The New England Patriots are beginning joint practices with the Jacksonville Jaguars this week. With the preseason beginning Thursday night when the Patriots host the Jaguars at Gillette Stadium.
The Patriots come into their first slate of games having had a busy off-season. They traded for wide receiver Brandin Cooks, running back Mike Gillislee, tight end James O’Shaughnessy, and defensive end Kony Ealy. In free agency they signed cornerback Stephon Gilmore, running back Rex Burkhead, and defensive tackle Lawrence Guy.
In the NFL draft, the Patriots only selected four players. However, they scooped up an intriguing pair of edge pass-rushers in third-round draft pick Derek Rivers and fourth-round draft pick Deatrich Wise. On offense, the Patriots added left tackle Tony Garcia in the third round and tackle Conor McDermott sixth round of the draft.
However, the Patriots also have a number of intriguing players who are longshots to make the roster. They have flashed some potential in practice over the summer. Having already looked at three young players who have opened eyes in training camp, here are four more young players who should be closely watched during the preseason games this summer.
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David Jones – Safety – UDFA:
Small school safety David Jones went undrafted after breaking his forearm during his senior season. A star player for the FCS Richmond Spiders as a junior, Jones was a standout as a hybrid safety able to cover in a free safety role (nine interceptions as a junior) and hard-hitting as a strong safety.
His size, speed, athleticism, and versatility made him stand out during OTAs before pads went on in training camp. Unfortunately, Jones has been on the sidelines with the limited participation group. He has been relegated to conditioning only for most of training camp. He suffered what appeared to be a leg injury on the second day of camp. After limping off the practice field, he has been on the sidelines since.
Jones also returned punts at Richmond showing off his explosive breakaway speed. Unfortunately, a broken forearm ended his senior season and caused the FCS star to tumble down the draft boards and land in New England as an undrafted free agent.
With his speed and strength, he fits the mold of the strong safety position the Patriots use Patrick Chung in. Add in the length Jones brings and coverage ability to take on tight ends, and he looks like a player who could compete for a roster spot.
A potential diamond in the rough. Jones has the size (six-foot-three and 210 pounds) and athletic skills to potentially replace Patrick Chung at strong safety in 2018 or 2019. However, if he cannot get healthy and get on the practice field, Jones is going to find it hard to get on the field and make an impact.
David Jones may have to spend a season on the practice squad bulking up. Helping to put himself in a position to compete for a roster spot in 2018. If Jones can get in some repetitions in preseason games, he could position himself to make it a difficult decision when roster cutdowns begin.
Harvey Langi – Linebacker – UDFA:
After the 2017 NFL Draft, the New England Patriots moved quickly to sign Harvey Langi. A stud linebacker from BYU who inexplicably ended-up being undrafted due to injuries. Langi has been spending a lot of practice time with the first-team defense this summer. Surprisingly, he has been working at outside linebacker/edge rusher despite having been projected as an inside linebacker.
Langi caught head coach Bill Belichick’s eye after a huge junior season at BYU. Injuries last season and ineffectiveness trying to play through them saw the projected first-day pick prior to the 2016 season fall out of the draft altogether. Belichick recognized his value and guaranteed $100,000 of his base salary. On top of that, he gave him a $15,000 signing bonus as an undrafted free agent. Comparable to the salary of a fifth-round draft pick.
Langi has made the most of his time in camp with Dont’a Hightower on the sidelines and the retirement of Rob Ninkovich. With Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long departing via free agency and Kony Ealy not grabbing an edge rusher role so far in training camp, the versatile Langi has been there to take the snaps.
Langi has all the attributes of a Bill Belichick linebacker being big, fluid, and having positional versatility. Whether he begins on the edge and moves inside later (as Tedy Bruschi did) or ends up staying on the edge, Langi has already opened eyes in training camp. Making himself a player who may be impossible to cut. However, he has to carry that early momentum into the preseason games to make this stacked roster.
Jacob Hollister – Tight End – UDFA:
One player who has had a quiet training camp has been tight end, Jacob Hollister. The undrafted free agent was compared to current Dolphins tight end Julius Thomas prior to the draft by ProFootballFocus.com. The website had tantalizing comments such as “Hollister could prove to be one of this years steals of the draft” and “he’s got legitimate skills as a receiving option capable of hurting a defense at all three levels of the field regularly.”
Another undrafted free agent player like Langi who inexplicably went undrafted, Hollister (per Mike Reiss of ESPN) received a $10,000 signing bonus and $80,000 base salary guaranteed. In addition, the New England Patriots also made it a package deal. They signed his twin brother, Cody Hollister a wide receiver. He too went undrafted.
Hollister has been buried down the depth chart at tight end behind Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, James O’Shaughnessy, Sam Cotton and Matt Lengel. He has worked with the second-team offense with Lengel catching passes from Jimmy Garoppolo or Jacoby Brissett. Hollister seems to be working best with Brissett.
Where Hollister can stand out in the preseason is catching passes downfield from the tight end position. All of the veteran tight ends on the depth chart ahead of Hollister and behind Gronkowski (Allen, O’Shaughnessy, and Lengel) are block-first tight ends. None of them are the fluid route-runners and receiving threats like Hollister can be.
Bill Belichick has long been trying to find a combination of tight ends to create mismatches and dictate matchups while in New England. He spent first-round draft picks on Daniel Graham and Ben Watson initially. He brought in Kyle Brady, Christian Fauria, and Jermaine Wiggins early on. He struck gold with Gronkowski and the late Aaron Hernandez in 2010.
With Hernandez and Gronkowski, Belichick had a “Y” tight end in Gronkowski who could block on running downs. In addition to isolating a mismatch with a linebacker in the passing game. He had an “F” tight end in Hernandez who could line up in the slot and create mismatches with slower linebackers or undersized safeties.
Since the self-destruction of Hernandez, the Patriots have struggled to find a complement to Gronkowski. Last year Martellus Bennett was a one-year rental who proved much better than the previous one-year rental Scott Chandler. Before Chandler, the Patriots tried Tim Wright, Michael Hoomanawanui, Matthew Mulligan, Dustin Keller, D.J. Williams, Daniel Fells, and undrafted free agent training camp sensations Asa Watson and Justin Jones in 2014. Finally, in 2013, training camp future star flame-out Zach Sudfeld.
The Patriots have been looking for a tight end with the athletic ability to play inline and block and split out to the slot and create mismatches since Hernandez was released. Hollister–who needs a lot of work with his blocking–could be that player in the future. However, he needs to separate himself from a deep, veteran group when the preseason games begin.
Devin Lucien – Wide Receiver – 2016 7th Round Draft Pick:
Last season the New England Patriots spent a seventh-round draft pick on an intriguing wide receiver out of Arizona State in Devin Lucien. Lucien had an up-and-down preseason last year as a rookie. Despite his reputation for steady hands, he had a crushing drop against Chicago in week two of the preseason. A pass that should have been a 39-yard touchdown pass from Jacoby Brissett. Lucien also committed an unnecessary offensive pass interference penalty as well on that play.
Despite a 20-yard touchdown reception in the final preseason game, the positive momentum from Lucien ended early in the 2016 preseason. New England kept Lucien on the practice squad almost all of last season. He remains eligible to spend another year developing if necessary.
This summer, with Malcolm Mitchell and Danny Amendola being managed early in camp and rookie Cody Hollister not healthy, Lucien has gotten a number of reps with the first team unit. At six-foot-two and 200 pounds, Lucien is a bigger receiver who can thrive outside the numbers in New England.
With Brandin Cooks added to the impressive quartet of Chris Hogan, Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and Malcolm Mitchell, there is little room on the roster for another receiver. However, Lucien has made plays all over the practice fields so far. With a number of acrobatic catches and showcasing his deep route running skills.
Lucien has been excellent so far in 2017. He will have a chance to build on that strong summer in the preseason games. Where he is expected to get every opportunity to shine. Lucien has put himself in position to make a difficult decision for the New England offense and make a name of himself with Patriots fans.