Aug 16, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Zach Sudfeld (44) makes a reception for a touchdown while defended by Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Najee Goode (53) during the second quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
In rewatching the second half of the New England Patriots game Friday night against Tampa Bay, it becomes clear that Tim Tebow’s performance was as bad as his statistics showed in the the second half of the Patriots preseason game two against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ( one completion in seven attempts for negative one yard passing). Tebow continues to stand out as the biggest negative of the game (maybe special teams play edges ahead of him) as New England otherwise had a solid all-around game out of the starting offense and defense. Tebow is no doubt a development project of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and this writer still stands by the initial idea that Tebow is “injured” in the last preseason game and spends a year of development, training, and learning on the injured reserve list this season with no media fanfare around him.
Tight end Zach Sudfeld continues to impress, not just as an inline tight end (think Rob Gronkowski’s role in the offense) but splitting out in the flex (or joker) tight end position off the line (think Aaron Hernandez’s role in the offense). Superb Patriots reporter Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston touched upon Zach Sudfeld going undrafted in his weekly Sunday “Quick-hit thoughts around NFL & Pats” and brought up how he was basically a slot receiver in a pistol-based offense in Nevada which made his projection difficult. Factor in the well-documented medical issues at Nevada and lack of game tape and not being invited to the combine, and Sudfeld becomes another example of the flaws of the NFL Draft process.
With his size, Sudfeld was expected to compete with tight end Jake Ballard for snaps as an inline tight end filling in until Rob Gronkowski is healthy; however, his soft hands, excellent athleticism for his size, and experience playing off the line of scrimmage has allowed him to slide off the line of scrimmage and present a mismatch very different from the one Aaron Hernandez and his freakish athleticism presented for opposing defenses. Where Hernandez had the difficult matchup of size, speed, and quickness, the Patriots potentially lining up a six foot seven inch Sudfeld next to Rob Gronkowski (when healthy)is a frightening matchup issue with the two-tight end alignment as opposing defenses try to cover both in the passing game and being exposed to two big blocking bodies added to the line on running plays.
It took all of two preseason games, but the naysayers on the major networks and in the national media must be starting to come around to the idea that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady may just be able to thrive with good players, regardless of their prior pedigree, draft position, or national media recognition. All those pre-training camp articles about how the Patriots are due to crash-and-burn this season have conveniently been forgotten and now there is a need to temper the expectations back a pinch.
Quarterback Tom Brady has been a masterful conductor of the offense which has speed, athleticism, and youth at all other key skill positions. However, with youth comes growing pains. At some point, Brady will be shown on the sidelines shouting at a receiver, back or tight end who ran the wrong route, missed a key block, dropped a pass, fumbled the ball, or cost the team points. It will happen. There are ALWAYS growing pains with young skill players regardless the coaching, quarterback or offensive system. Yes, this team will still be strong on offense and score a ton of points, but be ready for the hiccups and missteps. They will happen, just hopefully not too often or in a key moment.
Aug 16, 2013; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots defensive tackle Joe Vellano (64) pressures Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Mike Glennon (8) during the second quarter at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
Finally, Joe Vellano and Cory Grissom, undrafted rookie free agents both competing for a role at defensive tackle, had strong games pushing the pile and holding up in run defense against the Tampa Bay second team offense. Second year defensive tackle Marcus Fortson finally stepped up against Tampa Bay after having some up-and-down performances in camp, but former Toronto Argonauts defensive tackle Armond Armstead is still sidelined after surgery for an infection. That leaves playing time and potentially a roster spot open for Grissom and Vellano as they should have an opportunity to grab some additional playing time and open some eyes in these last two preseason games.
Forston was an undrafted free agent last season and was a surprise addition to the 53 man roster on opening day in 2012. Fortson was a top defensive tackle prospect coming out of high school and excelled as a true freshman at Miami. Injuries and inconsistency caused him to tail off in Miami and he came to New England (and fellow Hurricane Vince Wilfork) as an unheralded undrafted free agent. After initially making the 53 man roster out of training camp, Forston played limited snaps in only one game (week three against Baltimore) and spent the season on injured reserve.
Grissom, from South Florida, fought ankle injuries in college but was effective when he played. He is big enough to spell Wilfork and has that low center of gravity to replace Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick as a run-stuffer on the roster. Vellano is not a very big player for a defensive tackle (listed as six foot two inches and only 285 pounds), but he caught the Patriots eye as he played with a high motor for Maryland and fits the mold of another undrafted free agent who played in New England in a number of roles at multiple positions along the defensive line, Mike Wright.