FOXBORO — In the wake of the four-game suspension for Patriots defensive end Jermaine Cunningham , the first name mentioned as a possible replacement was veteran Trevor Scott . And for good reason. The 28-year-old Scott has NFL experience and was brought in to provide the just the kind of depth the Patriots need right now.
But do not overlook Justin Francis .
He is yet another product of the Greg Schiano Rutgers program on the roster. The 23-year-old possesses the type of explosive speed (4.9 in the 40) – if undersized (6-foot-4, 270 lbs.) – the Patriots were looking for when they signed him as an undrafted free agent in the spring. The Patriots projected Francis as a depth guy on the outside and he has made big strides in his rookie year.
He has moved ahead of third-round pick Jake Bequette on the depth chart, as Bequette has played in just two games this season while Francis has appeared in five, including five of the last six games for the Patriots.
What makes him such an attractive option to the Patriots as a potential replacement to the pass-rushing Cunningham?
“I like getting after the quarterback,” Francis said. “Wherever coach wants me to play, I’m going play. If it’s quarterback, it’s quarterback. If it’s cornerback, it’s cornerback but I don’t think I’ll be playing any of those positions. Whatever coach wants me to play, and however I can get to the quarterback is all that matters to me.”
Francis was activated for the Denver game on Oct. 7 but did not play. He made his NFL debut the next week and played in four straight games for the Patriots, as the team looked to give Vince Wilfork , Kyle Love and Chandler Jones rest.
“It’s somewhat of a climbing [process], been working pretty hard this whole time and trying to take it a day at a time and follow after the guys I have to follow after. I’m just trying to do the best thing for me and the team.”
“Every day is an opportunity to get better and anything can happen. The way I take it is you have to be prepared, prepared for whatever happens. By being prepared, you’re going to help the team. That’s all I’m doing right now, listening to Vince, listening to coach and listen to my position coach and listen to all the older guys who are guiding me along the way.”
Francis is most appreciative of the family atmosphere he’s been brought into and is thriving in.
“It’s been good,” Francis said. “We’ve grown a pretty good bond. We’ve spent time outside the stadium and a helluva lot of time in here. The bond is growing and we’re getting tighter as a unit. That’s all you can really hope for and appreciate.”