Patriots

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. 

Ben Watson makes surprising revelation about 2019 season with Patriots

Ben Watson makes surprising revelation about 2019 season with Patriots

Ben Watson apparently battled more than Father Time last season.

The New England Patriots tight end claimed in an Instagram story Friday he played through a torn Achilles during the 2019 season and thanked a body coach at Tom Brady's TB12 Sports Therapy Center for helping him play through the injury.

Watson didn't reveal when he suffered the injury, but he played in every Patriots game after making his season debut in Week 7. (He served a four-game suspension after failing a drug test, was released on Oct. 7 and re-signed with the team on Oct. 15.)

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While the 39-year-old tight end didn't contribute much in the passing game -- 17 receptions for 173 yards and zero touchdowns -- it's significant that he was even playing at all, considering he missed the entire 2016 season after tearing his right Achilles tendon in the preseason.

Watson's resilience -- and the fact that he sought treatment at the TB12 facility -- may explain why Brady had such heartfelt praise for the 15-year veteran following New England's Wild Card Round loss to the Tennessee Titans.

Watson strongly hinted at retirement following that game, and given that he apparently has to rehab a torn Achilles, it'd be difficult to fathom him returning for another NFL season.

Patriots 2020 free agency primer: Where does offensive line go from here?

Patriots 2020 free agency primer: Where does offensive line go from here?

Editor's Note: Phil Perry will be taking an in-depth look at each of the Patriots' position groups between now and when the NFL's 2020 free agency period begins, spotlighting the current roster and what names might be available on the market.

The Patriots' offensive line was thrown into a state of flux before the 2019 season even began. David Andrews was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs and was placed on season-ending injured reserve. Veteran tackle Jared Veldheer retired in June.

By Week 3 of the season, left tackle Isaiah Wynn had been placed on injured reserve, and the team had imported a whopping five different offensive linemen who had spent the offseason with other clubs.

In what was perhaps his most challenging season, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia had to make things work with Marshall Newhouse at left tackle for eight weeks and backup interior lineman Ted Karras as the full-time center.

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In pass-protection, they actually patched things together relatively successfully. Tom Brady recorded a career-high in throwaways -- understanding when to bail on a play that hadn't been blocked up correctly -- but as a group they had an 81.6 pass-block efficiency rating from Pro Football Focus, which was 10th in the NFL.

The running game, however, was a different story. This group struggled with that for most of the season, leading to lackluster production from their backs and a ho-hum play-action passing game. 

What's in store for this group in 2020? Any free-agent fixes available? Let's take a look.

Breaking down the current roster

Isaiah Wynn: Upon his return from IR, he held his own. He placed 18th in PFF's pass-blocking efficiency metric among NFL tackles from Week 12 (his first game back) through the Wild Card Round, allowing 13 total pressures on 263 pass-block snaps. The 2018 first-rounder needs to stay healthy -- he has just eight pro games under his belt in two years -- but figures to be the team's left tackle in 2020 unless the Patriots add a ready-made blindside protector and kick Wynn inside to guard.

Joe Thuney: Why might the Patriots want to kick Wynn inside? Because they could lose one of the game's best left guards via free agency. Thuney was named a Second-Team All-Pro for his work in 2019 and was far and away the team's most consistent blocker. He could end up setting the market for guards in free agency. Thuney enjoyed his time in New England, but keeping him around -- especially with plenty of other positions to improve and not much in the way of cap space -- could prove difficult for Bill Belichick.

David Andrews: Pulmonary embolism ended Andrews' season before it began, and the team missed his athleticism and football IQ on the interior. Speaking at a recent charitable event, he indicated he'd find out more about his condition following check-ups next month. The Patriots have to hope he'll be given the "all clear" to return.

Shaq Mason: It was an up-and-down season for the guard, who since being drafted in 2015 has been among the team's most consistent performers. After grading out as the No. 8 and No. 4 guard in football in 2017 and 2018, per PFF, he checked in at No. 33 this past season. He has four years remaining on a contract extension he signed in 2018.

Marcus Cannon: Another player who dealt with injury -- and for a few weeks an illness that limited him -- Cannon still placed 13th in PFF's pass-block efficiency metric among tackles who played at least 75 percent of their team's snaps. He has two years left on his deal.

Marshall Newhouse: The team's fill-in tackle when Isaiah Wynn went down, he was praised for being able to grasp the offensive system relatively quickly. After a decade in the league, though, his physical limitations were apparent at times. He signed a one-year deal so his time with the Patriots is likely over.

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Ted Karras: The do-it-all interior lineman was forced into a position to be the full-time starting center with Andrews out. He performed admirably in the pass game, allowing just 11 total pressures, which was fifth-best at the position among players with at least 75 percent playing time. He's a free agent this offseason and could be targeted by the Patriots to reprise his three-position backup role as someone who understands the guard and center spots in their offense.

James Ferentz: The 30-year-old veteran backup started two games last season -- the first of his career -- and is respected in the locker room as an intelligent fill-in option. He's a free agent.

Korey Cunningham: The Patriots acquired the young tackle from Arizona for a 2020 sixth-rounder when it was clear their tackle depth was lackluster going into the season. He played just 59 snaps in 2019 and has two years left on his rookie contract. He could compete for a backup tackle spot next season.

Jermaine Eluemunor: Another young offensive lineman acquired right at the start of the regular season, Eluemunor is a player the Patriots had to have liked. They sent Baltimore -- where reportedly he was playing with starters in spring workouts -- a fourth-round pick for Eluemunor and a sixth-rounder. That kind of pick-swap deal is how the Patriots have picked up contributors in the past like Dwayne Allen and Martellus Bennett. Eluemunor is a restricted free agent this offseason and should be back to compete for a role.

Hjalte Froholdt: Injured during preseason play, the 2019 fourth-round pick out of Arkansas who drew Danish reporters to Foxboro missed the entirety of his rookie regular season on IR. He struggled for much of the summer and it's worth wondering how, if at all, he'll factor into any plans to fill in for a potential Joe Thuney departure. 

Yodny Cajuste: Injured when he was selected in the third round out of West Virginia, Cajuste is a good athlete who excelled in pass-protection at the college level. The Patriots could use more tackle depth -- they got caught short there last season despite understanding the importance of the position in 2017 to the point that they had four different players play capably as starters there -- and perhaps Cajuste will help in that regard in Year 2.

Who is potentially on the open market?

Andrus Peat: The Saints overpaid for Peat when they picked up the 2013 No. 7 overall pick's fifth-year option prior to the 2019 season, but this could represent a buy-low opportunity for the Patriots in free-agency if Thuney departs. Peat should not break the bank -- he was the No. 53 guard in 2019, per PFF's grades -- yet he may be viewed as a moldable talent. The Patriots have dabbled in the failed-highly-drafted-guard market before when they traded for Jonathan Cooper in 2016. Peat, drafted as a tackle but most recently a left guard, should be athletic enough to handle Patriots responsibilities and has played in a complex system in New Orleans.

Ereck Flowers: Another failed high-end draft pick, Flowers was taken four spots ahead of Peat in 2015 at No. 9 overall. Flowers is a massive body (6-foot-6, 330 pounds) who made the switch from left tackle to left guard last season. Would the Patriots view him as untapped potential with positional versatility... or as a lost cause?

Greg Robinson: Sensing a trend here? Robinson was the No. 2 overall pick in 2014 and has flamed out at every stop he's made in his short career. Didn't work out with the Rams. Didn't work out with the Lions in 2017. Didn't really work out with the Browns in either of the last two seasons, where he started 22 games at left tackle. But there is size (6-foot-5, 330 pounds) and physical ability there that earned him consideration as one of the college game's most talented prospects not that long ago. Could Dante Scarnecchia whip him into a starter, as he did with Trent Brown two seasons ago, kicking Isaiah Wynn inside if Thuney leaves? Robinson should cost less than the $6.4 million he made on his one-year deal in Cleveland in 2019.

Cam Fleming: Fleming served as a capable backup in New England from when he was drafted in 2014 through the 2017 season. That's what he'd be with the Patriots if he were to return on a relatively inexpensive deal after two years in Dallas. Why not list bigger-name options in this space like Bryan Bulaga from the Packers, Jack Conklin from the Titans, Anthony Costanzo from the Colts or Brandon Scherff from the 'Skins? Those players might take up a third (or more) of the approximately $30 million the Patriots have in cap space at the moment. If they were looking to spend that much, it'd likely go to Thuney. Gambling on talent and going cheaper -- even though the Patriots currently have the sixth-fewest cap dollars committed to offensive linemen for 2020 in the NFL, according to OverTheCap.com -- seems like the more realistic free-agent route.