It appears the Patriots have figured out that the only way to make young players step up is to throw them into the fire.
The most notable example of this is at wide receiver, where Kenbrell Thompkins, Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce are all receiving first-team reps. It’s also happening at defensive tackle. Beyond starters Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, second-year player Marcus Forston is the longest-tenured player on the roster. Forston played in one game last season.
Rookies Cory Grissom, Joe Vellano, Anthony Reshad White and Scott Vallone fill out the depth on the interior defensive line. Because the unit is so shallow, Forston and Grissom have been forced to take first-team snaps. If Wilfork or Kelly have to miss any time this season, those players could be thrust into a starting role. Regardless, the third- and fourth-stringers on the team will play.
No defensive tackle in the NFL can play 100 percent of a team’s snaps. And while, like last season, defensive ends will fill in at defensive tackle on third down and in sub packages, Forston and whoever else makes the team will need to be in a rotation with Wilfork and Kelly next season.
Yes, even if the team is running a 3-4. Whether the team is aligning in a 3-4 or 4-3, there will be at least two interior linemen on the field in the base defense. Wilfork will play the one-technique defensive tackle role in a 4-3 and the zero-technique (or nose tackle) in the 3-4. Kelly will play the three-technique defensive tackle role in a 4-3, and he’ll kick over to play the five-technique defensive end in the 3-4. So far in practice, it appears one of the defensive ends (usually Chandler Jones) plays the other five-technique role in the 3-4.
The Patriots must have faith in Forston, Grissom and Vellano, because they cut Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick in the same week in May. Armond Armstead was still part of the mix at that point, but we haven’t seen the CFL import since minicamp. Armstead would be valuable added depth to such a shallow, young group, but, according to a cryptic email sent out by the Patriots, Armstead is recovering from surgery for an infection. The email stated Armstead would recover fully but did not include a timetable or even say what part of his body the surgery was performed on.
Armstead had a heart attack while at USC and told the media he was still seeing doctors to monitor the situation during rookie minicamp. When asked if Armstead’s inclusion on the non-football illness list was related to Armstead’s past heart condition, Belichick said it was different. That may or may not mean it’s completely different (a different body part) or that it’s unrelated, but still pertaining to the heart.
Basically, like most things with the Patriots, we have no idea. But what we do know is Armstead could really help this group. He could have been as high as a second- or third-round pick coming out of USC before the heart issues. He was a CFL All-Star last season for the Toronto Argonauts, compiling 43 tackles and six sacks.
But until we know if, and when, Armstead is returning, the battle between Forston, Grissom, Vellano, Vallone and White for the remaining roster spots wages on. So far, Forston and Grissom have the upper hand. That makes sense, too. Vellano and Vallone are undersized, and White was released by the Steelers just weeks after being signed as an undrafted free agent. He didn’t get signed by the Patriots until 2 1/2 months later.
Forston and Grissom also have the ability to play either interior line position in a 4-3 or 3-4. They have the size to play the nose and the pass-rushing ability to play three- and five-technique. We’ll know much better how good Forston, Grissom and the rest of the young defensive tackles are after Friday’s preseason game.
Vellano is the third-most-likely candidate to crack the Week 1 roster. He’s undersized (listed at 300 pounds, but he looks slimmer), but he’s shown some impressive moves during one-on-one drills. He piled up 13 1/2 sacks in three seasons at Maryland, so he has a history of getting into the backfield. But if Vellano’s biggest strength is getting into the backfield, that may not interest the Patriots much. Last season, Jermaine Cunningham slid over to defensive tackle in sub packages. Justin Francis also took snaps at defensive tackle last year, and during training camp, Marcus Benard has been playing inside. It appears Bill Belichick likes to add a little speed at defensive tackle in obvious passing situations. That eliminates the need for a pure three-technique rusher on the roster.
There’s still plenty of time left before the season starts, but for now, it looks like the Patriots are content with a couple of young undrafted free agents playing behind Wilfork and Kelly. Even with four preseason games still on the docket, time is running out for Armstead to get back on the field to compete for snaps. He could stay on the non-football injury list to begin the season, but that would mean he would have to miss the first six games of the season. Forston has looked impressive so far during training camp, and we’ll see how he holds up in preseason.