Devin Lucien

Patriots absences put spotlight on depth pieces at key positions

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Patriots absences put spotlight on depth pieces at key positions

FOXBORO -- For every "Is this how the Patriots are really going to look this year?" moment that took place Monday's joint practice with the Jaguars, there could have been almost as many "Is he really going to be playing when it matters?" inquiries.

The Patriots are currently without a handful of presumed regulars for a variety of reasons, meaning players who look like depth pieces continue to get frequent reps to show what they can do.

Here's a quick rundown of the backups -- some impressive, some less so -- who are getting the most run...

Rex Burkhead, RB
With Mike Gillislee dealing with something that has kept him out of team drills for the last handful of practices, Burkhead has occasionally stepped in for short-yardage and goal-line situations and produced admirably. On Monday, he took a goal-line hand-off and was hit at the four-yard line almost as soon as he touched the football. Despite taking a shot, he kept his balance and fell forward into the end zone to his teammates' delight. Burkhead's willingness to fight through contact is something we highlighted in our film review of Burkhead's time in Cincinnati.

Gillislee seems to be on the mend -- he took part in positional drills Monday -- but Burkhead has done a good job of putting his versatility on display early in camp.

Brandon Bolden, RB
Another back who has tried to make the most of his opportunities with Gillislee down, Bolden has run hard and seen a great deal of work with Tom Brady and the rest of the top offensive grouping. Most importantly, he's taken care of the football. About this time last year, Bolden began having issues with drops and fumbles and his offensive role during the season was essentially nonexistent.
It seems as though the team is open to giving him a clean slate to start 2017, and he's handling his workload with much greater care.

Cameron Fleming, OT
Nate Solder has not taken part in team work over the course of the last several practices, leaving the top left tackle spot vacant. Fleming has been the beneficiary of the extra reps, but on Monday he had what may have been his most inconsistent practice. He was sent off for a lap early in the practice, and in 11-on-11 work, he appeared to give up what would have been sacks on back-to-back snaps to Jags pass-rusher Yannick Ngakoue. Fleming started Week 1 at left tackle last season with Solder out injured and performed admirably, but he may cede snaps to LaAdrian Waddle if he has more practices like Monday's.

Ted Karras, OL
Karras has been the No. 2 at every interior offensive line spot throughout camp, and regardless of where he plays, he seems to show up well. He doesn't seem to have quite the same movement skills as Shaq Mason, David Andrews or Joe Thuney -- which was on display during a screen pass with Karras out there during 11-on-11s -- but when he locks onto defenders, he rarely gets moved from his spot.

Austin Carr, WR
With Malcolm Mitchell and Danny Amendola both taking things slow early in camp -- Mitchell has not participated in team work since Day 1, and Amendola was not spotted working in 11-on-11 periods Monday -- Carr has seen his usage skyrocket. Quicker than fast and with sure hands, Carr seems to have made a positive impression on the Patriots coaching staff as he's seen work alongside
Brady, Julian Edelman and Chris Hogan as recently as Monday.

Devin Lucien, WR
It's been an up-and-down last few days for the second-year wideout whose workload has seen a bump with the receiver group hurting for numbers. At Friday's scrimmage, he caught the only two scores of the day. And during one-on-one work Monday he ran a good corner route to free himself up to catch a Brady pass in the end zone. But as Monday's session wore on he dropped two passes and was whistled for a false start.

Adam Butler, DT
The undrafted rookie (6-foot-5, 300 pounds) isn't built like Alan Branch (6-6, 350), but perhaps Branch's stay on the PUP list has opened things up for Butler to show what he can do. He's shown impressive quickness in one-on-one periods, and he was out there with the top goal-line defense on Monday. He seems to earn more work from the Patriots coaching staff with each passing day.

Harvey Langi, LB
The Patriots are looking for someone to take Rob Ninkovich's role as a hybrid end/linebacker on the left edge, and Langi has been the guy of late. Where is his best fit? Is it as an end with his hand in the dirt, which is where he situated himself briefly on Monday? Or is it as a true outside linebacker who can stand up, cover and rush the passer? Seems like the team is still trying to figure that out. But the fact that he saw some run on Monday with a defensive front that included Trey Flowers, Malcom Brown, Vincent Valentine, David Harris and Shea McClellin is a sign that the Patriots are going to give him every opportunity to win a job...Even if that role might be best suited for Dont'a Hightower whenever Hightower returns from PUP.

Taking a look at second-year 'leap' candidates for the Patriots

Taking a look at second-year 'leap' candidates for the Patriots

FOXBORO -- Sometimes it's Trey Flowers and whatever young defensive linemen he can round up. Sometimes it's Jacoby Brissett and his crew of young passing options on the Patriots 90-man roster

Sometimes it's Devin Lucien, who's the last man standing on the Patriots practice field.

The second-year receiver who spent last season on the practice squad was among the last off the field following Tuesday's OTA practice. He explained -- as Brissett did earlier this spring -- that there are days when the work he does after practice is a vital supplement to the work he got in during the scheduled practice.

"I just do little drills to try to keep my feet right," he said. "More than anything, I just make sure I'm catching the ball. I try to wet the ball and catch it. I struggled with trying to catch wet balls when OTAs started. Just little things to stay on my game. I don't get the most opportunities in practice so I try to make up for it after practice." 

Lucien is among the many players in Foxboro looking to make the often-talked-about "second-year leap" as the regular season approaches. Yet because this iteration of the Patriots is loaded with veteran talent, there may not be many opportunities for Year 2 types to put their imprint on practices.

Players like Lucien and running back DJ Foster, both of whom are in their second years out of Arizona State, have worked with all three quarterbacks at times this spring. But neither are exactly considered to be top-of-the-depth-chart options in deep receiver and running back position groups. 

Is it difficult not to think about the number of reps they get in a given workout, Lucien was asked?

"I definitely do," he said. "But the way I think about it is you can only control what you can control. We have a great team so if you're one of the guys that's able to make a play, try to make the most of that opportunity."

Lucien's fighting for work in a group that might be the most talented on the roster: Brandin Cooks, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Danny Amendola, Andrew Hawkins all have had success in the league, and young players like Austin Carr, Cody Hollister and DeAndrew White are promising. 

Foster, meanwhile, was splitting work with James White, Dion Lewis and Rex Burkhead during passing camp. Brandon Bolden and Mike Gillislee will also be more involved once the pads come on for training camp. 

"[I] just focus on what I can do. I learn as much as I can from those guys," Foster said. "Enjoy the process. Enjoy the relationships I have in those rooms because every year people come and go. Learn as much as I can from every guy in that room, and go out there and compete with them and have fun."

Here's a quick rundown of what we saw during spring practices from players hoping for that "second-year leap."

Trevor Bates, LB: A practice-squad player last season, it appears as though the second-year man out of Maine will be given a shot to show what he can do both in the kicking game and as an off-the-ball linebacker in training camp. 

Chase Farris, OL: A practice-squad staple on the offensive line last season, Farris was one of the regular second-unit guards this spring, playing opposite Jamil Douglas. 

Glenn Gronkowski, FB: Gronkowski bounced on and off of the practice squad last season and should have an opportunity to show more of what he can do when pads are introduced next month. 

Devin Lucien, WR: With good size (6-foot-2, 200 pounds), Lucien provides the Patriots with a bigger pass-catching option who has some experience in the offense. Carr and Hollister bring size to the position, but last year's seventh-round pick should have an edge on those two in terms of his understanding of the system. Lucien made an impressive diving grab on a short pass from Brissett on Tuesday.

Jacoby Brissett, QB: We've written pretty extensively on Brissett's important second season. He had an opportunity to finish up Tuesday's practice -- which Jimmy Garoppolo sat out -- with a long series of reps that provided plenty of teaching moments

DJ Foster, RB: Foster seemed to do nothing but help himself during passing camp, making a handful of impressive catches -- including one from Tom Brady at the end of a session that had the almost-40-year-old all kinds of fired up. Will he be able to build on that momentum in camp?

Woodrow Hamilton, DL: Another practice-squadder from 2016, he'll have an opportunity to compete for time on the interior of the Patriots offensive line once training camp rolls around. 

Cyrus Jones, CB: A dynamic punt-returner with the ball in his hands, muffs were an issue for last year's second-round pick during two practices that were open to reporters. Defensively, he had opportunities to work both in the slot and outside. He worked with a variety of defensive-back groupings. 

Jonathan Jones, CB: Maybe the top candidate to see the biggest "leap" in Year 2, Jones worked with the top group of defensive backs as the slot option for a large portion of spring workouts. A special-teams standout as a rookie, it looks like Jones will have a chance at more playing time defensively in 2017. 

Ted Karras, OL: Last year's sixth-rounder worked in as the backup center for the vast majority of spring work. He served as the primary interior offensive line backup (at both guard and center) last season and could be in line for a similar role this year with the starting offensive line unit pretty well set. 

Malcolm Mitchell, WR: Mitchell did not participate in practices that were open to the media. He was spotted getting some conditioning work in with Dont'a Hightower and Garoppolo during Tuesday's practice. 

Elandon Roberts, LB: In his first year out of Houston, Roberts was a force at times in the running game. Can his second pro season bring with it a significant jump in how he handles work in the middle of New England's sub packages? He'll have plenty of opportunities to show what he can do in camp, particularly if Hightower needs more time to get right physically. 

Joe Thuney, G: Thuney's the projected starter at left guard after winning that job last season and never giving it up. What would be interesting to see would be how Thuney would be used if the team ever needed help at another spot on the line. Last season, the Patriots were able to largely avoid injuries up front. Thuney played tackle in college and was at one point considered NC State's top center. 

Vincent Valentine, DL: Tough to get a feel for the trench guys during passing camp, but Valentine will be able to show how much he's grown as a player when training camp arrives. 

Call-up coming? Belichick likes what he's seen from p-squad receivers

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Call-up coming? Belichick likes what he's seen from p-squad receivers

The Patriots find themselves in a difficult spot following Sunday's win over the Rams: They are a team that likes to lean on three-receiver sets, yet they have only three healthy receivers.

Danny Amendola suffered an ankle injury during a punt return over the weekend that further thinned an already thin position group. The healthy receivers left on the depth chart are Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan and rookie Malcolm Mitchell.

The Patriots will in all likelihood make an addition to their 53-man roster at some point in order to bolster their depleted receiving group, and in a way, they've been preparing for this.

With just four true receivers on the active roster, the team has been adding and subtracting wieoutes on their practice squad for much of the year. They began the season with rookie seventh-round pick Devin Lucien and fourth-year wideout Devin Street on the p-squad. On Sept. 14, they added DeAndrew White as a third receiver on the 10-man unit, giving them a relatively unusual amount of practice-squad depth at one spot. 

After Street was signed away by the Colts, the Patriots gave practice-squad shots to Da'Ron Brown and Shaquelle Evans. Neither of those players stuck, but Lucien and White have.

"I think they’ve made good progress . . . They both have been consistent," Bill Belichick said during a conference call on Tuesday. "They’ve been out there every day. They work hard. They’ve made plays for us in practice on the scout team against our defense, so overall our guys on the practice squad do a good job.

"They certainly help us get ready for the games by simulating our opponent’s schemes and playing styles and at the same time they’ve improved with their individual skills and techniques. Both of those guys – they’ve done a good job for us."

ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss reported on Sunday that the Patriots voluntarily increased the salary of White (from the minimum of $6,900 per week to $10,000 per week), perhaps an indicator that he's the favorite as a call-up to the 53-man roster.

White, who has been named one of New England's practice players of the week three times this season, is in his second year out of Alabama. He was signed by San Francisco in May of 2015 as an undrafted free agent, and he played in four games as a rookie, catching two passes for 18 yards. He also returned six kicks and returned one punt for the 49ers.

There are free-agent options available to the Patriots should they choose to go that route.

Keshawn Martin, who was released by the Niners on Nov. 8 and is a free agent, could be an attractive option given his punt-return experience and his understanding of the Patriots system. Others who are out there and have spent time with the Patriots include Aaron Dobson, Nate Washington and Kenbrell Thompkins.

Should the Patriots feel as though they would be straining to add a receiver to the 53-man roster, they could find some help with the depth they have at running back. Dion Lewis, James White and DJ Foster are all capable pass-catchers who have the ability to line up wide or in the slot. Foster, who was a college teammate of Lucien's for one season, played receiver as a senior at Arizona State.