New England coach Bill Belichick manages the back end of his roster as well as any NFL coach. Past Patriots champions benefitting from the rise of unsung athletes (in 2014, cornerback Malcolm Butler started just one game; this past season, running back James White scored zero rushing TDs) points to the readiness of every player.
With the NFL Combine coming up February 28 through March 6, the names of potential draftees will be floating around New England like oh-so-many stray Christmas ornaments in puddles of slush. But before we look at potential rookies, we should get a better understanding of a few more players already in Foxboro. Below are the names of some potential contributors we could see more of next fall.
Lucien Up: Have you heard of the Patriots’ Receiver Rule of Sevens? (Probably not – I kinda made it up.) In 2002, the team used a seventh-round pick on David Givens, who grew to become one of Tom Brady’s most dependable pass-catchers. Seven years later, Julian Edelman came to New England as a seventh-rounder. In 2016, the Pats picked Devin Lucien out of Arizona State. Every seven years, a seventh-round receiver. Coincidence?
Well, of course it is. Still fun, though. In the 2016 preseason, Lucien caught three passes for 39 yards. The team cut him in September but signed him to the practice squad right away. At ASU, Lucien had 66 catches for a team-best 1,075 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. He transferred out of UCLA for his senior year with the Sun Devils after 58 receptions in three seasons for the Bruins. This highlight reel demonstrates his strong hands and elusiveness, as well as some surprisingly profane lyrics.
With the futures of free agent Danny Amendola and house-arrestee Michael Floyd carrying some doubt, Lucien could get a second look from coaches this summer.
‘Cause I’m A Housler: The Patriots nabbed Rob Housler with a futures contract, which makes their tight end dynamic all the more interesting. Assuming Martellus Bennett leaves for greener pastures (as in money-green – and good for him, by the way), New England has post back-surgery Rob Gronkowski, Matt Lengel, and Gregg Scruggs. Gronk is the lightweight here at 265 (amazing how big tight ends have gotten), so Housler arrives as the pass-catching TE.
The six-year vet has been injured for the past two years (Browns, Bears), but back in 2012 Housler had his best season at Arizona with 45 catches. You can watch his highlight reel in about the time it takes to boil an egg. As Patriots salary cap expert Miguel Benzan has said, we shouldn’t be surprised at New England double-dipping for tight ends in the draft, but even if they do, Housler could factor in come September.
Superstar DJ, Here We Go: We can’t anoint him as a superstar just yet, but running back/receiver D. J. Foster out of Arizona State has potential. He only had one reception in 2016 to go along with seven carries for 24 yards (3.4 avg.), but his ability to play both running back and slot will get him a few chances for more time on the field.
Foster ran a 4.45-second 40 and a 6.75-second 3-cone at his pro day. Three stats of note from his college days in regards to consistency: he appeared in all 53 games during his career; he’s one of only five players in NCAA history to compile 2,000 yards rushing as well as receiving; he caught at least one pass in all 53 games. (Just a few of those catches and runs are highlighted here.)
You know how certain writers have players they like to keep an eye on? I’ll just say it: Foster’s my guy. (I hope this does not doom him.) The fact that he and Lucien both come from ASU isn’t an accident, as Belichick has noted his respect for Sun Devils coach Todd Graham in the past.
Got A Lot Farther By Workin’ A Lot Harder: Defensive tackle Woodrow Hamilton had just three tackles in two games this year, but he did a solid job against the Browns’ rushing attack, helping to limit Isaiah Crowell to a mere 1.7 yards per carry (he came into that game averaging 6.5). You can watch a quick clip of Hamilton executing the “zero technique” (head-to-head with the center) here. An undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss, Hamilton could factor into the Patriots’ future, especially with veteran Alan Branch turning 32 this past season.
At 6-3, 315 pounds, Hamilton won’t be chasing down QBs, but his 29 bench press reps at Ole Miss’ pro day speak to his strength. Could be a fun player to watch develop.
Inaction Jackson? Guard Tré Jackson played in 13 games in 2015, starting nine. Last year, he was put on injured reserve after getting placed on the Player Unable to Perform (PUP) list before the season, battling a knee injury. If healthy (and, yes, that “if” is only slightly less serious than the look on Falcons’ fans’ faces in overtime), Jackson could provide some necessary bulk in the middle of the line. Guard Joe Thuney (305), center David Andrews (295), and guard Shaq Mason (310) all seem about as intimidating as a herd of dik-dik; meanwhile, Jackson weighs in at a more gravity-enhanced 326 pounds. Interesting to see how many reps Jackson gets with the starting unit this summer.
Some nice Florida State game film of Jackson from 2014 here (he’s the right guard, number 54).
A Roster Survivor: Glenn! Must be fun to have two Gronks around, as fullback (and little brother to Rob) Glenn Gronkowski made the off-season roster to this point. At 6-2, 234, Lil’ Gronk finds himself a bit of a ‘tweener: not big enough to block in-line, not small or shifty enough to elude linebackers in coverage. In terms of the 2016 roster, he got dropped more often than a hockey puck, but he managed to make it back to the practice squad each time and now sits on the off-season lineup.
The Kansas State product, who had a cup of coffee in Buffalo before being released in September, had a crazy college stat: though he only caught 15 passes in his career as a fullback, he averaged 24.6 yards per reception, the highest average in school history. So, something to consider, I suppose. You can watch Gronkowski’s game film vs. Kansas here.
By the way, Cup of Coffee in Buffalo sounds like the title of the saddest play you could imagine. It’s like if Death of a Salesman had a sequel.
Double Dog Darius: Nose tackle Darius Kilgo had five stops this past season for Denver before the Broncos released him in late November. The Patriots signed him off waivers, released him, then signed him to the practice squad in December. Kilgo could get crowded out of the defensive line rotation with such youngsters as Hamilton, Malcom Brown, and Vincent Valentine, but even in a pass-first era, most coaches like to have a stockpile of big bodies.
Considering he’s roughly the size of a lion at 315 pounds, Kilgo rates highly as an athlete, running a 5.17 40 and benching 225 pounds 33 times at his pro day. On his highlight reel (starting at the 0:19 mark), you can see Kilgo hustle from his nose tackle position to push a running back out-of-bounds on a flat pass.
Cardinal Rule: The Patriots continue to hold on to Tyler Gaffney out of Stanford. The running back has shown promise in previous seasons, only to end up on injured reserve (with Carolina in 2014 – from whom New England snatched him – and with the Patriots in 2015). Gaffney has made it to the roster on a couple of occasions but has zero carries as a professional. At 220 pounds, the potential is there (here he is running for a TD in a preseason game vs. the Saints); his fate will partly be determined by what the Patriots do with LeGarrette Blount.
As a senior at Stanford, Gaffney ran for over 1,700 yards and 21 touchdowns. He had a 6.78 3-cone drill at the combine, notable for a guy his size. In his nifty highlight reel, Gaffney scores running a Wildcat play and, later, catching a pass in the flat. (By the way, consider pressing Mute before watching. I know I’m old, but I can’t even allude to what gets said on that thing.)
Fun Fact: Gaffney sat out the 2012 season in college to pursue a professional baseball career. On a related note, the Red Sox sat out the same season. (Thank you! I’m here all weekend!)
Please keep looking out for our Patriots’ draft “That Guy” columns. Coming soon: a review of NFL Combine participants who would fit in at Foxboro.
Chris Warner knows another big snowstorm is coming, but he’ll be damned if he could tell you when. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @cwarn89.