FOXBORO, Mass. — A.J. Francis doesn’t have an entire summer to learn the Patriots’ defensive playbook like his former Maryland teammate Joe Vellano did. So, it’s fortunate that Francis can lean on Vellano to answer any questions he may have as he’s trying to adapt in New England.
Francis was waived by the Dolphins on Saturday as part of the team’s final cuts. Francis stuck around in Miami, thinking he was going to be signed to the practice squad. The defensive tackle was about to head over to a team meeting when he found out he had been claimed by the Patriots.
“It happened at the drop of a hat,” Francis said. “I got told I was going to New England, had a flight four hours later, went home, went back to my hotel room, packed and flew up to Boston.”
Francis made it in time to practice with the Patriots on Monday. He has less than a week to adapt to the Patriots and prepare for the Bills. Vellano is helping his transition, though.
“The D-linemen always said Joe asked a lot of questions when he was here,” Francis said. “Joe told me ‘Don’t ask too many questions,’ because they don’t want to hear them. So I just ask Joe all the questions. Joe knows the majority of the answers to them, so I can trust him.”
Francis said he and his teammate had the same mentality at Maryland. They started for three years together with the Terrapins, the last at right and left defensive end in Maryland’s 3-4. He said they could tell each other what to do with non-verbal communication on the line, though Francis doesn’t expect to be playing at the same time as Vellano. Vellano told the media on Monday that Francis is one of his best friends, to which a nearby Tommy Kelly replied “Aw, that’s cute.”
“It helps because Joe and I were always the guys that before practice would get extra reps on the bag,” Francis said. “Having somebody who thinks like you, has the same mindset as you, especially when you’re in my situation where you’re adjusting to a new coaching staff and new system. It helps to have someone who can help you through it. Especially when it’s one of your friends you’ve had since you’ve got to college.”
Francis’ versatility was likely appealing to Bill Belichick and the Patriots. He has experience as a five-technique defensive end, three-technique defensive tackle and nose tackle. He may have to play all three roles in New England. The team is expected to show 3-4 and 4-3 looks and the only “starting” role that is yet to be determined is the sub-package defensive tackle role.
In training camp, the Patriots would put either Jermaine Cunningham or Marcus Benard in at defensive tackle in nickel and dime. Both players are gone, as is Justin Francis, who also had experience playing defensive end and defensive tackle.
The newly signed Francis proved adept at getting into the opposing backfield at Maryland. He finished the 2012 season with four sacks and nine tackles for loss. During the preseason, he recorded three quarterback hits and three quarterback pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
Because the Patriots are still looking for that interior pass rusher, as to not tire out Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly by having them play too many snaps, Francis may get some solid playing time early in New England. He may help that Francis and Vellano noticed some similarities between the Patriots and Maryland.
“It’s just football,” Francis said. “You don’t worry about stuff outside of football. This is football. You’re here because your job is to play football. You do what the coach tells you to do. And that’s what you do. That’s how it was at Maryland my first three years. That’s how it was under Coach [Ralph] Friedgen. That’s how it was under Coach [Randy] Edsell. You just come in, play football. That’s your job. That’s what you have to do.”
Francis and Vellano aren’t the only former Maryland players on the Patriots’ roster. Practice squad tackle R.J. Dill also spent time with the Terps before going to Rutgers.
The two Maryland interior defenders are the only depth New England has behind Wilfork and Kelly, so there’s a good chance both players will get a good chunk of snaps this season. If one can step up, they may even take over that sub-package role.