FOXBORO — To many who paid close attention to the Patriots offensive line in 2013, it was not a season to remember for Ryan Wendell. His quarterback – Tom Brady – was sacked 40 times in 2013, one shy of his career high of 41 in his first full season of 2001. Many of those pressures came over center where Wendell is not only responsible for calling out protections but helping to protect the middle of the line.
Even Wendell, a man of few words, acknowledged as much Tuesday when asked about it after the team’s third padded practice this summer.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Wendell said. “There’s more than two things, but I think you need to ask coach Belichick about what I need to improve on.”
Bill Belichick obliged Tuesday.
“I think every year you start all over again,” Belichick said when asked about Wendell’s 2013 season. “We all do. Within any year certainly we all have our moments that are good and we have some that aren’t so good that we’d like to have back. So, I’m sure you could find good and bad plays from all of us that have participated ‘ players, coaches, every position, every year.
“I think when you look at the overall performance, the overall projection of where you think the player is going to be based on whatever ‘ his age, his experience, his work ethic, his training or age, whichever way it’s going, there’s a certain projection there but you wait and let it play out. I think that’s where we are in training camp now for really all the players. They’ve all trained, they’ve all been through the spring. They’ve all worked to put themselves in this position. Now we go out there and let them compete and see how it unfolds. I don’t know how it’s going to happen.
“Certainly if we would have projected Ryan Wendell and Steve Neal their rookie years; none of us would have thought [Tom] Brady for that matter. His rookie year, he didn’t do anything either. None of us would have thought that those guys would be the contributors they ended up being. That’s why we go out there and have training camp. That’s what competition is about. Sometimes you find out things differently.”
In other words, Belichick still sees significant value in Wendell is a leader on the offensive line.
“I just try to do my job,” Wendell said of calling out the protections for Brady. “Tom does a great job putting us in the right position. My job is, just because I’m in the middle of the line, to communicate with guys on both sides, let them see what I see and what I see. But every guy on that offensive line knows their assignments, they know what to do. My job sometimes is to clear some gray area.”
Belichick raved about Wendell’s improvement from an undrafted lineman out of Fresno State in 2008 to the starting center for one of the best quarterbacks ever to play the game. Quite a leap, indeed, for the 28-year-old lineman. Dan Koppen was in attendance at practice Tuesday. It was Koppen whom Wendell supplanted as starting center in 2012.
“When Ryan first got here, he couldn’t even make our practice squad. He was a camp player, wasn’t on our practice squad at the beginning of the season. We brought him back to the practice squad during his first year, I want to say in like October or somewhere in there. He has worked his way from there on to a consistent practice squad player to a roster player to playing more plays, or whatever it was, played as many plays as anybody in the league did.
“I’d say it’s been about as big of a progression as really any player could have, any player I’ve had or any player could have ‘ maybe Steve Neal, but it’s the same kind of thing, guys that weren’t even on the practice squad that eventually became starting players in the NFL. That’s a pretty big jump. It took a lot of time, a lot of hard work and he’s certainly done his part and worked hard. He’s a very smart football player and doesn’t have many missed assignments, does a good job with communication from the center position with the offensive line.
“He had very good coaching in college with Pat Hill. He had good coaching here with [former offensive line coach] Dante [Scarnecchia], now Googe [offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo]. He’s also been the beneficiary of people that have been able to train him well, like [Patriots assistant strength and conditioning coach, formerly at Fresno State] Moses [Cabrera] did out at Fresno [State] or [head strength and conditioning coach] Harold [Nash] and Moses are doing now. Physically he’s developed. So, he’s had a lot of good people to work with. He’s taken advantage of that. He’s put in a lot of sweat equity himself and he’s got a good result to show for it. It’s a great story. It’s a great example of perseverance and dedication and hard work with good results; I love to see it.”
What made Belichick and the Patriots stick with Wendell early in his career, even when he couldn’t make the practice squad?
“I think the improvement. I think as long as the player is improving you keep working with him and see how much more improvement they make. If they continue to improve then you continue to work with them. At whatever point you think it’s kind of leveling off or you’ve reached the high water mark, then you have to decide whether that’s good enough.
“If it’s not and you don’t feel like it’s going to get any better and it’s not good enough, you probably need to look for somebody else. But as long as that arrow keeps pointing up ‘ you’re never really sure exactly how high it’s going to go and we all know that there’s a lot more to playing football than just straight physical testing abilities. We see that with a number of players on our team. Testing and all is relevant, I’m not saying it’s insignificant and ability is certainly, a certain level of it is required. But we’re playing football, we’re not track athletes, we’re not individual test athletes. We’re football players on a team. [If] a guy can improve and contribute to the team, then he’ll eventually have a role for the team.
Now, Wendell has come full circle. Bryan Stork has been brought in to provide some competition for – and depth behind – Wendell, who was re-signed in the offseason to a two-year, $6.85 million contract, including a $850,000 signing bonus, $850,000 guaranteed, and an annual average salary of $3,425,000. What does Wendell think of helping Stork?
“I just do what the older guys when I got here did for me,” Wendell said. “Guys like Dan Koppen, Steve Neal, Russ Hochstein, Logan Mankins when I got here. All those guys, they helped me so much by telling me what was expected of an offensive lineman [with] the New England Patriots and I try to do the same thing for Bryan. And he helps me because he’s got eyes on me too. We just try to give each other as much feedback as we can.
“Both of us are just trying to do our jobs the best we can. I think he’s going to approach it the same way I approach it when there were other guys in the position which is you come and do your job every day. We’re all on the same team until somebody tells us we’re not.”