Shane Vereen is poised to become the next great receiving back in Foxboro.
When citing the New England Patriots' remarkable consistency, pundits often point out that the Patriots have won double-digit games every season dating back to 2003. Mind-boggling as that sounds, New England's lofty standards are attainable because of its ability to develop raw talent into reliable contributions.
2013 is no different, as the Patriots are teeming with young talent on both sides of the ball. Young stars like Chandler Jones and Stevan Ridley are generating national attention, and rightfully so. If things break right, those two could be among the elite at their respective positions by season's end.
However, championship teams are not just strong at the top, but all through the middle and lower classes of the 53-man roster. Depth is what allows teams like the Patriots and Green Bay Packers to thrive in spite of attrition, while talented squads like the Dallas Cowboys invariably wilt.
Thus, the Patriots will need players from the lower half of their roster to play important roles. None of the following will probably generate national attention or Pro Bowl berths, but each can fulfill a specific niche as a cog in the New England machine.
With that, here are five Patriots whose contributions this season may be unheralded, but important nonetheless.
Since rookies are not established in the NFL, is it really possible for them to "break out" with no previous sample size to go off of? Semantics aside, the quartet of Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson, Zach Sudfeld and Josh Boyce will play a vital role in the Patriots' passing game in 2013.
Thompkins and Dobson in particular are in unique situations, as both figure to receive extensive reps, unlike most other players on this list. The Patriots offense has thrived in three-receiver sets this preseason, so it would make sense to pair the two rookies with Danny Amendola. That trio would be threatening to all three levels of the defense, providing the Patriots a dimension the offense has missed in recent seasons.
Though not a receiver, Sudfeld also warrants mentioning, as his imposing 6'7" frame and surprising athleticism have been a godsend to the shockingly tight end-starved offense. When the Patriots have played two-tight end sets this preseason, Sudfeld has been the primary option as the receiving F tight end, starting alongside Jake Ballard. With Gronkowski likely out for Week 1, Sudfeld might be Tom Brady's go-to target at the position, at least to start the season.
Most importantly, the rookies have earned Brady's trust, something even veterans like Joey Galloway and Chad Ochocinco failed to do. They may not technically qualify as breakout candidates, but the rookie receivers are among the likeliest candidates to exceed preseason expectations.
Three months ago, the Patriots looked set at defensive tackle. Line anchor Vince Wilfork would have his two co-starters from 2012 back, Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick. In addition, the Pats had signed veteran Tommy Kelly and landed CFL star Armond Armstead earlier in the winter.
But Love and Deaderick were cut before spring practices, and Armstead has missed all off camp with an ambiguous infection. Wilfork and Kelly have excelled in preseason thus far, but both are on the wrong side of 30 and will likely wear down if asked to shoulder too much.
While the smorgasbord of undrafted players looks ominous at first, second-year tackle Marcus Forston has emerged from the flotsam as a quietly impressive player. Forston spent much of 2012 on the practice squad and actually received a promotion to the active squad for the AFC Championship Game.
With increased reps, Forston received notice for a fairly strong performance against the Bucs last week. Steve Palozzolo of Pro Football Focus graded him out at plus-2.5, calling him "unblockable in the running game." Moreover, Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston took notice of a play near the goal line where Forston burst through the A gap and blew up a run.
At 6'3" and 305 pounds, Forston possesses decent size as a two-gapping run-stopper who can play the 0- or 1-technique, something he was noted for coming out of Miami. At the moment, the Patriots do not really have another player with that skill set behind Wilfork. If Forston can continue building upon his camp progress, he could be the first option to spell Wilfork or Kelly in early downs.
Dane Fletcher missed all of 2012 with a torn ACL, and at first glance, his return does not seem particularly meaningful. In two seasons, Fletcher has compiled just two sacks and 27 tackles. And with second-rounder Jamie Collins in the mix, it might seem like Fletcher will be relegated to special teams duty.
However, there is reason to believe the fourth-year pro might hold value as a coverage linebacker in sub packages. Fletcher held that role in 2011 and played 22.4 percent of that season's defensive snaps, per Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston. That's about what you might expect for a third-down linebacker, especially on a team with run-oriented backers like the Patriots.
This year, Fletcher is probably in a three-way battle with Collins and Dont'a Hightower for a role in nickel packages next to three-down stalwart Jerod Mayo. While the lofty draft statuses of the latter two might give them the edge in fans' eyes, Fletcher might actually be the most capable.
At 6'2" and 244 pounds, Fletcher is the smallest of the three. He complements that size with speed and agility, as Fletcher ran a 6.93 three-cone shuttle time at his 2010 pro day, which would have ranked in the top 10 had he been invited to the combine. The Patriots have emphasized the drill's illustration of a player's quickness, and Fletcher certainly excels in that department.
Admittedly, it's hard to know how much the ACL injury will diminish Fletcher. But for what it's worth, Pro Football Focus singled him out as the top performer in the Pats' first preseason game against the Eagles, grading him out at plus-3.2. If Fletcher can add defensive contributions on top of his special teams presence, he could be a quietly valuable player this season.
Replacing long-time starter Matt Light, Nate Solder's sophomore campaign went about as well as any Pats fan could have hoped. According to STATS LLC, Solder committed only three penalties and gave up a reasonable 3.5 sacks in 1,234 offensive snaps, the most in the league last year per Football Outsiders.
The 6'8", 320-pound Solder is absolutely massive for a left tackle, a position where agility and quick feet are pivotal. Solder possesses that rare combination, however, and his freak athleticism has translated into quick success under the tutelage of renowned offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia.
His nimble and fluid movements are a real asset to the Patriots offense, which often asks its offensive linemen to pull or block downfield. For instance, this informative breakdown by Matt Bowen of the National Football Post embodies the movement New England asks of its linemen. On the play, Solder shifts down the middle of the field to make a down block on Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, helping clear the way for a BenJarvus Green-Ellis touchdown.
Perhaps paradoxically, the main concern for the hulking Solder was whether or not he could hold up against power rushers, according to his Pro Football Weekly scouting report. That's less of a concern at left tackle, where 4-3 edge-rushers and weak-side linebackers generally rely more on speed.
Nevertheless, seeing Solder start 2013 with a dominating pancake was an encouraging sign. Another year of stellar blindside protection should garner Solder some national recognition as one of the league's best left tackles.
The role of sub package rusher is probably the most heated on the Patriots roster in terms of pure quantity. Former mid-round picks Jermaine Cunningham and Jake Bequette generated most of the pre-camp attention in that regard, as did CFL imports Armstead and Jason Vega. However, the clear winner that has emerged from that battle is none of those, but rather largely anonymous fifth-year pro Marcus Benard.
After a motorcycle accident in October of 2011 derailed Benard for much of the last two seasons, the Patriots got him for almost nothing this past January. Since then, he's demonstrated surprising quickness and natural rushing abilities, unlike the Patriots' largely ineffective sub rushers the past few seasons.
Benard's success is not a fluke, at least based on his past track record. In 2010, Benard recorded 7.5 sacks playing both weak-side linebacker and defensive end in Cleveland. Advanced NFL Stats.com rated Benard the Browns' third-best linebacker with a 1.24 Win Probability Added (WPA+). He did not play enough snaps at one position to qualify, but that would have ranked him 10th among all defensive linemen.
This year, Benard has mostly played the 3-technique in New England, and exclusively in sub packages. He's proven most effective in that specialized role, and that's probably all the Patriots need given the solid state of their starting line. Benard's unique speed and agility seem ripe for some creative blitzes. Some stunt blitz concepts with the similarly athletic Chandler Jones could be a nightmare for opposing offensive linemen.
Despite being a largely one-dimensional player, that one dimension happens to be one of the most important skills in today's pass-heavy NFL. If Benard is finally the answer to the Patriots' interior pass-rush problems, he may end up being this offseason's best dollar-for-dollar signing.
In the modern NFL, running backs with receiving ability and positional versatility are just as valuable (if not more so) than the classic workhorse back. In 2013, Shane Vereen will have a golden opportunity to become one of the league's elite backs in that regard.
Last season, erstwhile third-down back Danny Woodhead played 34.1 percent of the Patriots' offensive snaps, per Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston. Vereen figures to see a similar workload, and his ability to exploit linebackers in space is a huge asset to the passing game. His touchdown this preseason against the Eagles, in which Vereen motioned out wide in man coverage against a linebacker, was eerily similar to his touchdown in the divisional round against the Texans last year.
In looking for ways the Patriots may compensate for Aaron Hernandez's release, Vereen is the most obvious candidate. In recent season, the Patriots have been especially dangerous in "Joker" packages (3 WR, 2 TE), as Hernandez's ability to line up in the backfield often forced the defense to reveal its hand in coverage.
This year, Pats fans might see the same concepts, only in modified personnel. As Field Yates of ESPN Boston noted, the Patriots lined up in "Houston" personnel (3 WR, 2 RB) for their first play against the Bucs last week. With Rob Gronkowski looking increasingly unlikely to start the season, that package might be the Patriots' best bet in getting all their best playmakers on the field.
The Patriots have always made good use of their previous receiving backs, Kevin Faulk and Woodhead. Per Pro-Football-Reference, a running back has compiled at least 30 receptions in nine of Bill Belichick's 12 seasons in Foxboro. Vereen looks likely to join that list and is poised to be one of the Patriots' biggest breakout stars of 2013.