FOXBORO, Mass. — To say Marcus Benard has had a tough journey to the NFL would be an understatement.
The pass rusher started out his amateur career at junior college before transferring to FCS Jackson State. He went undrafted in 2009 and spent the beginning of the season on the practice squad before recording 3 1/2 sacks in six games. He played in 15 games in 2010, recording 7 1/2 sacks, but also collapsed that November in the team’s locker room. He didn’t miss any games due to the incident.
After having to learn a new defense after Rob Ryan took his 3-4 to Dallas and Dick Jauron came in with a 4-3, Benard got into a season-ending motorcycle accident in Oct. 2011. He suffered another injury during Browns training camp in 2012 and was subsequently cut.
“It’s been a tough journey,” Benard said Friday. “But I don’t think I would have had it any other way. It keeps me hungry and it definitely keeps that chip on my shoulder. Honestly, anybody would like the easy path, but I’m glad I got that chip on my shoulder.”
Benard was an under-the-radar signing by the Patriots when he was signed to a futures contract in Jan. 2013. The defensive end has upside to spare, though. He was rated as one of the best pass rushers in the NFL per snap by Pro Football Focus in 2009 and 2010. That was three years ago, though.
“I’m excited, blessed and thankful to have the opportunity to continue playing,” Benard said. “The coaching staff, they still believe in me and think I can help.”
The Patriots need a third-down pass rusher, and Benard’s experience in the 3-4 and 4-3 can only help. The Patriots have run both looks during training camp, and Benard has taken snaps at outside linebacker and defensive end.
“It was a learning experience,” Benard said about switching defenses in Cleveland. “I think it helped me develop. Because I was in 3-4 when I first came out. it was a change to move in to linebacker, to see the field in a different view. Then the switch back to defensive end, to get down with my hand on the ground. I think it was more experience. it was a good experience. It helped me develop as a player.”
Benard has the opportunity to learn from some of the best in his transition to the Patriots defense. He praised players like Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly for not only their skills on the field, but their intelligence.
“They’re very smart,” Benard said. “It’s not just that they’re super strong. They can have a lot of talent — they do have that — but they’re smart. I’m definitely appreciative of being able to leach off of them and get that knowledge.”
Benard didn’t seem too overwhelmed by the Patriots defense, which has been descibed as “complex” by many. Benard understands he needs to study the playbook above all else.
“It’s football,” Benard said. “It’s a game of smarts. You just get your nose in the playbook and continue to work hard.”
After a year out of football, getting the call from the Patriots was a relief for Benard. He’s back healthy, and it’s showing in training camp. He’s got plenty of players to battle for a role on the team, but getting out on the field is the first step.
“It was excellent,” Benard said about being signed by New England. “To be able to keep playing and living my dreams is just excellent every day.”
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