Sunday NFL Notes: Will 2014 be ‘leap’ year for LB Jamie Collins?
|06.15.14 at 6:00 am ET|
1. Patriots coach Bill Belichick has long maintained that the toughest transition for a young player isn’t necessarily the jump from college to rookie year in the NFL, but Year 1 to Year 2 while in the league. By that point, players are established commodities. Teams have a full year of film for studying purposes, and tendencies can be pinpointed. As a result, coaches can do what they can when it comes to putting them in positions to succeed, but more often than not, it’s on the player to be able to make that leap from young upstart to consistent presence. With that in mind, from our viewpoint, here’s a look at the six Patriots players who were rookies last season who have the best chance to make the leap in 2014.
a. Jamie Collins — Some would argue the young linebacker made the jump at the end of the 2013 season when he joined the starting lineup on a full-time basis, working in coverage against tight ends and occasionally getting a chance to get after the passer. If that’s the case, now, it’s a matter of bringing it consistently over a 16-game season, as well as the postseason. He should certainly have the opportunity, as the personnel changes at linebacker over the course of the offseason mean he’ll start the 2014 season as an every-down linebacker alongside Jerod Mayo and Dont’a Hightower.
b. Aaron Dobson — The receiver out of Marshall had issues over the course of the 2013 season, and he’d probably like to take a mulligan on the way his year ended — after the Monday night loss to the Panthers in Carolina, he had just two catches the rest of the season. But he had one of the best seasons of any rookie receiver while working with quarterback Tom Brady (his 37 catches, 519 yards and four touchdowns were certainly comparable with Deion Branch‘s 43-489-2 line as a rookie back in 2002), and he will start the year as New England’s primary deep passing threat.
c. Josh Boyce — Because of an injury-shortened season — as well as some self-admitted struggles with the playbook — we’re not quite sure what Boyce is at this stage. (What we do know is that he provides awesome GIFs, like this one after he shook Cleveland’s Buster Skrine.) Regardless, with the LeGarette Blount Kick Return Experiment now done in New England, Boyce should get a chance to work as a return man.
d. Kenbrell Thompkins — We are already on record as saying there’s a chance Thompkins is the odd-man odd when it comes to the wide receiver spot, and so it was no surprise to see the Patriots give Thompkins a shot at special teams as a possible kick returner at a recent OTA session. Like Dobson, he dropped off the radar screen late in the year, and it would appear he still needs a strong spring and summer to secure a roster spot this season.
e. Defensive back Logan Ryan — Ryan is a fascinating prospect — there’s been plenty of talk about a potential move to strong safety for the Rutgers product as a potential replacement for Steve Gregory, but to this point in the spring, we’ve only seen him working as a corner. (That’s not to suggest he hasn’t seen time at safety in other practices — only to say that we haven’t had a chance to judge any sort of possible safety skills.) If he does move to safety, New England certainly hopes that it goes half as well as the transition Devin McCourty made a few years ago. One stat from Football Outsiders certainly caught our eye — in 600 snaps last season, no one managed to get away with a broken tackle. It’s the best mark on the team from anyone with at least 500 snaps.
f. Defensive back Duron Harmon — Harmon is listed as 6-feet and 198 pounds, but certainly looks like he put on a few pounds this offseason. How that translates to the field remains to be seen, but it has certainly allowed him to standout — and be easily identifiable — from the numberless field over the course of the recently completed OTAs.
2. One thing that’s been interesting about that group, at least this spring, is that some veterans have offered unsolicited praise for last year’s rookies and their overall evolution. Cornerback Darrelle Revis said Ryan was “a very smart guy,” while Hightower said Collins “was a lot more mature in his first year than some people are in their third year.” While veterans players usually keep things vague and overly simplistic when it comes to praising younger teammates, the positive words certainly stick out, particularly Hightower’s words regarding Collins.
“It was a little bit harder losing Mayo and all those guys. Before that it was a lot more fluid,” Hightower said of Collins’ evolution in 2013. “And with Jamie I feel like he’s blossomed a lot sooner than anybody. I feel like he was a lot more mature than some people are in their third year. Him coming in and learning the way he did his first year, you couldn’t tell that he wasn’t a three- or a four-year player. He’s helping out a lot. He’s getting the younger guys in there, watching film, and getting everything situated with them. Just like Mayo said: We have old souls. We mature a lot faster.”
3. When it comes to seventh-round draft picks, the Patriots have been able to hit on a few different offensive skill position players over the last decade-plus. Since the start of the Belichick era, they’ve found fullback Patrick Pass (2000), David Givens (2002), Matt Cassel (2005) and Julian Edelman (2009) as seventh-round pickups. (That doesn’t include defensive players like Alfonzo Dennard, Tully Banta-Cain and Brandon Deaderick, all of whom have started in their careers with New England.) That’s some good production for a spot that some might consider a throwaway pick.
(For what it’s worth, in this excellent breakdown by our pal Chris Warner, you could make an argument that the seventh round has seen the highest percentage of ‘successful’ third-day picks in recent franchise history.)
Into the picture comes this year’s seventh rounder, wide receiver Jeremy Gallon, an undersized mighty-mite out of Michigan who was a yardage machine for the Wolverines last season. In 2013, he broke program records for receiving yards in a single season (1,373 yards) and a single game (369 yards vs. Indiana). The 5-foot-8, 187-pound speedster also posted good numbers as a return man, compiling 589 yards on 27 kick returns in 2010, and 192 yards on 31 punt returns in 2011.
“He’s been a very productive player for Michigan — small guy, but compact, explosive,” Belichick shortly after Gallon was selected 244th overall. “He’s had a lot of big plays for them. Real top traits, hard working kid, very competitive player, been very productive at Michigan.”
Gallon certainly faces an uphill battle for playing time as a rookie. As we’ve said before, the Patriots usually go into the season with somewhere between five and seven wide receivers, and when you consider the veterans who are already on the roster, it could be a challenge for him in his first year. That doesn’t even begin to take into account the fact that, as a slot receiver, he will have Edelman and Danny Amendola ahead of him on the depth chart.
But with Blount’s departure as a free agent, there is the possibility of having him work as a kick returner, a spot where he enjoyed real success as a collegian. He’s seen some occasional work at the position over the course of the OTAs, and it would stand to reason that he’ll show up there during this week’s minicamp. If he can show consistency when it comes to working on special teams, he could stick on the 53-man roster as a rookie and go from there.
4. The Jets have never been shy when it comes to kicking the tires on former Patriots who become available, and the latest pair of former New Englanders looking for another chance with Rex Ryan are linebacker Jermaine Cunningham and cornerback Ras-I Dowling. Dowling was added to the Jets practice squad last October, and Cunningham joined New York last November. According to reports, both have gotten some extended run this spring throughout OTAs. New York could use some help at both outside linebacker and cornerback, and Ryan said he doesn’t necessarily care where that help comes from.
“I don’t believe the one guy up in New England’s got all the answers,” Ryan told the New York Daily News this past week when asked about Cunningham and Dowling. “I worry about ourselves, what we think of a player and how we evaluate a player. Do I respect the hell out of Bill [Beichick]? Absolutely. But if we think a player can help us, we don’t care how we get him.
“You had the same perception of a Ryan,” Ryan said. “If you let a defensive player go, why pick him up if he can’t play for you?… It could have been a logjam at (the position). Maybe they were looking for something else. You really don’t know. But again, I don’t care.”
Cunningham was a second-round pick of New England in 2010, had 59 tackles and 3.5 sacks with the Patriots in three seasons. The 6-foot-3, 255-pounder, who was suspended for PEDs for four games in 2012, has his best year with New England last season when he had 2.5 sacks and 24 tackles (16 solo) in 12 games (three starts).
“Sometimes change is good,” said Cunningham, who played two games for the Jets last season. “Every day my mentality is to just play up to the ability that everybody knows I have.”
As for Dowling, he was the 33rd overall pick in the 2011 draft, but also struggled with injury over the course of his career in New England. Over two seasons with the Patriots, the Virginia product had 10 tackles, no interceptions and no sacks.
“Every day, my motivation is high,” Dowling said. “Everybody doesn’t have the talent that we’re given. There’s a lot of people that would kill (to be) in this league. So, I’m here and every day I just work.”
5. In the wake of the death of Chuck Noll on Friday, it’s worth remembering that Noll apparently came close to becoming the head coach of the Patriots in 1969. According to reports, in the days following Super Bowl III, Noll (the Baltimore Colts defensive coordinator) was a man in demand — despite the fact that the Colts had lost to the Jets, he was still considered a solid head-coaching prospect. However, the Steelers were quicker to the punch when it came to landing Noll, as he went to Pittsburgh. The Patriots ended up going with Jets offensive coordinator Clive Rush. Noll went on to win four Super Bowl titles with the Steelers and forge a career as a Hall of Fame coach. Rush went 5-16 in a year-plus with the Patriots before being fired. (It’s also worth mentioning that Joe Paterno was also apparently a candidate for the job, but he ended up snubbing the Patriots for a return to Happy Valley. The mind reels at the possibility of the Patriots landing either Noll or Paterno in 1969, and how the fortunes of the franchise might have been different going forward.)
‘ Ken Laird (@Ken_Laird) June 14, 2014
6. In addition to the kind words he had offered over the course of the last few seasons, Belichick issued a statement Saturday on the death of Noll, reflecting on the fact that he coached against Noll in Noll’s final game with Pittsburgh: “I have so much respect and admiration for Coach Noll — for his remarkable success, for his consistency and for how classy a man he was. Coach Noll’s final season as an NFL coach was my first and I am honored to have competed against him in his final game.”
7. Taking a look at some of the advanced stats offered this week from Football Outsiders, and one thing really stands out about Brandon Browner — over the last two years, he’s been one of the best defensive backs in the league when it comes to allowing yards after the catch. In his eight games in 2013, he yielded an average of just 1.8 yards after the catch, tied for the league lead with Jabari Greer. (For comparisons sake, Aqib Talib yielded an average of 5.4 YAC, 77th in the league, while Revis was at 3.3, 24th in the league.) In 2012, he was 15th in the league with an average of 2.5 yards allowed after the catch. For what it’s worth, in 2014, the Patriots face four of the league’s top 10 when it came to YAC in 2013, not including old pal Wes Welker, who has been a YAC machine over the course of his career.
8. New Redskins head coach Jay Gruden said this week that the idea for the joint practices between his team and the Patriots — set for the three days leading up to their preseason opener on Aug. 7 in Richmond, Va. — came from Belichick when the two connected earlier this offseason.
Gruden, while offensive coordinator of the Bengals, had a positive experience during joint practices with the Falcons, and was more than willing to do the same prior to his first-ever preseason game as head coach in Washington. Meanwhile, joint practices have now become a rite of summer for New England — this summer will mark the fourth time in five years the Patriots have engaged in joint practices, including two last year with the Eagles in Philadelphia and the Bucs in Foxboro. (It was not an option in 2011 because of the lockout.
“It’s a great change,” Gruden said this week. “You get into practice and you’re going through the one-a-days, you’re going through the walk-throughs in the afternoon and you do that about nine or 10 times and you’re like, ‘Gah.’ This is a great way to change it up a little bit and go against someone else and see where you are with your personnel — see their ones against your ones, twos against their twos, threes against their threes and it might juggle the depth chart a little bit after that.”
9. Tight end D.J. Williams — who had the best quote of the 2013 season — has been a forgotten man this spring. Sidelined throughout the recent OTAs because of injury, he’s been swept away in a lot of talk about the possibility of the Patriots adding free agent tight ends Jermichael Finley and Dustin Keller. But at this point, he remains an option as a third tight end on the roster behind Rob Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui. A ‘move’ tight end, the 6-foot-2, 245-pounder out of Arkansas latched on with the Patriots near the end of the 2013 season (he was actually cut and brought back), and has nine passes for 70 yards in 35 career games.
The 25-year-old was incredibly forthcoming about his career — and his relative lack of production — in an interview this week on Sirius XM, saying he got ‘comfortable’ when he reached the NFL. The former Mackey Award winner, a college teammate of Patriots backup quarterback Ryan Mallett at Arkansas, said he started to lean on excuses when things weren’t going well. Now, he says things are different.
“Every day has been a complete competition with myself,” he told the show “Movin the Chains” in a Friday appearance. “My mom texts me and she’s like, ‘Did they draft a tight end? Are they going to bring in somebody else?’ It really doesn’t matter because the person I need to beat every single day is D.J. Williams. That’s been my approach every day and it’s been working out great.”
Being cut by the Packers and Jaguars has given him some perspective on the game.
“I’ve learned a lot and I’ve been through a lot, and it takes a lot sometimes to go through what I went through to really find out how to really get stuff done,” he said. “That’s really what I’ve taken from experience, especially last year going to three different teams in a matter of a few months, being cut three different times. It’s very stressful, very tolling on the mental aspects of the game and what you bring to the table.
“Those situations will really make or break you, and I’m trying to learn everything I can from those situations and try to be a better player, a better competitor and an overall better person from it.”
No one is ever going to confuse him with Gronkowski, but if that sentiment has transfer to the field when training camp rolls around come July, Williams will have a good chance to make an impact on the 2014 roster.
10. From up north, our pal Mike Lowe of the Portland Press-Herald tracked down wide receiver Derrick Johnson, a former Maine star who spent roughly three weeks with the Patriots this spring before being released this week. Johnson said he was cut loose because he missed a week of practices because of a left knee injury. But by the way things were left between him and the coaching staff, it sounds like he might be back sooner rather than later — he said he was told by the Patriots that once he was healthy he would be re-signed, either for minicamp this week or before the start of training camp in July.
‘I think I’ll still have my opportunity when preseason camp starts,’ Johnson said.
Johnson said he initially had some issues with the playbook, but was able to draw on some of his experiences as a collegian — as well as some tutorials from Amendola — for some help.
“It’s actually quite similar to what we ran at Maine, with our pro-style offense,” Johnson said. “It’s just that, what was a hitch (pattern) at Maine is something completely different with the Patriots. But once I got that down, I started playing well, running with the first team and Tom Brady, and doing well. It was a great experience.”
The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Johnson led Maine in catches last year with 60 for 608 yards and two touchdowns, and finished his Maine career with 116 catches for 1,165 yards and four touchdowns. But acknowledges that he faces an uphill battle to even make the roster — the Patriots have a logjam at the receiver spot — but he remains optimistic.
“As long as I’m 100 percent and can compete at a high level, I think I have a good chance of making the team,” he said.
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