FOXBORO, Mass. — Throw out any preconceived notion you have about the wide receivers on the New England Patriots depth chart. Ignore their draft position, salary, career stats, everything. Simply watch Patriots training camp practices and the team’s first preseason game, and you’d be hard pressed not to include Devin Lucien among New England’s top wide receivers.
But it’s hard to take bias out of the equation. Lucien was drafted in the seventh round of the 2016 NFL Draft, spent his first season on the practice squad and bounced around to five different teams in 2017 after being released by the Patriots last September with an injury settlement. It’s easy to look at players like Riley McCarron or Braxton Berrios and see more upside based on their lack of experience. And Lucien doesn’t have the pedigree of first-round picks like Kenny Britt, Cordarrelle Patterson or Phillip Dorsett or the past accomplishments of an Eric Decker.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick doesn’t find it difficult to let each player begin the season with a fresh start, however.
“I don’t know. I’d say it’s not hard for me,” Belichick said Monday. “I think maybe it might be harder for other people. I think sometimes it’s harder for the players. They’ve been in a certain role and they’re not used to not being in that role, whether it’s practice squad or starter or whatever it is. Sometimes that’s the bigger adjustment either way, as odd as that sounds — not always, but sometimes. Yeah, I see a clean slate every year. I can’t speak for everybody else. You’d have to ask them that.”
Lucien certainly appreciates the message coming from his coach.
“I think that was one of the great things about coming back was having a fresh start,” Lucien said Monday. “That was one of the things I really wanted to build upon when I got here was not being known as a practice squad guy but possibly being known as a guy who could possibly make the team. I’m just trying to take it day by day. Whatever happens is going to happen. I’m just trying to be as happy as I can while I’m enjoying this.”
Lucien led the Patriots with four catches on six targets for 71 yards Thursday in their preseason opener against the Washington Redskins. He looked better prepared, based on his past experience in the system, than other receivers on the roster. He’s been a consistent under-the-radar standout in practice too.
“I just wanted to come out and show them that I got a lot better in the year that I wasn’t here,” Lucien said. “I wanted to show them I knew and still remembered all the plays. I just wanted to show I can play just as well as some of the other guys that they have in front of me. If I can just do that on a consistent basis every day and show them that I know what I’m doing, then hopefully everything works out.”
Lucien took specific steps to make sure he improved over the last year as he bounced from team to team.
“I feel like the top of my route got better,” Lucien said. “Me, overall, having an understanding of what’s going on with the defense has helped me be a better offensive player. Coverage recognition, stuff like that. I think just overall I’ve gotten a lot better. I still have, what, how many more weeks of camp? Three more weeks of camp to show that to the rest of the coaching staff.”
Lucien had an impressive camp last year too, and he probably would have stuck on the team’s practice squad if he didn’t hurt his foot in the Patriots’ final preseason game, when he caught five passes for 96 yards. He was waived/injured, placed on injured reserve and then released. He caught on briefly with the Indianapolis Colts, but his foot got infected, and he got released. He wound up going from the Colts to the Kansas City Chiefs, Houston Texans and Tampa Bay Buccaneers before latching back on in New England this summer.
Lucien’s 2017 season was taxing. But it gave him a new perspective.
“It sucked like hell,” he said. “I think all of that up and down, up and down kept me — now that I’m somewhere I know, I’m just trying to stay like this all the time, really stagnant and at the same place.”
He looked like one of the biggest longshots to make the roster back in July when he initially returned. But since that time, Jordan Matthews got released, Decker signed and has struggled, Britt still hasn’t recovered from a hamstring injury, and Patterson now is limited in practice. Adding to that, Berrios, McCarron and Dorsett haven’t really stood out in practice.
Lucien was the Patriots’ most impressive receiver in New England’s preseason opener, and his productivity was important to him.
“I really just wanted to start fast,” Lucien said. “Last year I would do OK in practices, and then we would get in a game and I wasn’t really doing anything, and that was kind of frustrating. This year, I wasn’t trying to think about last year, and last year I was pressing, trying to do really good in a game, like ‘I gotta do something. I gotta do something.’ This year, like I said, whatever happens is gonna happen. I think that’s one thing I’ve really gotten a hold of being in my third year is that you can’t press in this game. When you press, that’s when you start messing up.”
He’s probably still a longshot to crack the 53-man roster, if we’re being totally honest. But if Belichick is being honest about removing any preconceived notions and if Lucien keeps outplaying his competition, then the receiver has a chance. And that’s why coming back to New England was so important to Lucien.
Thumbnail photo via Paul Rutherford/USA TODAY Sports Images