Christian Sam

CAMP BATTLE: Christian Sam vs. The Bubble

CAMP BATTLE: Christian Sam vs. The Bubble

Phil did his first roster projection of training camp over the weekend. ('Preciate ya, Phil!). When I got to the linebackers, I noticed Christian Sam wasn't on the final 53. Now, I trust my guy but I gotta be his extra set of eyes, too, his safety net.

So I texted, "No Christian Sam, right?"

The phrasing showed I didn't doubt him, just confirming. Important.

Phil said I got it right. No Christian Sam.

There were a few other eye-openers on the outside looking in with this projection (and it's a "projection" from now on, not a "prediction for the end of camp" . . .  stuff changes) among them, Brandon Bolden, Vincent Valentine, Geneo Grissom, Cole Crosston, Ryan Lewis, Eric Decker and Eddie Pleasant.

Personally, I think Phil should do a slide of the "Last Seven Out" but he probably thinks I should do my own slide show if I have such great ideas.

Anyway, back to Sam. The kid is a fifth-round linebacker from Arizona State who's landed with a team that needs linebackers. He's 6-foot-2, 240 pounds and, while he's not a freak in terms of timed speed (4.75 40-yard dash) he did come billed as a possible three-down linebacker with coverage skills. The Patriots need that. Badly. They don't do well covering at the linebacker level unless it's Patrick Chung on a tight end.

But despite that purported skill, Sam being close to the bubble shows just how competitive the linebacker position is going to be.

Which brings us now to the reason for this post -- highlighting the camp battle between Sam and The Bubble. As Phil sees it, Nicholas Grigsby, Marquis Flowers and Brandon King are core special teamers who have an inside track because of that. Rookie Ja'Whaun Bentley, who had an impressive night in the middle of the defense in the preseason opener, is also in a good spot. Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy are locks. Elandon Roberts less so, but still on. If he's going to remain a Patriot, Sam is going to have to boot one of those core special teamers or Roberts. Or, if he gets cut, maybe he'll go unclaimed and be signed back to the practice squad. We'll be watching Sam closely this week to see if he's able to make some progress against the Eagles in game two of the preseason.

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Long Shot: There's a 'Will,' but is there a way for Sam?

Long Shot: There's a 'Will,' but is there a way for Sam?

Each day, following Patriots training camp practice, we'll highlight one intriguing "long shot" to make the roster. What might that player bring to the table for Bill Belichick's club? Who's he competing with for a spot? And what does he have to do to make the club? 

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady didn't make many throws on Tuesday, but one that stood out was a weird-looking incompletion to Rex Burkhead. It wasn't that Burkhead botched a catchable pass. It wasn't that Brady's throw sailed on him. The whole play was just slow...to...develop.

The reason? Burkhead was blanketed on the outside by rookie linebacker Christian Sam. 

Burkhead tried to run by him, then realized he couldn't, but by then it was too late. Brady wasn't sure if he should be launching it deep or throwing a dart to the sideline. All because Sam's coverage ruined the play. 

A former defensive back who bulked up at Arizona State and dropped down to the second level, Sam is an intriguing athlete for the Patriots -- both defensively and in the kicking game. 

He's listed at 6-foot-2, 240 pounds, and in many defenses he'd be considered a "Mike" linebacker. Big enough to handle run-game responsibilities in the middle of the field. Good instincts. Physical. Not a next-generation, 225-pound hybrid at the position, of which there are more and more these days. 

For the Patriots, though, Sam is a little more of a "Will." That's how Nick Caserio described Sam after New England took him in the sixth round. 

Why? The Patriots haven't exactly gotten on board with the new-age way of looking at linebackers. They still like 'em big. That means that for them, someone like Ja'Whaun Bentley (255 pounds) is more of a "Mike," while Sam -- who is the better athlete of the two -- is more of a "Will."

Regardless of your designation inside the Patriots linebacker room, it may be a difficult position to crack. With defenses in sub for the majority of snaps, there may be only one or two linebackers on the field for large portions of games. And with Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy still entrenched, those two will rarely be out of the rotation unless there's an injury. 

Still, depth is important -- particularly because of the likelihood of injury at this position -- and getting contributions in the kicking game from this spot is important. That's what gives someone like Sam a chance. He'll compete with Bentley as well as Elandon Roberts, Marquis Flowers and Nicholas Grisgsby for work. 

Though historically the rate at which late-round linebackers become big-time contributors isn't great across the NFL -- check out the numbers from a 2015 SN Nation study here -- there's good news for Sam on a few different fronts. 

First and foremost, the Patriots aren't shy about loading up at linebacker even if that position is being replaced on some level by defensive-back heavy packages. If you contribute on "teams" as a linebacker, you'll have an opportunity. Last year, when the roster was cut to 53, eight 'backers made the club: Hightower, Van Noy, Roberts, Flowers, David Harris, Harvey Langi, Shea McClellin and Brandon King. 

Second, as a Patriots sixth-round pick, Sam has a non-zero chance to hit as a roster player. Their history in the sixth round is relatively impressive. From 2010-2017, the Patriots drafted 12 players in the sixth round. Nine are still in the league. Three are still with the Patriots: Roberts, Ted Karras and Nate Ebner. In the last decade, Bill Belichick has drafted 15 players in the sixth round and 11 made NFL rosters at some point.

So even though Sam is a Day 3 pick at a position that seems to be morphing to favor smaller and faster players, there's reason to believe he has a shot at landing on an NFL roster somewhere -- even if it's not in New England. 

Patriots rookies quickly learning 'everything is earned'

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Phil Perry photo

Patriots rookies quickly learning 'everything is earned'

FOXBORO -- It wasn't a big deal. It just seemed odd. 

When the Patriots posted photos of their rookie minicamp online last week, the shots were pretty typical of this time of year. Players running through bag drills. Players catching footballs. Players blocking other players holding pads. 

The jersey numbers, though, stood out. They were, you could say, atypical.

Danny Etling, a quarterback drafted in the seventh round, wore No. 58. Sixth-round receiver Braxton Berrios, who measures in at 5-foot-9, 183 pounds, wore a number usually reserved for players about 50-60 pounds heavier: No. 55. Duke Dawson (pictured above), the team's second-round corner, was in jersey No. 52.

"We all got it," Dawson said of the funky-number treatment. "Everything is earned. It's not given. You've got to come in and earn everything."

That wasn't the spoken message from the coaching staff, Dawson explained, but that was what he took from the jersey assignments. 

"You can just sense it," he said. "You can feel it. That's how I look at it."

That's generally one of the major lessons Patriots rookies absorb after their first few days at Gillette Stadium: It doesn't matter how you got to Foxboro, whether it was through the draft, undrafted free agency or a rookie tryout. It's what you do when you arrive.

And when rookies arrived this year, they went to work in numbers that reminded them they had a long way to go before they earned more permanent digits. 

One player who had a jersey that matched his position was linebacker Christian Sam. He wore No. 54, which currently belongs to veteran 'backer Dont'a Hightower. 

Never mind the number, Sam said. Asked what it felt like to wear some gear with the Patriots logo attached, after a long pre-draft process of workouts and interviews, he replied, "Blessed."

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