NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
The New England Patriots drafted seven players over the weekend. The list of Bill Belichick pick-ups included two wide receivers, two defensive backs, two edge-rushers and an inside linebacker. Each choice addressed a need, and it was a good haul by most standards.
But one position was notably missing from the draft pile: defensive tackle.
Even with USC and Canadian Football League standout Armond Armstead and ex-Oakland Raiders Pro Bowler Tommy Kelly in the fold, many still considered interior pass rush a top draft priority. Some were clamoring for a Kawann Short from Purdue, or a Jesse Williams from Alabama, or even a Bennie Logan from LSU.
The Patriots, obviously, weren’t listening.
Yet once pick 254 of Round 7 was announced, New England’s brass got the phones of countless undrafted free agents ringing. At least 18 of those prospects answered the call. And three of whom happened to be defensive tackles — the highest influx at one position.
Now 90-man training camp rosters are filled with many NFL hopefuls who will never play a down in the league. By most accounts, it’s trial by volume. Throw as many players up at the ceiling and see which ones “stick.” From that standpoint, it’s important to not get too excited about who the Patriots agree to terms with.
That said, there’s reason to believe that the team’s interest in the defensive tackle position goes deeper than the proverbial “numbers game.” There’s also reason to believe that at least one of these big D-linemen will, well, “stick.”
Here are the three unsung candidates who will be in camp battling for a roster spot.
Cory Grissom, South Florida — 6’2”, 306 pounds
Cory Grissom is a tough and determined run-stopper who never gives up on a play. Those traits can carry an undrafted free agent a long way in the NFL.
The fifth-year senior’s resume isn’t astounding, but it speaks for itself. Grissom started 40 games over his college career at South Florida. He was a second-team All-Big East selection in 2012. He totaled 105 career tackles, 16.5 stops for loss and five sacks. His play was enough to earn him a trip to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, where he was the only Bull in attendance.
Grissom is not your prototypical pass-rushing defensive tackle. He’s more of a disruptor who can get in the way of open lanes. He doesn’t have great upper-body strength, but he has strong legs and can keep his pad level low. Ultimately, Grissom plays hard and tackles hard. It’s kind of a surprise that No. 46 wasn’t drafted because he could certainly work his way into a defensive line rotation. If that doesn’t come to fruition in Foxboro, he should get a shot elsewhere.
Dewayne Cherrington, Mississippi State — 6’2”, 345 pounds
Dewayne Cherrington is a massive man who can consume space. He’s the epitome of a nose tackle. He’s also the least polished of the team’s undrafted D-tackles.
A Holmes Community College transfer, Cherrington joined the Bulldogs in 2011 and totaled 12 tackles and 2.5 tackles for negative yardage. As a senior in 2012, Cherrington made 24 tackles and for loss. These numbers don’t exactly impress, though his size is his potential. If he can find a way to carry it well, he could become a very imposing situational nose in the NFL.
While he’s very strong — he benched 36 reps of 225 pounds at his pro day — Cherrington has the quickness you’d expect from a man who’s pushing 350 pounds. He ran a 5.5 40-time at his workout, which would have been slower than Georgia’s Kwame Gathers at the NFL combine.
If he can prove to be a productive zero-tech in camp, Cherrington may be able to stick around. You can’t teach size and strength. He has both. Is Cherrington the next Ted Washington? Not likely. But there’s no harm in finding out who he could become.
Joe Vellano, Maryland — 6’2”, 306 pounds
It’s safe to say that the Vellano’s have left their mark on Maryland. Paul Vellano was an All-American defensive tackle for the Terrapins in the 1970s. And some 40 years later, his son Joe accomplished the same.
While the younger Vellano isn’t blessed with tremendous girth or the quickest feet, he’s the definition of a hard-working football player. A redshirt senior, Vellano has three years of starting experience under his belt.
In 2010, Vellano recorded 63 total stops and five sacks. A year later, he proceeded to amass an unbelievable 94 total tackles, as well as 2.5 sacks. And if you think those numbers are terrific, take a look at how well Vellano fared when the Terps switched to a 3-4 scheme in 2012: 61 tackles and six sacks. Not only is Vellano a strong, versatile lineman but he’s also a blue-collar worker and a team captain — all of which are boxes on Belichick’s checklist.
The Patriots carried five defensive tackles on the 53-man roster at the start of the 2012 season. With that kind of track record, it’s clear that Grissom, Cherrington and Vellano will not all make the cut in 2013. Since Vince Wilfork, Armstead and Kelly are essentially locks, an undrafted rookie roster spot would likely come at the expense of either Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick or Marcus Forston. If that doesn’t transpire, then the practice squad would be the next step in the process.
For now, we can just worry about mini camps. We do have months to debate how the roster will pan out. Nevertheless, you can’t count these three young linemen out. Each brings a different skill set to the table.