After three days of training camp, the New England Patriots have put their Super Bowl 51 victory behind them and returned to the grind. With an eye on 2017, there have been a number of under-the-radar players who have stepped up in the spotlight as the media and fans have finally been able to see the 90 players in camp on the practice field.
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In three days there have been three players who have stood out:
1. Kenny Moore – Cornerback – UDFA
Valdosta State is the type of school which does not get a lot of television time on Saturdays. So when nickel cornerback Kenny Moore was signed by the Patriots after the NFL Draft it did not generate the headlines like Hollister and Langi did.
However, on day one of training camp open to the media suddenly everyone in attendance wanted to know who was that cornerback #42 breaking up passes and making an interception.
That said, there are few positions open at cornerback. Stephon Gilmore, Eric Rowe, and Malcolm Butler are the “starters” (New England has had three cornerbacks on the field about 50% of the time over the past few years) at the position and there may only be one or two spots remaining.
Moore will be competing with 2016 second-round draft pick Cyrus Jones, 2015 free agent Justin Coleman, last season’s undrafted free agent special teams ace Jonathan Jones, and fellow undrafted free agents William Likely III, DJ Killings, and Dwayne Thomas. Cyrus Jones is a near-lock and played 14% of the defensive snaps.
Jonathan Jones played just 64 snaps on defense but was a regular on defense. Justin Coleman was the fourth cornerback most of the season and played almost 22% of the defensive snaps.
Moore had a good first few days of training camp after standing out in OTAs, but he has a lot more work to do to earn a roster spot in a secondary which is stacked.
2. Geneo Grissom – Defensive End – 2015 3rd Round Draft Pick
Heading into 2017, Geneo Grissom had all the making of a colossal bust. While Trey Flowers was the young defensive end who carried the Patriots’ defense in the second half of the 2016 season and in the playoffs, Grissom had already been released and was playing only on special teams despite having been taken a round earlier than Flowers in that draft.
Grissom was taken in the third round–one round ahead of Trey Flowers in the 2015 NFL draft. However, it was Flowers–the fourth round pick–who has been the impact player while Grissom has been relegated to the bench.
Grissom plays a style of defensive end more similar to the role of Rob Ninkovich than a traditional pass rushing 4-3 defensive end. Ninkovich announced his retirement Sunday in front of coaches, media, and teammates.
With two full seasons in New England and already having been released and demoted to the practice squad last season, this is a crucial year for Grissom to take a step forward in replacing the veteran Ninkovich as an edge-setting force in the run defense.
Grissom–like Ninkovich–is not going to have a major impact in the pass rush like Flowers has done. With Kony Ealy added for depth there is still a long way to go for Grissom who has been playing with the first team unit through three days of training camp.
Grissom played just ten snaps on defense last season (Per ESPN.com) and outside of the first game of the season in 2015 as a rookie, his role has mainly been on special teams. Grissom has to show in the preseason that he can be the Ninkovich replacement to hold the edge in the running game and generate pressure occasionally coming from the edge to win a roster spot in 2017.
3. Jordan Richards – Strong Safety – 2015 2nd Round Draft Pick
When it comes to draft busts, 2015 second-round draft pick Jordan Richards is right up there with 2012 second-round draft pick Tavon Wilson. Richards was a regular in the dime defense as a rookie. However, last season he played primarily on special teams when active. In fact, he only played 18 snaps on defense (Per ESPN.com).
Duron Harmon cut into Richards’ time on defense by taking his dime defense snaps as the third safety. With the re-signing of Harmon this offseason to a contract for starter’s money, it seemed to be another statement by the front office that Richards was not ready to step in after two years.
Richards has been blocked for two seasons by Patrick Chung–who is signed through 2018–at strong safety. After two excellent seasons by Chung in 2014 and 2015, he regressed last season. Chung had more missed tackles and coverage lapses last season and may have opened the door a crack
Richards has opened eyes in the early days of training camp. Richards collected three interceptions in the first three days of camp. Of course, the first two days were without pads. There is still a long way to go until opening the 2017 season against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Richards needs to carry this play through the summer and into the preseason games.
If he continues making plays throughout the summer, it certainly helps him with getting back on the field with the defense in the fall.