short of expectations after ending each of his first two seasons on injured reserve and playing in a total of nine games in that span.
Maybe, just maybe, the third time’s a charm for the talented cornerback.
Dowling stood out during OTAs, catching the attention of ESPNBoston’s Mike Reiss, as well as NESN’s Luke Hughes. In response to an email from one of his readers, Reiss offered:
“…there was a play in Tuesday's organized team activity where a ball was thrown to the sideline and a cornerback made a sharp break on the delivery to break it up and nearly pick it off (it would have been an easy touchdown). When it happened, because the players aren't wearing jersey numbers, my first instinct was that it was Aqib Talib because it was a taller corner flashing playmaking skills. But upon closer inspection, it was Dowling.”
Hughes made a similar observation, noting “for my money at least, Dowling appeared to be the best player out on the corner.”
Of course that means very little right now. Players aren’t even wearing pads or making contact yet. Remember back in 2010 when Randy Moss was supposedly having his best camp as a Patriot? He caught nine passes in four regular-season games that season before they shipped him off to the Vikings in exchange for a draft pick (Ryan Mallett).
Still, it’s nice to see Dowling making progress, even in gym shorts and a practice jersey. There’s reason for cautious optimism surrounding the former Virginia standout.
With developing young cornerback Alfonzo Dennard recently carted off the field following a shoulder injury, Dowling’s emergence would be a welcome boost to a secondary that seems to perpetually need one.
Even in the NFL, Zach Sudfeld stands out in a crowd.
At 6’7”, he can almost head-butt the crossbar and he’s the easiest Patriot to identify at OTAs, thanks to his golden mane flowing from the back of his helmet.
The undrafted rookie out of Nevada has earned attention for more than his Brady-circa-2010 hairstyle, however.
With Rob Gronkowski injured and Aaron Hernandez recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, Sudfeld entered OTAs with an opportunity for heavy reps. On June 4, Jake Ballard left the field with a leg injury after catching a pass and Sudfeld was pressed into action, taking snaps with the first-team offense.
So far Sudfeld has seized his opportunity and garnered praise from onlookers. The same day that Ballard was injured, Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston tweeted that Sudfeld was already taking advantage, also noting he was working out privately with Brady.
"One lesser-known player who catches the eye: Rookie TE Zach Sudfeld. Seems to take advantage of reps with top TEs out. Private work w/ Brady"
Reiss’ colleague, Field Yates, added on ESPNBoston that Sudfeld “continues to look like a smooth pass catcher.”
NESN’s Doug Kyed expanded even further, remarking on Sudfeld's pass-catching skills, not just during his private time with Brady but during seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 drills as well.
Back in May, I profiled Sudfeld as a breakout candidate because his size, agility and athleticism make for a dangerous combination if he ever gets an opportunity to play. With the rash of injuries the Patriots have suffered at tight end, he’s getting his chance early on and is making the most of it thus far.
After seeing time at offensive tackle in all 16 games last season, Marcus Cannon earned an extended look at guard during OTAs.
Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston has noted the change several times over the past few weeks and it makes a ton of sense.
Cannon is an excellent insurance policy and provides quality depth behind starting tackles Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder, but when Donald Thomas signed with the Colts, the Patriots were left without a similar plan at guard.
While Cannon played just 12 snaps at guard in 2012 (per Rotoworld.com), he has the size to bang with the big boys on the interior.
Cannon is a load at 6’5” 358 pounds. If he continues to progress at guard, his versatility will be a major boon to a unit without a clear backup plan at the position. He could eventually push veteran Dan Connolly for a starting role.
Not every offseason standout is fighting for their roster spot, or even a starting role, but even established players can turn heads.
That is exactly what Stevan Ridley did when he showed up to workouts “looking like a house,” according to the Boston Herald's Jeff Howe, via Twitter:
"Stevan Ridley looked like a house today. He's added a noticeable amount of muscle. Might be even more difficult to tackle in 2013."
Every year, we hear about Player X who’s in the best shape of his life, or Player Y who looks like a man on a mission. Most of the time, it means nothing.
In Ridley’s case, his jacked-up physique may actually have a significant impact on his performance.
In 2012, Ridley was quietly among the most productive ball-carriers in the NFL with 1,263 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. He wasn’t as efficient with his carries, however, as he was during his rookie season.
In 2011, Ridley averaged 5.1 yards per carry on 87 totes. During his breakout last season, his yards per carry fell to 4.4. Some of that was to be expected, given his heavier workload, and while his 4.4 yards per pop still ranked him 13th among running backs in 2012, he needs to inch closer to averaging five yards per carry to truly join the NFL’s elite.
One possible reason for his decreased efficiency? Ridley was awful at breaking tackles.
According to Football Outsiders, Ridley broke only 12 tackles on 296 total touches, meaning he broke a tackle on 4.1 percent of his total offensive touches. That represents the sixth-lowest broken-tackle rate among all NFL running backs with at least 80 total touches.
Even pint-sized Danny Woodhead broke tackles more frequently. By contrast, Pittsburgh’s Isaac Redman led the league with a broken-tackle rate of 18.6 percent.
Granted, I’m assuming the additional muscle won’t adversely affect Ridley in other ways, but provided he doesn’t lose too much quickness and agility, it should help him bulldoze more defenders and maximize his touches in 2013.
As the only healthy player on the Patriots’ 90-man roster not participating in OTAs, Brandon Spikes is making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Or is he?
His absence has raised eyebrows around New England, but as useful as these OTA sessions are, they’re still voluntary. If he so chooses, Spikes is within his rights to sit at home, eating pork rinds and playing Madden instead of attending.
Shoot, if he wanted, he and Gronkowski could hop on a plane to Vegas and body slam each other into a booze-induced, brain-dead stupor, but he’s not.
NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reports that Spikes is in Florida, following a personalized training regimen in hopes of increasing his versatility and viability on all three downs.
That’s right. He’s not protesting his contract in its final year. He’s trying to address his biggest weakness and improve his conditioning so he can stay on the field during passing downs.
As NESN’s Luke Hughes put it, he’s trying “to become more like Jerod Mayo.” If he succeeds, Spikes could emerge as one the premier linebackers in the NFL.
Not such a bad reason after all for Spikes to skip OTAs.
Danny Amendola was bound to attract a lot of attention in New England, simply by virtue of not being Wes Welker, but by all accounts, he’s acquitting himself quite well.
He earned praise from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels during a recent practice, noted Andy Hart of Patriots.com, and even the typically tight-lipped Tom Brady got in on the act, according to Shalise Manza Young of The Boston Globe:
“He comes in and works really hard. He wants to do everything right,” Brady said at his Best Buddies event last Friday. “He’s very competitive. It’s been a lot of fun.”
This comes on the heels of Amendola joining Brady throughout the offseason to work out together and establish a rapport with each other.
I suppose none of this should be surprising given the five-year, $31 million contract the Patriots signed him to this offseason. Amendola will likely be the most-scrutinized player on the team since he’s effectively replacing Welker, but it’s reassuring to see the Patriots’ faith being rewarded, at least so far.
It’s time for a mea culpa.
When I “power ranked” every player on the team, I left Kamar Aiken off the Patriots' 53-man roster. He still has an uphill battle ahead of him with Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Donald Jones, Josh Boyce, Michael Jenkins and Julian Edelman all likely above him in the pecking order and special-teams maven Matthew Slater officially listed at receiver as well.
He did open some eyes at OTAs and at 6’2”, 212 pounds, he has the prototypical size to make an impact.
Could Aiken be a late bloomer who fits into the team's final receiver picture? He has good size (6-2, 213) and spent half of last year on the practice squad, which has given him a head start in the system compared to some of the players with whom he's competing. There's a long way to go, but after watching three practices over the last three weeks, it looks like it would be a mistake to overlook Aiken's potential to be a factor in the receiver competition
The Patriots have gotten contributions from equally unlikely sources in the past (I’m looking at you, David Givens), Aiken may sneak his way into some snaps after all.
Duron Harmon was the most puzzling of the Patriots’ draft picks this past April. Most experts were shocked when they took him in Round 3.
In his limited time with the team, however, he’s given the local media a taste of what Bill Belichick must have seen in the former Rutgers (shocker, I know) safety.
While speaking at last month’s rookie minicamp Harmon was poised, eloquent and eager to learn, noted Doug Kyed of NESN.com:
My approach to learning new things is fun. This is what I want to do the rest of my life. I like learning,” Harmon said. “I like learning new schemes. I like learning more about football. So it’s not really daunting. It’s more fun. It’s more of a great challenge that I want to conquer to learn the playbook as fast as I can.
Harmon went on to elaborate on his love for the game and how crucial preparation and film study are to him.
Hmmm. So he was All-Big East while playing at Rutgers, he considers himself a “film room junkie”, has an innate love of football, thinks studying a playbook is fun and relishes the challenge of learning a new system. Those sound like all the qualities Belichick would include if he was building a player from scratch.
In retrospect, maybe Harmon’s third-round draft spot shouldn’t have been such a surprise.