NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
Talent will get an undrafted rookie signed, but versatility is what will get an undrafted rookie on the football field.
Former Clemson tight end Brandon Ford has already accomplished the former. Now, he’s looking to accomplish the latter.
And he’s looking to do so with the New England Patriots.
When the rookie agreed to terms with New England following Day 3 of the 2013 NFL draft, he appeared to be the biggest positional longshot given the team’s logjam at tight end. Yet as we now know, that landscape has changed.
Ford is now one of six tight ends on the 90-man roster. And aside from All-Pro Rob Gronkowski, the greenhorn sporting a white No. 49 jersey should have as good a chance as any to impress come training camp.
The 6’3”, 237-pound Ford essentially had one year of production with the Tigers, spending 2010 and 2011 as the backup to current Indianapolis Colt Dwayne Allen. Nevertheless, Ford did collect 40 receptions for 480 yards and eight touchdowns during his redshirt senior campaign. He was listed on the midseason Mackey Award watch list. He was named First-team All-ACC. And by the time his college career ended, Ford found himself tied for most receiving TDs by a tight end in school history.
Ford blossomed in 2012 due to his adaptability. The 23-year-old showcased the skillset to do an array of things out of the spread offense. That array of things likely caught the eye of New England head coach Bill Belichick, who believes that the more you can do, the more ways you can help the team win.
Which begs the question: What can Ford do to help a team like the Patriots win?
In search of answers, it’s time to revisit the film. Thanks to DraftBreakdown.com’s video cut-ups, there is an accessible way to do just that.
Let’s take a closer look at what New England’s under-the-radar rookie can bring to the table.
H-Back into the Flats
Ford isn’t in the mold of an in-line “Y” tight end. He’s more so a utilitarian tight end who prevalently shadows the offensive line. Putting that description into football terms, he’s an H-back.
From this position, Ford can be disguised as a fullback-type without much offensive potency. He can use that disguise to his advantage, too. Versus the North Carolina State Wolfpack on Nov. 17, 2012, he did.
Down in the red zone, Clemson operated out of “11” personnel with a three-wideout set. The Wolfpack sent out a 4-2 sub package to counter.
As the ball was snapped to quarterback Tajh Boyd, Ford slipped out from the H-back spot and into the flat. With a lot of speed on the field, N.C. State’s defense set its attention elsewhere.
The left defensive end swung around Clemson’s right tackle and allowed Ford to brush by. The left cornerback was busy covering the “X” receiver in the end zone. As a result, Ford found himself in a window of opportunity.
Boyd saw his tight end and delivered him the ball. In turn, Ford re-set his sights on the goal line as defenders switched field.
Gaining steam heading into contact, Ford dove through three tacklers on his way to a TD.
Ford’s ability to deceive the defense could go a long way toward him making an unexpected impact. While defenses are used to seeing additional big bodies on the field in short yardage, it’s difficult to pinpoint who’s the weapon and who’s the decoy when an H-back player hardly leaves the field.
The Patriots don’t exactly use H-backs like the Joe Gibbs-era Washington Redskins did, but Ford poses an intriguing option in that particular role if Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels choose to set back the clock.
While Ford lacks the burly size most successful blocking tight ends possess, he is still more than capable of disrupting aggressors. Out of the H-back role — as well as an occasional fullback role — Ford has been able to make his presence felt on run plays.
In the Chick Fil A Bowl versus Louisiana State on Dec. 31, 2012, he made that apparent.
Set up behind the right tackle and in front of tailback Andre Ellington against LSU’s four-man front, Ford assumed protection responsibilities.
As Boyd took the snap and offered a play-action fake to Ellington, Ford squared up his feet to fend off the interior defensive linemen who had permeated the pocket.
As the right defensive tackle broke through, Ford sold out his body to free up his quarterback. Because of that low block, Boyd was able to scramble up through the pressure.
Ford got up from the turf and Boyd went on the offensive, working past the line of scrimmage into positive territory.
Albeit a questionable block, Ford was a critical component in why Clemson garnered a gain rather than a sack. He won’t maul D-lineman, but he can still serve as a viable blocker when the situation calls for it.
In-Traffic ‘Move’ Tight End
At times, “Move” tight ends are theorized as contact-fearing pass-catchers. Ford did his best to dispel that during his time at Clemson.
On Oct. 6, 2012 against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, Ford flanked the strong side and prepped to run underneath.
After the snap, Boyd faked the run and targeted Ford crossing through a zone of linebackers.
Boyd’s pass, however, was deflected at the line. Ford came back to the ball and extended his arms to make the snag. At that point, the defenders closed in.
Ford secured possession of the ball, but got throttled as soon as he turned his head around.
The defender hit right underneath Ford’s facemask. And he hit him hard enough for the Yellow Jacket to lose his own helmet. The officials ruled that it was targeting, but Ford managed to hold on the ball nonetheless.
Ford may run a lot of out routes, but he is certainly not afraid to go over the middle, either.
Mismatch in the Slot
Ford isn’t elusive, per say. According to NFLDraftScout.com, he ran a 4.74 40-yard dash as his pro day, a 1.73 10-yard dash and a 7.13 three-cone drill. That being said, he is still a mismatch when aligned in the slot.
A converted wide receiver who was ranked in the positional Top-50 by Rivals.com coming out of high school, Ford looks at home in the seam. And giving consideration to his experience as a former basketball player and long jump track athlete, there’s a lot to like about implementing Ford out wide.
That was evident against the Florida State Seminoles on Sept. 22, 2012.
With Clemson spreading four wide, Florida State manned up while still rushing four down linemen. Ford was sent out to the slot and covered by a linebacker.
Ford pedaled to the sideline before turning upfield in an out and up route. Meanwhile, wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins crossed through his pattern, creating confusion in the secondary. The linebacker took an awkward angle as Ford curved up the sideline.
With Florida State’s left cornerback holding other duties and the cover linebacker strides behind, Boyd tossed a ball over the top. Ford was open.
Reeling in the over-the-shoulder catch and maneuvering through smaller defensive backs, Ford accumulated an extra 20 yards after the grab.
Ford may not have breakaway speed, but he is plenty quick enough in and out of breaks to dislodge linebackers and overpower defensive backs. As a result, he was able to produce long-distance plays of 40 and 69 yards last year.
Whether he’s in the backfield out split outside, there’s enough athleticism and positional flexibility for Ford to be effective in an offense. There’s no brute force in his blocks and there’s no jaw-dropping footwork in his routes, but Ford has shown he can help keep drives alive in one facet or another.
Will his stay in Foxboro be an extended one? That remains to be seen. Although based on his late-blooming performance in college, his toughness and his widespread use, there’s reason to believe a niche is out there for Brandon Ford.
He’ll just have to carve it.