New England Patriots: 5 Players Climbing the Depth Chart This Offseason
With the bulk of the 2013 roster returning, the New England Patriots should theoretically experience less turnover than most teams in the NFL. Indeed, the Pats' biggest additions might be players who were already on the roster, as foundational starters such as Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo should return to the lineup after suffering season-ending injuries last year.
Nevertheless, Bill Belichick runs a true meritocracy and is not afraid to alter how he divvies up playing time. Thus, even with the starting 22 ostensibly set, spring practices and training camp offer the opportunity for youngsters (like Kenbrell Thompkins last season) to catch the eye and earn a larger role going forward.
It's too early to make definitive depth-chart projections, but OTAs do offer the first glimpse into the molding of the 2014 roster. Based on the early buzz from the Patriots' first practices, here are a few players worth keeping an eye on going forward, as they could be ascending up the preliminary depth charts.
5. James White
For Patriots running backs, the idea of a depth chart can be misleading at times. New England is a game plan-specific offense and typically acquires backs with specialized skill sets to utilize in certain situations.
As a receiving back, rookie fourth-rounder James White would seemingly see little playing time in 2014. The Patriots already have a capable back in Shane Vereen, who excelled in taking over the role from Danny Woodhead last year.
However, Josh McDaniels has always been creative in seeking out personnel mismatches. I speculated after White's selection that the Patriots may experiment with two-back sets on passing downs, with White and Vereen serving as de facto receivers. During OTAs, ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss suggested that such a package could be in the works:
With two solid pass-catching running backs in Shane Vereen and fourth-round draft choice James White, one consideration for the Patriots is putting them on the field together. We know this much: The two-running back package is part of the team’s deep playbook...
Backs on 'backers – we wouldn’t be surprised if that becomes a bigger part of the Patriots’ attack this year because of the solid pass-catching combination of Vereen and White.
The Patriots need some way to manufacture versatility in case tight end Rob Gronkowski is unavailable, as he has been for long stretches of the past two seasons. Defenses typically counter in base personnel when they see two running backs, but with White and Vereen, the Pats would have four to five receiving threats on the field.
If the White-Vereen tandem shows itself during preseason, do not be surprised if the rookie sees more snaps than his third- or fourth-string designation would imply.
4. Steve Beauharnais
Linebacker depth looked like one of New England's biggest roster holes following the draft, though the team partially addressed the need by signing veteran James Anderson. However, second-year linebacker Steve Beauharnais represents one dark-horse internal solution to watch going forward.
A seventh-rounder from Rutgers in 2013, Beauharnais' rookie year was essentially a redshirt season, as he played just one defensive snap, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Nevertheless, ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss pinpointed him as one player who stood out during OTAs:
Something that stood out to me late in practice was second-year linebacker Steve Beauharnais leading the defensive huddle with authority in 11-on-11 drills. I watched him put his hands on a teammate after barking out the play-call in a take-charge type of manner. Beaurharnais, the seventh-round pick from Rutgers, is a candidate to elevate into a Dane Fletcher-type reserve role in 2014.
Whereas Anderson is more of a pure coverage linebacker, Beauharnais proved cerebral enough in college to take on a variety of roles for the Scarlet Knights. He possesses the awareness to play the hook-curl area in a zone coverage, as well as enough size (6'1", 241 lbs) to take on blockers and stack ball-carriers.
If healthy, the starting trio of Jerod Mayo, Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins will receive the vast majority of the defensive snaps in 2014. However, in the event of an injury, do not be surprised to see Beauharnais elevate and play heavy snaps as a "Mike" linebacker.
3. Josh Boyce
When Pats fans look for a breakout offensive player, most turn to second-year receiver Aaron Dobson. However, with Dobson recovering from offseason foot surgery, fellow sophomore Josh Boyce has stepped up in his stead and impressed in the early stages.
Boyce was limited by a foot injury for most of last season and ultimately played just 182 offensive snaps while catching nine passes. The 2013 fourth-rounder does possess more speed than most players on the roster, which could have him replace the departed LeGarrette Blount as the primary kickoff returner.
However, it appears he could also challenge for an increased role on offense as well. According to Patriots.com's Paul Perillo, Boyce exhibited noticeably greater self-assurance in practice:
...[There] was a noticeable difference in his demeanor on the practice field during OTAs. His movements suggested those of a player much more sure of himself, and the boost of confidence seemed to serve him well.
"It's good. I feel a lot more comfortable," Boyce admitted. "I learned a lot last year...I feel a lot more comfortable and I'm starting to play a lot faster, and I'm not having to think as much. I'm just reacting and playing instead of thinking about my every move."
The 5'11", 205-pound Boyce profiles as more of a slot receiver, which the Patriots have an excess of on the roster. But if he continues to show maturity in understanding the system, perhaps they would look at giving him more reps at the "X" position, where he would be competing with Dobson and Brandon LaFell for snaps.
2. Marcus Cannon
Former fifth-rounder Marcus Cannon emerged as one of the team's most pleasant surprises last season, starting the second half of the season at right tackle after Sebastian Vollmer's season-ending injury. Though Vollmer is back to reclaim his spot, Cannon clearly left an impression that could have the Pats looking to play him at other spots on the line.
Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald reported that the Patriots had the fourth-year offensive lineman taking reps at left tackle, which offers the possibility that he could turn into the backup swing tackle for both Vollmer and Nate Solder. Will Svitek, who held the role last year, has not been re-signed, so the need exists at this point.
A more intriguing possibility could entail moving Cannon inside to guard. The Pats originally drafted him with the guard designation. After New England selected Stanford tackle Cameron Fleming in the fourth round this year, some like NEPatriotsDraft.com's Mike Loyko speculated that Cannon might compete for the right guard spot instead.
The interior line represents a greater need, as starters Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell were both subpar pass-blockers. Conversely, Cannon allowed just 13 pressures on 246 pass-blocking snaps, a 96.0 percent efficiency mark that ranked ninth among tackles last season.
Moving inside is a big adjustment, as he would be facing entirely different techniques and types of defensive linemen. However, at 6'5" and 335 pounds, he possesses a rare blend of size and surprising agility that allows him to excel either in a power- or zone-based scheme. With so much tantalizing versatility, expect Cannon to make himself a factor in some fashion this season.
1. Danny Amendola
Danny Amendola suffered through a much-maligned first season in Foxboro, playing through a painful groin injury that effectively relegated him to No. 3 receiver status. However, headed into his second Pats season, a healthy Amendola could emerge as a real difference-maker.
That might come as a surprise to some, given that there was offseason buzz about the Pats cutting their purported "Welker replacement" after just a single year, per NFL.com. Those lofty expectations may have unfairly put a target on Amendola's back, but as the Providence Journal's Mark Daniels relays, Josh McDaniels still sees the veteran as an important cog in the offense:
He had an opportunity to get a foundation in the system last offseason and during the course of the year. Now it’s his second year, and it will be exciting to see Danny’s growth as well. I know he’s a veteran player, but anytime you’re in your second year in a system you feel more comfortable just by the nature of being here a second year. So we’re excited to see what he does.
In truth, Amendola will probably start the season as the top slot option, with Julian Edelman playing most of his snaps as the off-line flanker (or "Z" receiver). Last season, Edelman ran 49.5 percent of his routes from the slot, whereas Amendola ran 77.4 percent.
That likely reflects the Patriots' plans for 2014 if both remain healthy. According to the Boston Herald's Jeff Howe, Amendola claims his groin is currently "100 percent."
That may or may not remain the case, but he has shown an undeniable rapport with Tom Brady. With a full season, it seems more likely than not that Amendola would atone for a frustrating 2013 and illustrate why many saw him as the No. 1 receiver headed into last season.
*All stats via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).