FOXBORO, Mass. — Deontae Skinner didn’t even make it past the New England Patriots’ 75-man roster cut this summer, and now he’s a starting linebacker in the NFL.
Skinner was waived by the Patriots on Aug. 26 — four days before NFL teams had to whittle their rosters to the 53-man limit. Since Skinner was among the Patriots’ first cuts, it was surprising that the undrafted rookie out of Mississippi State even made the team’s practice squad going into the 2014 season. It was even more shocking that when Jamie Collins couldn’t play in Week 2, Skinner got the call to start in his place.
Skinner looked overwhelmed in his first NFL snaps, being beaten badly in coverage by Minnesota Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph and running back Matt Asiata. It had Patriots fans doing their best Superintendent Chalmers impression (“SKINNERRR!!”).
The rookie calmed down, however, and has been a solid contributor against the run over the last five weeks while filling in for Collins, Dont’a Hightower and Jerod Mayo. Skinner will be a permanent fixture in the Patriots’ defense moving forward, now that Mayo has gone down with a severe knee injury.
Skinner is surprisingly unfazed by the responsibility he faces in while filling in for a defensive captain and All-Pro.
“There’s no pressure. I just feel like I gotta go out there and get the job done,” Skinner said Tuesday in the Patriots’ locker room. “We’ll miss him. He’s going to be a loss, a big loss, but it’s no pressure to me. I just gotta go out and do my job and execute.”
Perhaps Skinner is just well-prepared. He received praise from his fellow starting linebacker, Hightower, and head coach Bill Belichick for his work ethic.
“I think he’s gotten a little bit better each week,” Belichick said Monday on a conference call. “He’s still a young player with basically no training camp, basically no OTAs with a long way to go. He’s done some positive things, and if he can keep sustaining a hard work ethic and stay on the field every day and keep getting better, I think he’ll have a chance to have a decent career and certainly be able to continue to help us.”
Skinner might be taking Mayo’s position on the Patriots, at middle linebacker, but he alone isn’t going to fill the veteran’s overall role. Either Hightower or Collins will take Mayo’s communication device on defense, and Skinner likely won’t be asked to play on all three downs like Mayo was. Skinner will be limited to a role where he can shine — against the run.
“It’s a big shot in the wheel,” Hightower said about losing Mayo. “Great all-around player for us on defense. It slows us to what we can do for different things. It hurts, but a lot of guys prepared for this from OTAs, pulling guys out, making them communicate and doing those things. Skinner’s done a great job these last couple weeks as far as being that guy who’s staying late extra and watching extra film and doing everything. I think we’ll be all right.”
Starting Skinner likely wasn’t the Patriots’ Plan A, B, C or maybe even D, but the rookie, who was behind fellow linebackers James Morris, Steve Beauharnais and James Anderson on the depth chart late in preseason, is the player who lasted through injuries and roster cuts. Losing key players is nothing new for the Patriots, who suffered season-ending injuries to four starters in 2013 — among them, Mayo.
That experience without Mayo last year should help the Patriots prepare for life without the captain against this season.
“It’s gonna help a lot,” Hightower said. “I definitely feel like I needed that. Not only me, but it helped Jamie out, as well. It’s gonna be a lot easier this year — the chemistry that me and Jamie have built since then. We help each other.”
Photo via Brace Hemmelgarn/USA TODAY Sports Images
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