The New England Patriots have always valued intelligence in their players, but Stanford tackle Cameron Fleming's smarts are on a whole different level. An aeronautical space engineering major, Fleming's brains are nearly as impressive as his frame.
Of course, Pats fans are more interested in Fleming's football fit. At first blush, the Pats might not need a tackle, considering they already employ a pair of solid starters in Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer. However, coupled with center Bryan Stork's earlier selection, the Pats now have significantly more versatility in their offensive line options.
Here's a look at what Fleming brings to Foxboro.
Much as they did with Stork, the Patriots leaned toward size in selecting Fleming (6'5", 323 lbs). Fleming fits the profile of the huge offensive tackles the Pats prefer, as Solder and Vollmer both often engulf smaller defensive tackles.
Indeed, Fleming's strength is his greatest asset, a skill set that might have him pegged for right tackle in the future. When he gets his hands engaged in the defender's body, Fleming is nearly impossible to move. With surprising agility that allows him to pull and down block effectively, the Stanford product looks like a nice fit for the Patriots' power-offense scheme:
Grantland's Louisa Thomas recently profiled Fleming's intelligence and upbringing. His smarts translate to the field as well, as Fleming's greatest strength is identifying countermoves and understanding blocking schemes as well as a coach:
“Out of all the offensive linemen I interviewed, Cameron was by far the most detailed in his answers,” said the NFL source, who asked that neither he nor his team be identified. “He spoke more like a coach than a player.” He can speak about technique and schemes with precision. He knows not only about his own responsibilities but also about those around him. He doesn’t overanalyze what’s happening. He reads, reacts, and compensates.
Fleming's arrival also might allow current swing tackle backup Marcus Cannon to kick inside, where he could challenge Dan Connolly for the starting right guard spot. Given how impressive Cannon was at right tackle last year, there's reason to believe he could be an upgrade over the aging Connolly (31 in September).
Will Svitek, who was with New England last season, is still available as a free agent, but the Patriots needed to get younger on the edge of the line as well as the interior. Fleming is not yet ready to play, but considering his excellent raw strength and fluid movement ability, there is a nice base to build upon.
At the same time, Fleming does not really play with as much power as his frame would suggest. With poor footwork, Fleming can often get overwhelmed by speedy edge-rushers who lure him into bending at the waist and flailing at air on countermoves.
In fact, though Fleming demonstrates great movement ability in space, his short-area burst his surprisingly poor. No tackle can survive in the NFL without a consistently quick slide step, leading some to believe that Fleming might actually be a better fit inside:
Moving Fleming to guard would seemingly minimize his upside, however. Moreover, against bigger defensive tackles, Fleming's lack of nastiness might prove deleterious against power rushers. It's not necessarily a prerequisite for success, but one will never mistake Fleming's finish for Logan Mankins.
In short, Fleming needs plenty of work in his polish. If he's forced to go one on one against an edge-rusher in 2014, there is a very good chance that Tom Brady would take significant punishment. The Pats might therefore end up redshirting Fleming, unless he demonstrates marked improvement in a short amount of time.
NFL.com's Nolan Nawrocki had Fleming pegged as a borderline third- or fourth-round pick, meaning that the Patriots received nice value for investing with the final pick of the fourth round. The Patriots needed more young talent at offensive line after failing to draft a lineman in either of the last two years and have addressed that need with urgency on Day 3.
Unlike Stork, Fleming provides little 2014 value. The Patriots may still re-sign Svitek to provide insurance for Solder and Vollmer, depending on how quickly Fleming develops in minicamp and training camp practices.
Still, Fleming provides high upside for a relatively cheap investment. Vollmer's injury history could make right tackle a need as he ages, so the Patriots simply decided to safeguard the position early. Fleming will frustrate the win-now camp of Pats fans, but he addresses an important position before the need rises to emergency levels.
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