FOXBORO, Mass. — It didn’t take long for Marcus Benard to rise up the depth chart with the Patriots.
The fifth-year defender stood out in one-on-one drills as soon as the pads were strapped on when training camp started. He would fly past his opposing offensive lineman with a quick step and violent rip move. Patriots coaches quickly took notice and started putting him in with the first-team defense in sub packages.
But Benard wasn’t installed in a role he was familiar with. Benard had spent his entire career playing either outside linebacker or defensive end. In the nickel defense, he’s being used as a three-technique defensive tackle.
“It’s different,” Benard said. “It’s different. But I like it, man. In a weird way, I like it. The big boys, they try to take advantage, but I’m gonna get it. I’m gonna get it. It’s like a give and take. I don’t think they can handle me in the pass rush. The run game is something I gotta work on.”
Benard has five quarterback pressures and a sack this preseason from the interior position. He appears to be improving the more he plays the new position. He noticeably got pushed around in the run game against the Eagles in the Patriots’ first preseason game, but played better in his third game against the Lions.
“No. I’m gonna stay wherever they want me to stay at,” Benard said when asked if he was going to bulk up for the new role. “Just continue the technique. Get in there with coach [Patrick] Graham and V [Vince Wilfork] and Tommy Kelly and study their interior part of the line rather the outside.”
Benard can still use his athleticism to get through guards and tackles from the inside of the line, but it’s a different approach than the one he could take when playing outside linebacker and defensive end. In that position, defenders can rush past the tackle or tight end’s outside shoulder and use space to wind around to the quarterback. From the three-technique defensive tackle, Benard has to get through traffic to get to the passer.
“Fight. Just fight,” Benard said about his mentality from the inside. “They’re big boys, so you got to fight with them a little bit. You literally gotta be feisty. I gotta get a small man complex. I always have a chip on my shoulder.”
At 6-foot-2, 260 pounds, Benard is roughly league average in size for a defensive end or outside linebacker. He’s not used to being the little guy, but he said he picked up the underdog mentality from his older brother.
“I think I’ve always had — my brother’s 5-foot-9, my big brother,” Benard said. “So, I look up to my big brother and he had a small-man mentality. So, I kinda adapted that small man mentality. I’m real feisty and that kind of thing. It’s definitely different being so undersized. Like, literally being undersized. But, like I said, it’s a challenge, but I kinda like it. I like the challenge. I like the opportunity more than anything. I just want to get on the field. So, however I can do it, if it’s down there in the trenches, then I’m going to fight.”
Benard should be safe as the Patriots cut down to 53 players after their fourth and final preseason game against the Giants. That, in itself, is kind of a miracle. Benard came in as an unheralded future signing in January. He participated in Browns training camp last season, but was cut after injuring his elbow and missed the entire regular season. His 2011 season ended prematurely, as well, after he crashed his motorcycle.
“Every game is important to me,” Benard said. “It’s just a chance for me to get better. It’s a chance for me to have myself carve out a role. Honestly, this is all like — it may sound cliché — but it’s still surreal to me. To be blessed with the opportunity and to be here and every game is like a big game to me. It’s a big game and it’s important to my life, you know? It’s just an opportunity to continue to get better. Continue carving out a role and have another opportunity to show them why I should be here.”
It’s rare for a player to spend an entire season off an NFL roster and to get a second chance. Benard was able to carve out a role after Jermaine Cunningham got injured early on in camp. Cunningham had the third down interior rusher role last season. Benard stepped in when Cunningham started missing practice.
Benard knew the Patriots used a smaller defender at defensive tackle on third down from watching Cunningham last season. He had never seen the look before, though.
“I saw him in there, but I hadn’t met him,” Benard said about Cunningham. “So, I don’t know, I didn’t know how big he was and what his weight was. It’s definitely new and different. I haven’t seen that before.”
Benard is being used all over the field in the preseason. His role with the first team is in at defensive tackle, but once the second team comes out, Benard will line up at defensive end in the 4-3 and outside linebacker in the 3-4. He’ll even spend some time out in coverage. He said he’s “vaguely familiar” with playing linebacker since he started out in a 3-4 defense in Cleveland.
It’s never been easy for Benard, who started out at a junior college before transferring to FCS Jackson State. From there, he went undrafted and signed on with the Browns, where he starred as a pass rusher, but dealt with injuries all four years in Cleveland.
Now, Benard is working at a new position as he tries to carve out a role in New England. He has consistently played with the first team all three preseason games, so it looks like he’s well on his way. A big game against the Giants could ensure Benard a role with the first-teamers during the regular season.