LeGarrette Blount has run hard in his battle for a roster spot.
With two-and-a-half weeks left before their season-opening kickoff, the New England Patriots have shown us plenty to like in the preseason.
They're fresh off of two preseason wins behind encouraging performances from players whose pedigrees range from future Hall of Famer to undrafted free agent. Some of those performances are expected (like Tom Brady's strong preseason start), and some have happily come out of the blue.
While it hasn't been a rosy preseason for everyone (sorry Tavon Wilson, Jake Bequette and yes, Tim Tebow) let's focus on the positives and examine a few players whose play this preseason has been pleasantly surprising.
When the Pats decided to cut bait with Olympic runner-turned-legendary-no-show Jeff Demps, there wasn't much expectation of a high return. When that return turned out to be LeGarrette Blount, the consensus appeared to be something to the effect of "Not a bad return for a guy who may never play a down in the NFL," but not much more positive than that with regard to Blount's ability to contribute.
After all, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had been shopping Blount—who had been phased out of their offense by the younger and more talented Doug Martin—for a while. Blount averaged just 3.7 yards a carry on 41 carries last year. So Pats fans weren't exactly racing to the Pro Shop to buy Blount jerseys upon hearing news of the trade.
But Blount, who took a pay cut to come to New England, has been impressive in the preseason. With stiff competition among the Patriots' running back corps (including fellow roster-bubble resident Brandon Bolden), Blount has run hard in training camp and produced in the Patriots' preseason games.
In Week 1 of the preseason, Blount ripped off a 51-yard TD run against the Eagles, finishing with 101 yards on 11 carries. In Week 2, he did carry the ball just three times, with Bolden getting more of a look, but Blount still hauled in a 12-yard pass. If Blount can establish himself as a consistent dual-threat HB, it will go a long way toward overcoming Bolden's special-teams advantage.
I don’t think there’s any question about his skills. They’re pretty evident and they have been throughout the course of his career. I’ve had a lot of respect for LeGarrette and what he’s done through his career. He’s had a good spring for us and a good training camp for us. I think he helps us.
Thompkins was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Pats in an effort to add depth to a decimated WR position this offseason. So far this preseason, he's added a lot more than that, turning heads with his soft hands and separation skills.
The reviews have been almost uniformly positive. Google search "Kenbrell Thompkins" and you'll get hits like Pats Undrafted Rookie WR Kenbrell Thompkins a Breakout Candidate? and Kenbrell Thompkins: A Hidden Gem?.
Thompkins impressed in his first preseason game, racking up 23 yards and demonstrating his ability to separate on every route on the tree (along with his willingness to run over the middle). Here's Doug Kyed of NESN.com's take on the breakout preseason star:
Thompkins has only had one bad practice, which came in the first week of camp during the team’s session under the stars at Gillette Stadium. Thompkins proved it wasn’t the time of day or bigger setting that made him have a case of the dropsies, as he impressed in last week’s preseason game against the Eagles. Thompkins can seemingly do it all. He flies by defensive backs on go routes, he can stop on a dime after the catch and his route running is second only to Danny Amendola on the Patriots’ roster.
Thompkins seems to have passed Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce on the Patriots' WR depth chart, as he started alongside Danny Amendola in the Pats' second preseason game against the Buccaneers. If he keeps up his performance, he'll get every opportunity to contribute next year.
Pats fans want to see Chandler Jones to take a step forward in his sophomore year and expect Tommy Kelly and Vince Wilfork to anchor the Pats' interior line.
What Pats fans may not yet expect is a significant pass-rush boost from former Cleveland Brown Marcus Benard. But if he lives up to the performance he's had in preseason, they may come around.
Benard is a pass-rush specialist who registered 7.5 sacks in 2010 before injury-plagued campaigns in two subsequent years (including a dislocated elbow before last season). He opened eyes in training camp by dominating one-on-one drills, and his seemingly innate love of pinning his ears back and eviscerating the QB has made him a potential free-agent steal in a market that always overpays pass-rushers.
Regarding his affinity for pass-rushing drills, Benard said, "I think 'Kill.' I start sniffing, I start smelling quarterbacks. My eyes turn red and I’m ready to go."
Five tackles and a sack in the preseason opener only served to reinforce Benard's near lockdown on a roster spot, perhaps at the expense of Jermaine Cunningham. His ability to move along the line and generate interior pressure makes Benard a potentially dangerous player on passing downs.
Of course, any writer compiling a list of the Pats' biggest surprise stories would be remiss (and feel the brunt of angry commenters) if he didn't mention Zach Sudfeld.
Sudfeld, an undrafted rookie out of Nevada, has been studly in his first preseason. He caught a 22-yard TD and a two-point conversion against the Bucs in the second preseason game, and he could start on opening day if Rob Gronkowski isn't fully recovered by Week 1.
Here's Karen Guregian's take from the Boston Herald:
Sudfeld has shown he can run the seam routes and option routes that made Gronkowski such a devastating mismatch for linebackers, safeties or whomever the defense threw at him. He’s also shown to have a great pair of hands. Given his size, he can play next to the tackle as an in-line type blocking tight end. But Sudfeld also seems to be able to do some of what Aaron Hernandez could as a “move” tight end. He can play like a super-sized wide receiver. When the Pats are in the spread offense, he can line up in the slot as Hernandez did, or outside against a corner.
He may not be as quick as Hernandez or as mauling of a blocker as Gronkowski, but Sudfeld seems to possess parts of both their skill sets for an offense that would prefer to remain two-TE centric. He could be a potential stud plucked from the scrapheap.
Of course, injuries are a concern with Sudfeld—he had a half-dozen surgeries while in college. But if his training camp and preseason are any indication, the Patriots may have found a skill player to help replace so much of the lost production from last season.