NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
With the calendar flipped to August, the New England Patriots are now encompassed in the rhythm of training camp. Before long, there will be joint practices with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Before long, there will be four preseason exhibition games to play.
And before long, the 90-man roster will be cut to 75 men, then 53.
The stakes are high and the room for error is thin. Because ultimately, 37 current Patriots will find themselves either on the physically unable to perform list, injured reserve or out of a job.
There is one more possible destination, however: the practice squad.
As the title suggests, those who end up on the practice squad do not play in games; they practice with the team. The select grouping consists of players who are waived, go unclaimed and are re-signed in a lesser capacity.
Not everyone is eligible. No player can remain on the practice squad for more than three seasons. No player can remain on the practice squad if they’ve spent more than two seasons on the same team. And no player can remain if they have played in at least nine regular season games in the same year, or if they have accrued an entire year on the active roster.
So with those restrictions in place, which young Patriots are candidates for the eight-man squad?
It’s time to look at 14 players who may fall victim to cut-down days, but may still have a home in Foxborough, Mass.
George Winn, Halfback – Rookie
After spending most of his University of Cincinnati football career backing up current St. Louis Ram Isaiah Pead, running back George Winn took the reins as a redshirt senior in 2012. With the extended looks, Winn led the Big East with 1,334 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. Nevertheless, the 5’11”, 210-pounder did not hear his name called in April’s draft and signed with the Houston Texans as an undrafted free agent. Yet following rookie minicamp, Winn was released. At that time, the Patriots decided to give the high-value downhill runner a shot. The 22-year-old is facing an uphill battle behind the likes of Leon Washington, Brandon Bolden and LeGarrette Blount.
Kamar Aiken, Wide Receiver – Third NFL Season
Kamar Aiken is entering his third NFL season and has played in only three career games. The wide receiver brings good size to the table at 6’2”, 215 pounds, and he also brings system familiarity. This training camp, Aiken has parlayed that familiarity into steady reps and receptions. If he doesn’t make the final cut, there is a limitation that comes along with his practice squad availability: If the Patriots cut a player, the 24-year-old would automatically be added to the 53-man roster due his previous practice squad experience with the Buffalo Bills, the Chicago Bears and the Patriots.
Mark Harrison, Wide Receiver – Rookie
In my opinion, Rutgers wideout Mark Harrison was the enigma of the 2013 draft. After a respectable career with the Scarlet Knights, the 22-year-old took the roof off of Lucas Oil Stadium at the NFL Scouting Combine. By measuring in at 6’3”, 231 pounds with 35-inch arms, posting a vertical leap of 38.5 inches and a broad jump of 129 inches, and running a 4.46-second 40-yard dash, Harrison stood apart. But even with his impressive performance, big-bodied outside receiver went unselected in April. After failing his physical with the Chicago Bears because of a fifth metatarsal fracture in his left foot, Harrison was nabbed by the Patriots. His pre-draft injury has kept Harrison on the PUP list during his stay with New England. Since he’s been unable to do more than just light work on the sidelines, it will be hard for him to make the club come September. Yet if is healthy and able by the time the regular season rolls around, Harrison could wind up a steal for the Patriots.
Quentin Sims, Wide Receiver – Rookie
A highly-productive receiver during his time at Tennessee-Martin, undrafted rookie Quentin Sims now is in camp with the Patriots after a stint with the Atlanta Falcons. There isn’t much flash to his game, but 6’3”, 202-pounder could certainly turn his long odds into a practice squad opportunity based on what he’s shown in practice.
Brandon Ford, Tight End – Rookie
An undrafted Clemson Tiger, Brandon Ford offers versatility to New England’s tight end depth chart. The converted wide receiver can line up in-line, at H-Back or in the slot. The 23-year-old has shown above-average quickness and is a good fit for the “F” tight end position at 6’3”, 237 pounds. Though, with the expectation that fellow undrafted tight end Zach Sudfeld sticks on the 53, the practice squad could be a landing place for Ford.
Markus Zusevics, Offensive Tackle – Second NFL Season
Considered a draft-able prospect in 2012, the University of Iowa’s Markus Zusevics injured his pectoral muscle while lifting at the combine in Indianapolis. Consequently, 6’5″, 300-pounder — blessed with a great name — signed with the Patriots as a rookie free agent that May. From there, he was placed on the reserve/non-football injury list before being activated last November. While Zusevics did not get into a game as a rookie, the 24-year-old certainly has been in the fold long enough to think he’s in the team’s plans. He’s worked as an offensive tackle and has also been used as a guard this training camp.
Josh Kline, Offensive Guard – Rookie
A former high school wrestler, offensive guard Josh Kline was able to show enough at Kent State to warrant a shot with the Patriots as an undrafted free agent. The 6’3”, 295-pounder will be in consideration for a backup offensive guard duties. If he doesn’t make the cut, then the 23-year-old rookie could bring offensive line depth to the practice squad.
Chris McDonald, Offensive Guard – Rookie
Chris McDonald went undrafted out of Michigan State before signing on with the Patriots this offseason. In doing so, he joined his older brother Nick on New England’s offensive line. But since then, Nick has been waived. The 6’3”, 305-pound 23-year-old is vying for a backup interior lineman gig.
Marcus Forston, Defensive Tackle – Second NFL Season
Undrafted out of Miami a year ago, defensive tackle Marcus Forston signed with the Patriots in May of 2012. He made it through the final cuts and stuck on the active roster, serving as a reserve versus the Baltimore Ravens in September before being sent down to the practice squad. Forston was recalled to the active roster to face Baltimore again in the playoffs, yet he did not make an appearance. A 6’3”, 305-pound 23-year-old, Forston has made strides this training camp. He’s garnered some first-team reps, too. Because of his improvement, there’s a good chance the former Hurricane could secure a place on the 53-man roster behind Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly.
Cory Grissom, Defensive Tackle – Rookie
An aggressive run-clogging defensive tackle who started 40 of the 46 contests he played in at the University of South Florida, Grissom went undrafted in 2013. When that transpired, NFL.com senior analyst Gil Brandt ranked the 6’2”, 316-pound Bull as the No. 1 available rookie defensive lineman. A hard-working tackler with a well-grounded lower body, the 23-year-old Grissom has the potential to make a run at the bottom of New England’s defensive tackle position.
Joe Vellano, Defensive Tackle – Rookie
An All-American defensive tackle at Maryland, Joe Vellano gets the most out of his average athleticism and undersized 6’2”, 300-pound frame. The 24-year-old Terrapin has experience in both a 4-3 and 3-4 defensive front and is deceptive when it comes to rushing the passer. In a similar situation to Forston and Grissom, the practice squad figures to be the likely venue for Vellano early on.
Jason Vega, Defensive End/Outside Linebacker – Rookie
Jason Vega is not your typical rookie. A Brockton, Mass., native and former Northeastern pass-rusher, Vega traveled north to play with the Canadian Football League’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2011. Two years later, Vega is back in his home state with the Patriots. The 6’4”, 255-pound 26-year-old is older than most practice squad contenders. His seasoning could make him an asset worth holding onto.
Brandon Jones, Cornerback – Rookie
With an eye on defensive continuity, the Patriots acquired another Rutgers defender by the name of Brandon Jones last April. The 6’0”, 190-pound undrafted cornerback started 25 games over his last two years in Piscataway, N.J. The 23-year-old Jones led the team with five interceptions in 2012.
Ryan Allen, Punter – Rookie
There is no such thing as a “backup” NFL punter. As a result, it will be a challenge for the 23-year-old Ryan Allen to unseat Patriots incumbent Zoltan Mesko. But based on what he was able to accomplish during his time at Louisiana Tech, the left-footer can’t be ruled out. A 6’2”, 215-pound Oregon State transfer, Allen was a two-time Ray Guy Award winner in college — the Heisman Trophy for punters. Before Allen, no punting specialist had ever won the award twice. His accomplishments have been showcased to this point in training camp, as Allen has been making his case for a job. If he doesn’t make the cut, Allen’s hang time and accuracy make keep him away from the Pats’ practice squad. Sooner or later, he will be an NFL punter.