NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
The New England Patriots’ 53-man roster spends their weekdays preparing for an opponent they’ll play on Sundays. Meanwhile, an eight-man roster spends their weekdays preparing for an opponent they’ll watch on Sundays.
They’re called practice squad players.
Most of these NFL hopefuls were released during the final cut-down days of training camp and latched onto an organization in a lesser capacity. Each week, these players work collectively as a scout team. They mimic the nuances of opposing players in an effort to acclimate their teammates for battle.
The camaraderie is there; practice squad players are part of the team. But no, not every team brings guys to away games just to stand in sweats on the sidelines.
In essence, their job is to practice.
Their role is a lot bigger than their paychecks, however. Practice squad players earn a fraction of the league’s minimum salary – a 2013 minimum of $6,000 per week – for every week they remain on the team.
Although it’s hardly working for free, it’s just another reminder that these players with big dreams can’t get complacent.
In many ways, a player’s journey on the practice squad is an escalator ride. Just ask Ross Ventrone, a former Patriots safety who was signed, promoted, or released 21 times by New England during the 2011 season.
They can be cut at any given time. But they can also be signed to another team’s 53-man roster at any given time, too.
Still, their shelf life is limited.
No player can remain on the practice squad for more than three seasons, with no more than two seasons on the same team. No player is eligible if they have played in at least nine regular season games in the same year – one accrued NFL season – or if they have remained on the active roster for an entire year.
It’s a matter of developing over those years of eligibility, because there’s no such thing as a “practice squad lifer.” The practice squad is the destination for many late-round draft picks and undrafted free agents. Despite the fact they aren’t touted first-rounders, they’re still investments nonetheless.
So with a variety of eligible options at the organization’s fingertips, who could New England possibly stash on the practice squad for the future?
It’s time to take a look at some of the Patriots’ top practice squad candidates. For what it’s worth, this list would have to be sliced in half.
Aiken is entering his third year in the NFL, but has played in just three career games. He has spent time on the practice squads of the Buffalo Bills, the Chicago Bears and Patriots, meaning he has one year of eligibility remaining. He was undrafted out of Central Florida, where he played in 49 games and totaled 121 receptions for 1,924 yards and 17 touchdowns. He has familiarity in New England’s system.
Ryan Allen, Punter – 6’2”, 215 pounds
The 23-year-old Allen was undrafted out of Louisiana Tech after transferring from Oregon State. A two-time Ray Guy Award winner, Allen is the only punter to ever win the award in consecutive seasons. Although Zoltan Mesko is still the No. 1 punting specialist in Foxboro, Allen’s resume makes him a high-value choice for the practice squad.
Steve Beauharnais, Linebacker – 6’2”, 230 pounds
The Patriots drafted Rutgers inside linebacker Steve Beauharnais in Round 7 of April’s draft. Due to this, Beauharnais could very well make the final cut. But if the team goes with Jamie Collins and Dane Fletcher as the fourth and fifth linebackers, Beauharnais could be a priority move to the practice squad. A Butkus Award semifinalist and a team captain, Beauharnais has seen starting work since his freshman year in 2009. He’s a tough tackler who can surge into the backfield but also force turnovers in zone coverage. If the 23-year-old lands on the eight-man roster, there’s reason to believe he’d but up on the 53-man roster before long.
Dewayne Cherrington, Defensive Tackle – 6’3”, 335 pounds
A big-bodied nose tackle with only two years of Division I experience at Mississippi State, Cherrington is a raw talent. Still, the 22-year-old’s mixture of size and strength doesn’t grow on trees. He would be an intriguing player to develop on the practice squad as a run-stuffer.
Elvis Fisher, Offensive Tackle – 6’5”, 300 pounds
A Missouri product, Fisher started nine games at left tackle in 2012 after he was granted an extra year of eligibility due to injury. The 24-year-old went undrafted this April, but brings versatility, experience and leadership to the table.
Marcus Forston, Defensive Tackle – 6’3”, 305 pounds
Undrafted out of Miami after an injury-riddled career that didn’t live up to expectations, Forston signed with the Patriots in May of 2012. He made it through the final cuts and remained on the active roster, playing as a sub versus the Baltimore Ravens in September, before being sent down to the practice squad. Forston was brought back up to the 53-man unit to face Baltimore again in the playoffs, but did not get into the game. At 23 years old, Forston still has some room to grow. The practice squad is the venue.
Cory Grissom, Defensive Tackle – 6’2”, 316 pounds
A high-motor interior lineman who started 40 career games at South Florida, Grissom was one of this year’s undrafted steals. He’s not fast or overly strong, but he’s got a wide base and can stop the run. At 22 years old, Grissom has the experience and the mentality to make a run at a roster spot.
Brandon Jones, Cornerback – 6’1”, 187 pounds
A Rutgers product coached under Bill Belichick’s close friend Greg Schiano, it’s no wonder Jones ended up in New England. He started across in the Scarlet Knights secondary with Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon – two Patriots draft picks. The 23-year-old has height and ball skills, registering five interceptions during his redshirt senior season.
Josh Kline, Offensive Guard – 6’3”, 310 pounds
A former high school wrestler who knows how to use his hands, Kent State’s Josh Kline makes for an interesting NFL prospect. The redshirt senior has experience at both tackle and guard, but projects to the interior due to size limitations. He went undrafted this year, but is considered a sound run-blocker.
Chris McDonald, Offensive Guard – 6’5”, 298 pounds
Chris McDonald has joined his versatile older brother Nick in New England. A run-blocker, McDonald started 39 games at right guard for the Michigan State Spartans. He’s got deceiving quickness and upper-body strength for his size. An undrafted free agent, McDonald could start out on the practice squad and work his way up. That said, right guard is a relatively unsettled spot on the roster.
T.J. Moe, Wide Receiver – 6’0”, 200 pounds
The biggest prize of this year’s undrafted class was Missouri receiver T.J. Moe. Moe was Blaine Gabbert’s go-to target as a sophomore in 2010, recording 92 receptions for 1,045 yards and six touchdowns. His numbers dropped off when the offense changed hands, but he’s got top-notch lateral speed and a good pair of hands regardless. The 22-year-old has a great chance of making the team’s 53-man roster. According to Field Yates of ESPNBoston.com, Moe inked $30,000 in guaranteed money from the Patriots – the most of any Patriots UDFA.
Zach Sudfeld, Tight End – 6’7”, 225 pounds
At a glance, Nevada’s Sudfeld looks like a Rob Gronkowski-type tight end. He’s got good speed for his size, too. The biggest concern with Sudfeld is his injury history. Because of this, the Patriots were able to sign the medically redshirted 24-year-old as an undrafted free agent. Sudfeld had two career catches before 2012, but nabbed 45 passes for 598 yards and eight touchdowns. He is in the build of a big “Y” tight end who can go up and make the tough catches over the center of the field. In comparison to all New England’s undrafted acquisitions, Sudfeld garnered the second-highest amount of guaranteed money behind Moe. He could sneak into the back end of the 53-man roster.
Joe Vellano, Defensive Tackle – 6’2”, 285 pounds
An All-American defensive tackle at Maryland, Joe Vellano is a chip off the old block. Although he doesn’t have very good athleticism or size, the 24-year-old Terrapin knows how to make plays. He racked up the tackles in both a 4-3 and 3-4 defensive front, and has the makeup to be an unsung Patriot. Defensive tackle is a stockpiled position on New England’s roster right now, so practice squad would be the most probable place for Vellano to land.
Jason Vega, Defensive End – 6’4”, 256 pounds
A Brockton, Mass. native and product of the now-defunct Northeastern football program, Vega went north to play for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League in 2011. Two seasons, 66 tackles and 12 sacks later, Vega is back in New England and looking for a shot at the NFL. Vega has some serious work cut out for him, however, as Chandler Jones, Rob Ninkovich, Justin Francis, Jermaine Cunningham and Michael Buchanan are all in the mix as well. He’d provide the practice squad with a savvy, well-traveled vet.