New England Patriots: 5 Players Who Will Surprise During Training Camp
Training camp surprises come in all different shapes and sizes, especially for the New England Patriots. In shape or out of shape. Disappointing or tantalizing. Comebacks or letdowns. You see them all in July and August.
Very few saw Ryan Allen making such a splash at camp last year, let alone making the team. Veterans Michael Jenkins and Jake Ballard were cast aside, leaving room for rookies like Kenbrell Thompkins and Zach Sudfeld.
Here are five players who may surprise you come training camp this year.
Vince Wilfork (DT)
Wilfork only missed six games in the first nine years with the New England Patriots. After tearing his Achilles tendon in 2013, he missed the final 12 games of the season. While it certainly didn't help the 2013 season, the injury might end up being a positive for 2014 and beyond.
Defensive tackles take a beating in each and every game. Playing a shortened season—Wilfork will have nearly 11 months in between games—will allow some longstanding bumps and bruises to fully heal. His passion for the game seems to have received a boost as well. Mike Reiss from ESPN.com has the quote:
I'm very happy. Excited. It's been a long time being able to step out here with the guys. Just to take that step is very important to me. We still have a lot to do, but I'm very confident where I'm at. I'll continue to just get better. It's going to take time but I'm very positive where I'm at right now.
Despite the odds being stacked against a player returning to form after a devastating injury like Wilfork's, look for him to play a big role in setting the tone along the interior defensive line.
Danny Amendola (WR)
One thing that won't surprise you is that Danny Amendola was hurt for much of the 2013 season.
He gutted out 12 games on a fully torn groin. While he wasn't as explosive due to the injury, 54 receptions for 633 yards can't be dismissed, especially the obscene 10-catch performance against the Buffalo Bills in Week 1. Nick Underhill from MassLive.com picks it up from there:
But those numbers don't tell the whole story. Amendola suffered a groin injury in the opener and missed the next three games, robbing him the opportunity to build on his early momentum and grow in the offense. While he was out, Julian Edelman emerged as Brady's top target and has held tight to that distinction, not that the competition to be Brady's top guy has been fierce.
The trust is already there with Rob Gronkowski and Edelman, and I see it being rekindled with Amendola. Having Edelman at "Z" and Amendola in the slot—and both on the same page with Brady—would open up some large spaces for Aaron Dobson and Gronkowski to roam around in.
Don't be surprised to see a healthy Amendola back at the forefront of Brady's mind at camp.
After having some water splashed on his head during his rookie season, Hightower was baptized by fire in 2013. Gone was Jerod Mayo, whose torn pectoral left Hightower without a mental crutch. Instead, he got to play out of position—at 270 pounds he is far from a prototypical nickel linebacker—and wear a green dot on his helmet.
A few uneven performances later, Hightower started to put things together. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he had a positive player rating the final six games of the year. Those last six games included five instances of a positive pass-coverage rating as well; again, not one of his bailiwicks.
After making it through the tough 2013 season, Hightower seems better off for it. Look for him to build on that in 2014. Mayo is back. Jamie Collins can help hide some of his coverage deficiencies. Brandon Spikes' absence will allow him to rush the quarterback more frequently.
This is Hightower's time to shine.
Jemea Thomas (CB/S)
The New England Patriots haven't had somebody to fill that role since Rodney Harrison's retirement. Brandon Meriweather tried and failed. Pat Chung couldn't get it done, although he'll have a second chance after re-signing with New England this offseason.
Despite his 5'10", 194-pound frame, rookie Jemea Thomas has all of the makings of an intimidator. Oliver Thomas from NEPatriotsDraft.com mentioned his hitting when profiling him earlier this year:
He functions bigger than his size. That isn’t only seen in the way he runs outside the gaps in pursuit of his target; it’s seen in the way he runs through them. He warrants consideration as a hybrid third linebacker in nickel personnel as a result.
Whether he’s filtering in as a “Star” replacing the strong-side linebacker, or simply dropping down as a strong safety in a single-high look, Thomas can add another dimension to the defensive personnel. It’s because he plays the part better than he looks it.
He diagnoses and runs low in the direction of ball-carriers. And he also makes it count when he gets there.
Look for Thomas to take reps away from the likes of Chung and even Kyle Arrington—he can rush the passer as well—during training camp.
Last year it was punter Ryan Allen who beat out veteran Zoltan Mesko due to a strong leg and a rookie contract. This year's version could be Tyler Ott.
Mike Reiss from ESPN.com has the pertinent contract figures:
That leaves the competition at snapper as the main area to watch -- undrafted free-agent Tyler Ott of Harvard against incumbent Danny Aiken. If it's close, it wouldn't be a surprise if the team goes with Ott because he's signed for three seasons at cheaper dollars ($420,000 this year) than Aiken (one-year deal at $645,000).
Incumbent long snapper Danny Aiken had a decent 2013, although sailing one snap over Ryan Allen's head was a bit shocking. It wasn't a perfect year by any means—a few other snaps left Allen struggling to get the ball placed for Stephen Gostkowski—but Ott still has a long way to go. It might be skills other than snapping that decide an otherwise close competition.
Ott isn't an NFL-caliber tight end—he caught 15 balls for 188 yards and four touchdowns at Harvard in 2013—but that versatility could help break any ties. The New England Patriots are extremely thin at tight end right now, so having a potential fourth tight end ready to go on the 45-man active roster is a nice luxury to have.
Ott has the functional size and strength to be a serviceable blocker on occasion and could even contribute in jumbo packages near the goal line. His lack of speed and agility won't afford him many opportunities in the passing game—he is a poor man's Matthew Mulligan—but he is still an option.