Patriots Tight End A.J. Derby, Now Healthy, Making Strong Case For Roster Spot

FOXBORO, Mass. — A.J. Derby enjoyed the best game of his young NFL career Thursday night. Just don’t expect him to admit that.

The New England Patriots tight end shrugged off any sort of praise after his six-catch showing against the Chicago Bears, instead filling his postgame media availability with the typical Patriots platitudes about giving maximum effort and taking things day by day.

“I’m really just trying to get better every day,” Derby said after the preseason game, which New England won 23-22 at Gillette Stadium. “So, I’ve got to watch the film and see how I did.”

Patriots coach Bill Belichick, however, was more than willing to commend the second-year pro, who’s stood out this summer after losing his entire rookie season to injury.

“A.J. has had a solid and pretty consistent several months for us here, going all the way back to the spring, to the offseason program, to (organized team activities), minicamp, training camp,” Belichick said. “He has shown up every day.

“He’s improving. He’s a young player that only played the position for a short amount of time, basically a year down in Arkansas, has a lot to learn, has a ways to go, but has some skills to work with. He’s a smart kid, he works hard, and he’s gotten better. He’s making some plays for us in the kicking game, some tackles in coverage. He has caught the ball and blocked competitively. He’s done some good things.”

Derby led all pass-catchers in both receptions and receiving yards (71) Thursday night and hauled in quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo’s first touchdown pass of the preseason with 17 seconds remaining in the first half. The score capped an impressively executed two-minute drill, during which Garoppolo hit Derby three times in seven plays.

“Derbs is coming along,” said Garoppolo, who very nearly connected with Derby on another touchdown earlier in the half. “He had an unfortunate injury last year and everything, but he’s coming around, and he’s made some impressive catches this preseason.”

Derby finished his night by catching three passes from rookie quarterback Jacoby Brissett, including a circus grab down the left sideline that resulted in him getting his clock cleaned by Bears safety Chris Prosinski.

“Jacoby made a good check on the line,” Derby said. “He made a really good throw and the offensive line did a really good job giving him time to get the throw off.”

Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett are locked in as the Patriots’ Nos. 1 and 2 tight ends, but given his performance thus far, Derby looks like the frontrunner for the third spot on the depth chart. That spot still could go to Clay Harbor, who’s now healthy and brings more experience and versatility to the table, but with two preseason games remaining before final cuts are due, Derby appears to have the inside track.

Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images

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