Bill Belichick cancelled the third day of Patriots minicamp and with that, the Patriots offseason workouts are through.
The team will convene once again in late July for training camp before getting some in-game action during the preseason. While it’s tough to take away much from practices at three-quarters speed with no pads and jerseys without numbers, there were some obvious “winners” on the offensive side of the ball through the four weeks of offseason practices.
Zach Sudfeld — The rookie free agent tight end might have been the biggest winner out of the Patriots’ offseason schedule. Sudfeld got a ton of reps in the place of Rob Gronkowski (who was not spotted out of the field at all) and Aaron Hernandez (who was limited). Sudfeld got even more attention when Ballard had to sit out while his knee was still recovering and when he tweaked his ankle. Sudfeld appeared to get more time with Tom Brady than veterans Michael Hoomanawanui and Daniel Fells.
So who is Sudfeld? He’s a 6-foot-7, 255-pound tight end out of Nevada. He didn’t get much playing time until his senior season because of injuries, but when he finally did get a shot, he shined. He caught 45 passes for 598 yards and eight touchdowns in 2012 and helped himself out in the predraft process by running a 4.71 40-yard dash at Nevada’s pro day, but he still went undrafted. He missed all but one game in 2011 with a knee injury and he missed all of his redshirt freshman year in 2008 with shoulder, leg and wrist injuries.
But the Modesto, Calif., native made the most of his opportunities in Patriots OTAs and minicamp. He made numerous impressive catches and showed better athleticism than Ballard off the line. New England loves tight ends and it loves undrafted players. The fact that Sudfeld has his masters degree and was named a captain his senior season likely interested the team, as well.
Between Gronkowski, Hernandez and Ballard’s injuries, Sudfeld’s versatility (he can likely play Gronkowski or Hernandez’s role) and the immediate confidence that Belichick and Brady showed in the rookie, Sudfeld is my best bet to make the team as an undrafted free agent.
Danny Amendola — Amendola got the seal of approval from Brady on Wednesday. The legendary quarterback compared Amendola to Hernandez and Gronkowski in his ability to pick adjustments up quickly in the New England offense. Amendola certainly looked to be on the same page as Brady throughout the offseason workouts and he received an excited cry from Brady when the slot receiver tipped the quarterback off to what the defense was showing during a play on Wednesday.
Amendola looks primed to play the Wes Welker role this season, and it’s impossible not to notice how similar the two players look in practice. Amendola’s cuts and jukes are very Welker-like, and it helps that the two players are around the same size. Brady and Amendola may not take offseason trips together like Brady and Welker did, but as long as Amendola keeps doing the right things on the field, their relationship should flourish.
Michael Jenkins — Jenkins was an unexpected “winner” during the offseason program. With many wide receivers out with injuries (Aaron Dobson, Donald Jones, Josh Boyce, Julian Edelman and Mark Harrison all missed time), Jenkins was able to step up and play on the first team across from Amendola. Jenkins’ speed won’t impress anyone, but he’s got sure hands and he seemed up for the challenge of learning the offense. (He even called it easy to pick up with hard work.)
It helps that Jenkins is easy to spot in the crowd. He’s 6-foot-4, 214 pounds and should be able to pick 50-50 balls out of the air even if he won’t be expected to go deep. Jenkins could play the Brandon Lloyd role pretty well if the Patriots are planning to bring a similar offense back in 2013. The team is likely hoping that Dobson or Boyce can emerge during training camp, but if not, Jenkins is a nice fallback option.
Tom Brady — There was plenty of fear that Brady would be lost without Welker, Lloyd and Deion Branch, but Brady didn’t appear to get frustrated once during OTAs or minicamp with his new wideouts. He seemed positive in their development when he met with the media on Wednesday. Brady looked as good as ever during the four-week program (even though he went 2-for-7 with an interception off a tipped ball on Wednesday).
Brady may be getting older, but until we see some signs of decline, it appears the Patriots will be on the fast track to the playoffs no matter who emerges at wide receiver. The fact that he was able to form a relationship with Amendola so quickly might mean that the storyline about his inability to develop veteran wide receivers was overblown.
Shane Vereen — Vereen is primed for a bigger season in 2013. As long as the running back can stay healthy, he should take the Danny Woodhead/Kevin Faulk role and expand upon it. Vereen’s size allows him to do more with the third-down role, including an ability to line up at wide receiver, which he showed during the Patriots’ playoff game against the Texans last year when he read the defense perfectly and went deep for a 33-yard touchdown from Brady.
After Stevan Ridley tweaked a hamstring, Vereen started taking first-team reps at running back. He showed off his impressive hands plenty of times on passes from Brady and Ryan Mallett. I expect another big season from Ridley this year (especially since he looked to beef up over the offseason), but Vereen will be a valuable asset, as well.