New England Patriots Rookie, Free-Agent Midseason Progress Report
The New England Patriots have reached the midpoint of their 2013 season and sit at an impressive 6-2. Most years this record wouldn't be a surprise, but now, given the Pats' injuries and sloppy performances, it's surprising the Patriots are once again atop the AFC East.
The Pats experienced a good deal of turnover this past offseason, especially at the tight end and wide receiver positions, and coupled with significant injuries to a number of starters, the result has been numerous rookies and free agents have had to step up.
Let's take a look at the new additions to the Patriots this season and how they've fared through the first eight games.
Undrafted rookie Joe Vellano was one of the big surprises to make the team coming out of camp. Vellano started the season behind Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, but by Week 6, he and fellow rookie Chris Jones were atop the Patriots' depth chart.
Through eight games, Vellano has 32 tackles and a sack and has played over 80 percent of the snaps in the four games since Wilfork was lost for the season. Vellano has shown remarkable improvement over that time and has solidified himself as a legitimate NFL player.
Vellano might be undersized at 6'2", 285 pounds, but he anchors well and has the quickness to get past blockers.
He will be a key player down the stretch and will be reinforced when Tommy Kelly returns from injury. But given his undrafted status and lack of traditional size, it's hard not to be impressed with the job Vellano has done stepping in and becoming a key member of the Patriots defense.
Third-round pick Duron Harmon has been eased into the lineup this year as the third safety behind Devin McCourty and Steve Gregory. His snaps have continued to increase each week, with his highest total coming when he played 32 percent of the downs against the Jets.
He had a slight dip down to 22.5 percent against the Dolphins, still his second-highest total of the season, so it appears Harmon's play time should continue to increase.
Harmon has shown good range and consistency with his tackling and appears to be a solid athlete with football smarts to match. He's been quietly steady, and players like that always seem to blossom under Bill Belichick.
Seventh-round pick Michael Buchanan made the team out of training camp and was immediately put into the designated pass-rusher role. He delivered two sacks in his first four games, but his repeated struggles to keep contain recently caused his snap totals to decline.
After playing close to 30 percent of the snaps against the Buccaneers and Saints, Buchanan has played just 28 snaps total in the last three games. Andre Carter's addition only figures to further eat into Buchanan's playing time.
He's still a rookie and showed promise as a pass-rusher, but as many college defensive ends find out, pass-rushing in the NFL is an art form, and it takes time to develop techniques, while also maintaining the discipline to contain.
Buchanan's future still looks bright, and any defensive end injuries could thrust him into the spotlight again.
Kenbrell Thompkins burst onto the scene in training camp, standing out and getting consistent reps with the first-team offense. Not bad for an undrafted rookie, especially when the Patriots had such problems developing new receivers for Tom Brady.
Thompkins continued to show potential early in the season, playing in over 80 percent of the snaps in six of the first seven games. However, Thompkins has faded in recent weeks, playing just 14 snaps last weekend against the Dolphins.
He is currently tied for most drops in the NFL with seven.
Still, Thompkins has totaled 23 catches for 334 yards and four touchdowns, including the last-second game-winner against the Saints. His best game came against the Falcons, where he had six catches for 127 yards and a touchdown. The potential is there, but the consistency is not.
Thompkins will have to work to reestablish himself as a top receiver for Brady now, something that won't be easy with Danny Amendola returning to action and fellow rookie receiver Aaron Dobson starting to shine.
Second-round pick Jamie Collins hasn't played more than a third of the defensive snaps in any game and has been slowly getting a variety of experience.
In addition to being a special teams mainstay, Collins has seen time as a nickel coverage linebacker, strong-side and weak-side linebacker, as well as a defensive end/pass-rusher. Collins' rare athleticism should be a true asset, but at this point he remains raw and without a firm role.
As Collins gets stronger and more experienced, his playing time should continue to increase. Against the Dolphins, he saw his most extensive action yet, getting in for 31.3 percent of the defensive snaps. He also chipped in with three quarterback pressures against the Jets.
Collins has made progress but is still in the incubation period of his career. Expect him to make some noise in November and December.
All preseason we knew that it was only a matter of time until Logan Ryan was thrust into action. Injuries always seem to hit the secondary, and this year starting cornerback Aqib Talib went out in Week 6.
Since then, Ryan has been an important cog for the Patriots defense despite sitting out the first half of the Dolphins game, possibly for disciplinary reasons after being fined $10,000 for grabbing his crotch after his pick-six interception of Geno Smith and the Jets.
Ryan put up one-and-a-half sacks in the second half against the Dolphins, one of which forced a fumble and set up the Pats to tie the game. Add that to his pick-six against the Jets and it's clear that Ryan has legitimate NFL potential.
Ryan's playmaking is really starting to show up, and once Talib returns, the Patriots will have more freedom to pick their spots with Ryan and put him in a position to make an impact.
One of the biggest surprises of training camp was when undrafted rookie punter Ryan Allen beat out veteran Zoltan Mesko, but so far it has looked like the Pats went with the right guy.
Allen is 12th in punting average (46.2) and 14th in net punting average (40.4), while Mesko was 31st in punting average (42.5) and 29th in net punting average (36.7) and was released this past week by the Steelers.
Perhaps most impressive is Allen's flawless performance holding for Stephen Gostkowski on field goals and extra points. After never having done it in college, Allen has helped Gostkowski put together one of the best years of his career.
Chris Jones was drafted in the sixth round by the Texans but was cut then signed and again released, this time by the Buccaneers. The Patriots signed him on September 11, and little did they know how important of a move it would be.
Jones saw his first action of the season against the Falcons, playing just 25 percent of the snaps. But after Vince Wilfork was lost for the season and Tommy Kelly went down with a knee injury, Jones was thrust into the starting lineup alongside Joe Vellano.
Jones played every snap against the Saints and Dolphins, and nearly every one against the Jets and has quickly emerged as a key cog on the Pats defense. He currently leads all rookie defensive tackles with five sacks, including three in his last two games, along with nine stops.
Jones might be best suited as a pass-rusher, but for now he's getting excellent experience as an every-down lineman. Once Tommy Kelly returns and Jones can move to a more situational role, he should thrive even more.
It's hard to find any silver linings in losing Vince Wilfork for the season, but Chris Jones certainly looks like one and should be a big part of the defense in the future.
There was no question the Patriots needed to draft at least one wide receiver this season, and Aaron Dobson was the first one they took in the second round. Dobson has prototypical X-receiver size but was still considered somewhat raw coming out of Marshall.
Through eight games Dobson has 26 catches for 324 yards and two touchdowns. He's on pace to set the Patriots' rookie reception record with Tom Brady, set by Deion Branch in 2003 with 46 catches.
What has haunted Dobson though are drops, as he is currently sixth in the NFL with six. Dobson's inconsistency has been managed, but in last week's win over the Dolphins it appeared that Dobson had overtaken Kenbrell Thompkins as the top X-receiver.
This is a positive development that offsets some of the inconsistency Dobson showed early in the season. Brady's touchdown pass to Dobson in the face of pressure shows he has growing trust in the rookie, and if that continues to grow, Dobson could become a potent weapon for the Patriots offense.
No one could've predicted that LeGarrette Blount would become a significant player in the Patriots offense this season, much less its top kickoff returner. Blount had never returned a kick prior to landing in New England via trade during April's draft but through eight games has 12 returns for a solid average of 23.1 yards.
Special teams hasn't been Blount's only contribution, as early-season injuries to Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden and Stevan Ridley have left Blount as the only running back on the roster to dress every game. Blount has 65 carries for 265 yards for a 4.08 average yards per carry.
Blount carried the ball just once against the Jets in Week 7 but bounced back with 11 carries against the Dolphins. He's carved out a role for himself and should continue to get his chances in a rotation primarily with Ridley.
Tommy Kelly just returned to practice on Wednesday after missing the last three games. While it's no guarantee that he plays against the Steelers, it's a positive development.
Kelly had not missed a game since 2007 prior to this year and was set to be the key cog at tackle after Vince Wilfork went down. The Patriots run defense has struggled since losing both of its big men in the middle, forcing it to trade for Isaac Sopoaga to help.
In the five games he played in, Kelly already had 2.5 sacks, already breaking his total of 1.5 last season and on a pace to put up his best career total.
If Kelly can return to full health, he could provide a huge boost and, paired with Sopoaga, should make for a formidable pairing at the heart of the Patriots defense. The Patriots need Kelly to be a leader and a tone-setter at the heart of their defense.
Danny Amendola was the biggest free-agent acquisition this offseason for good reason. For right or wrong, he was dubbed Wes Welker's replacement and has had to live up to those lofty expectations ever since he signed on the dotted line.
Amendola's injury history was a big concern to those used to Welker's durability, and he certainly hasn't gotten off to a great start in New England.
Problems struck in Week 1, when Amendola left the game with a groin injury, leaving Patriots Nation collectively sighing and longing for Welker. But Amendola was able to return to the game and came through with some spectacular catches, including two third-down conversions on the game-winning drive.
He would finish the game with 10 catches for 104 yards but would miss the next three games with the groin injury. He returned in Week 5 and had four catches against the Bengals but would sustain a concussion against the Saints and missed the Jets game.
Amendola has had just nine catches in the three games he's played in since Week 1, and though he appears to be nearly fully recovered from the groin injury, it's clear that he's still trying to find his stride.
Amendola might never be Wes Welker, but the Patriots desperately need the kind of play he flashed in Week 1. The injury concerns that existed before he arrived in Foxboro appear to be valid, but now, with one game until the bye week, it's time for Amendola to live up to his potential and finally get back on track.