The New England Patriots underwent remarkable roster change this offseason, bidding adieu to Wes Welker and most of their receiving corps, two starting defensive tackles in Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick, their second-leading rusher in Danny Woodhead and most recently, legally embroiled tight end Aaron Hernandez.
That’s far from just another day at the office, but for NFL teams, the only constant is constant change.
The Patriots certainly aren’t the first team to launch a rebuilding effort while simultaneously vying for a championship, and they won’t be the last. Heck they aren’t even the only team hoping to accomplish that this year. Consider the offseason restructuring efforts of the 2012 NFL champion Baltimore Ravens.
The trick with rebuilding, though, is to replace what you lose. Otherwise it’s just a demolition.
During free agency and the NFL draft, those adieus changed to bienvenues in Foxboro as the Patriots welcomed faces new and old into the fold for the 2013 season.
While each signing has a role to play for the Patriots, some will make a greater impact than others and some will serve as nothing more than training camp competitors. However, all players great and small still hold some purpose for Bill Belichick.
Outside of a Doug Flutie drop kick, I don’t believe New England’s hooded and half-sleeved sideline scowler does anything on a whim.
Many of these new additions arrived with little to no fanfare, while others might as well have had a medieval squire trumpeting their approach.
Hype and hoopla, however, are hollow and herald no hastening hometown hopes of hoisting the highly sought and hard-won Vince Lombardi Trophy. Nor do subdued suppositions and slight status spell certain surcease of significant or sustainable success.
Additionally, authorial abuse of alliteration attracts alternating audience assertions of appreciative amusement and acerbic acrimony without assuring the author any added acclaim for his aplomb, but I digress.
In other words, I know using flowery language starting with the same letter doesn’t necessarily make me a better writer, but sometimes I like to have fun stretching my mental muscles. Sue me.
The larger point remains though. Basically, the hype we heap on certain players often proves unwarranted in making them overrated while other players flourish despite their arrival going largely unnoticed and making them underrated.
Both relate to perception and how it compares to actual production. Using that basis, here are the most underrated and overrated signings by the New England Patriots this offseason.
Lost in all the excitement surrounding New England’s selection of wide receiver Aaron Dobson was the fact that Jamie Collins was actually the first player the Patriots drafted this year, but he enters training camp as a forgotten man.
After once again posting prolific offensive numbers in 2012, New England’s areas of greatest need were clearly on the defensive side of the ball. Chief among those needs was generating more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but the team apparently didn’t get the memo and failed to sign a single high-end pass-rusher in free agency.
That’s where Collins comes in.
The converted safety also played linebacker before settling at defensive end at Southern Mississippi. During his last two college seasons, he put his speed and agility to good use, notching 49.5 tackles for losses and 16.5 sacks. He also had 13 pass breakups so he should provide a boost in coverage as well.
He blew the doors off the NFL Scouting Combine with a time of 4.64 seconds in the 40-yard dash, 41.5” vertical leap, 11’7” broad jump, :7.1 three-cone drill and :11.55 60-yard shuttle.
The Patriots will move him off the line and to an outside linebacker spot. With his ideal frame (6’3”, 250 pounds) and explosive athleticism, Collins looks like everything the Patriots thought they were getting back when they signed Roosevelt Colvin and Adalius Thomas.
I know Jake Ballard signed last offseason, but I’m including him here since the Patriots signed him knowing full well he wouldn’t be healthy enough to play until this year.
Before tearing his ACL in January, 2012, Ballard was already something of a plodder. If early reports from The Boston Globe are accurate, now he’s downright “rigid”.
With Rob Gronkowski injured and Aaron Hernandez no longer on the roster, the Patriots desperately need playmakers at the tight end position, not hulking brutes with limited athletic ability and glacial speed.
Ballard isn’t outright useless—at least he can catch—but with four other healthy tight ends, plus Gronk already being on the roster, he might not even make the final preseason cut unless he shows physical improvement during training camp.
Signing him last year was a gamble well worth taking, but it’s starting to look like it won’t pay off.
You may think it’s cheating to put both Brandon Ford and Zach Sudfeld in one slide. I prefer to call it efficient.
I lump them together because their circumstances are nearly identical.
Both went undrafted this April, both play tight end, both signed as free agents and both have an opportunity to fill in for half of the most dynamic tight end duo in league history.
They’re getting their opportunity for different reasons, obviously, as Rob Gronkowski is currently recovering from back and arm surgeries and hasn’t even been ruled out for Week 1 yet, whereas the recently released Aaron Hernandez is facing the possibility of a murder conviction and has likely played his last down of NFL football.
In any case, both Ford and Sudfeld have a tremendous opportunity in front of them and both are perfectly situated to seize it.
Ford, a converted wide receiver, tied a Clemson school record with eight touchdown receptions by a tight end in 2012. A first-team All-ACC selection, he’s capable of lining up at H-back as and boasts a 37-inch vertical leap along with a 6’4”, 245-pound frame.
As a former receiver, his skill set mirrors that of the departed Hernandez more closely than anyone else currently on the roster. His receiving skills could make him a surprise contributor right away and help him earn an extended look during training camp.
By contrast, Sudfeld is the most Gronkish (if that wasn’t a word already, it is now) player on the Patriots' roster. He’s an athletic freak, standing 6’7” and weighing 255 pounds while showing versatility and agility to line up as an extra lineman, an H-back and, of course, his full-time position at tight end.
Based on his workouts listed at NFLDraftScout.com, his skill set closely mirrors that of former Stanford tight end Zach Ertz, whom the Eagles drafted in the second round to catch passes in Chip Kelley’s up-tempo offense.
Unlike Ertz, however, Sudfeld is also a dominating blocker in the run game, which served him well in Nevada’s pistol offense.
With Gronkowski currently sidelined, Jake Ballard got the first crack at replacing him, but when he went down during OTAs, Sudfeld stepped in and worked with the first-team offense, looking comfortable at the position and earning praise from onlookers like NESN's Doug Kyed.
I've been the unofficial president of the Sudfeld Fan Club here at B/R, targeting him as a breakout player shortly after he signed. His unique combination of size, athletic skill and blocking prowess make him a logical choice to fill in for Gronk should he miss any time.
It’s very unusual for two undrafted rookies to start on the same team, let alone at the same position, but 2013 is shaping up to be a very unusual season for the Patriots, and these two symbolize that better than anyone.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Tebow. I’ve always liked him. He’s a better player than a lot of people give him credit for, but with the amount of media coverage devoted to his arrival and potential impact, you’d think he was the deity he worships so fervently and not a third-string quarterback.
To be clear, as much as I like Tebow, he should not attempt a single pass during the regular season if Tom Brady is healthy. Not one.
OK, if the team is up by 40 late in the game and Bill Belichick wants to get the unimpeachable backup some reps and take Brady out of harm’s way, that’s fine.
But that’s it.
Belichick must know that. He’s a smart man. He won’t take the football away from one of the best quarterbacks to ever live so his backup’s backup can knuckle a few passes away and give his followers a thrill.
Tebow could always spin his wheels on the bench for a few years and learn under Brady. He might even be ready to take over the starting role once the living legend retires, but that’s years down the road. Tebow will have minimal, if any, impact this season.
We’ve already established the Patriots were in sore need of a better pass rush this offseason. While they didn’t land any marquee names, Tommy Kelly should provide excellent value this season, especially since Bill Belichick has jettisoned both Brandon Deaderick and Kyle Love.
Kelly won’t wreak havoc like (hopefully) second-year man Chandler Jones, but he had at least seven sacks in 2010 and 2011 before falling to just 1.5 last season.
He played nose tackle last season, though, and wasn’t asked to rush the passer. Playing alongside Vince Wilfork, he should enjoy taking on fewer blockers and a return to pass-rushing form isn’t out of the question.
Even if his quarterback-wrangling days are done, Kelly will still bring much-needed experience and toughness to a defensive line with very little depth.
Originally signed by the Raiders as an undrafted rookie in 2004, Kelly started all 16 games each of the last five seasons, but still carries that chip on his shoulder. In an interview on Patriots.com he spoke about playing with that chip and feeling like he still needs to earn his keep on every play.
As an outside observer, it’s refreshing to hear an established player still carrying that lunch-pail attitude, especially since he’ll be in a prime position to help instill that same attitude in younger players like Chandler Jones and rookie Jamie Collins.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s love affair with Rutgers reached new heights during this April’s draft. He practically took to the rooftops to proclaim his undying devotion by making one of the biggest reaches in the 2013 NFL draft, selecting safety Duron Harmon in the third round.
New England fans know the drill by now—say it with: “In Bill we trust”—but Belichick isn’t a prophet and he isn’t King Midas. He has no divine notions of what the future holds and not everything he touches turns to gold.
Like every other general manager, a lot of what he touches, in fact, turns to pooh, and I don’t mean Winnie.
I’m not saying that will be the case with Harmon. In fact, fellow B/R columnist James Ermilio made a very well-argued case that Harmon was underrated coming into the draft.
Even if that proves true, Belichick didn’t steal him in the last round or two. He used an early pick to snatch him up. With that draft status, however, comes certain expectations—expectations that Harmon can’t come close to meeting in 2013.
With Devin McCourty evolving into a Pro Bowl-caliber safety and former All-Pro Adrian Wilson presumably locked into starting roles, Harmon will likely find himself buried on the depth chart behind them along with veteran Steve Gregory and second-year men Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner.
The best-case scenario for Harmon in 2013 means he’s fighting for playing time at the bottom of the Patriots’ rotation in the defensive backfield.
Barring injury, Harmon won’t see the field much this season. Any fans expecting big things from him because Belichick drafted him early will be sorely disappointed, at least for now.