Aqib Talib is back with the Patriots on a one-year deal. (AP)
This spring, there are several notable names on the Patriots roster who are starting an important period in their careers for one of four reasons: one, because they might be on the hot seat this year as part of a looming positional battle. Two, they’ve been on the shelf for an extended stretch and are a question mark when it comes to how much they might be able to contribute. Three, they have yet to take a snap in the Patriots system, which makes it difficult when it comes to gauging how they might fit in Foxboro. And four, they are entering a contract year, and could have their fortunes down the road tied to their performance in 2013.
With that in mind, here’s our list of this spring’s 10 most intriguing veterans on the New England roster:
Cornerback Aqib Talib: Talib, who was acquired from the Bucs in a November trade, wasn’t an elite corner by any stretch, but allowed the Patriots to move Devin McCourty to safety and install Kyle Arrington in the slot. With that personnel combination in the secondary, the Patriots pass defense saw great improvement across the board. (The continuity of having the same five guys at the same spots in the defensive backfield also helped, and with his return, should help going forward.) Despite some injury issues — his departure in the AFC title game, combined with New England’s lack of a coverage linebacker, left the Patriots struggling to defend against Joe Flacco — Talib became a key part of the defense. He re-signed with the Patriots on a low-cost, one-year “prove it” deal that creates incentives for both him and the team: if he has a terrific year, he gets to return to the open market with a chance to really cash in, and the team gets a top-level corner for a year at relatively low cost.
Tight end Jake Ballard: The former Giant was plucked off the New York roster last June, and spent the entire 2012 season on the shelf after suffering a knee injury in Super Bowl XLVI against the Patriots. A 6-foot-6, 275-pounder, he was undrafted out of Ohio State in 2010, but turned himself into an effective downfield threat in 2011 with New York (38 receptions for 604 yards and four touchdowns). Ballard is intriguing for a couple of reasons: one, he hasn’t been on the field for a year, and remains a bit of an unknown commodity because of his inactivity. And two, if Rob Gronkowski is on the shelf for any amount of time, Ballard (provided he’s healthy) should see an increase in reps, as his game has some elements of Gronkowski.
Defensive lineman Armond Armstead: One of the most intriguing veteran prospects the Patriots have brought in this spring, this CFL import — who stands at 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds — could provide a boost to the New England pass rush. The 22-year-old was, a USC product, was a three-year star for the Trojans in college. After a junior year spent at defensive end — where he had 43 tackles, six of which were for a loss (three sacks) — he was set to open his senior year at defensive tackle, but suffered a heart attack before his senior season and was never cleared to practice. As a result, he went undrafted last spring, and ended up with Toronto of the Canadian Football League, where he led the 44 tackles and six sacks to help the Argonauts to a Grey Cup championship. (Armstead and Jason Vega are the two CFL imports who joined the New England roster this offseason.)
(When it comes to making the transition from the CFL to the NFL, Marc Trestman — a former CFL coach who was named the head coach of the Bears this offseason — thinks it can be done. “There are some players up there certainly that have shown they can play in the NFL, that’s been proven over time. There haven’t been many but the guys who have shown up down here did a pretty good job of fitting in,” he said. “Players up there are very similar to the guys down here in terms of their character. They want to master their craft, they want to be the best they can be, and some of them have had the opportunity south of the border and have done well. These guys love football up there and have dreams of wanting to do it down here, and those who can, will give it a try. Those who can’t have experienced a lot of exciting football up there.”)
Defensive lineman Tommy Kelly: The template is in place: former Raider defensive linemen comes to New England, as the Patriots try and wring one or two more good years out of him (presumably) at the end of his career. It’s something they achieved nicely with Gerard “Big Money” Warren, who was an important part of a rotation on the New England defensive line in 2010 and 2011. Ideally, Kelly would fill the same role with the Patriots. The 32-year-old defensive tackle is still pretty durable — he hasn’t missed a start over the last five seasons, and had a combined 14.5 sacks in 2011 and 2010. He could provide some support on passing downs, and might have an expanded role depending on what happens with some of the other defensive line prospects.
Defensive end Jake Bequette: Bequette, a third-round pick of the Patriots last spring, fundamentally took a redshirt year last season as he grew accustomed to life in the NFL. (He played in three games and didn’t register any numbers.) Meanwhile, he was passed on the depth chart by fellow rookie Justin Francis, who flashed positively down the stretch and figures to be one of the first defensive ends off the bench in 2013 if given the opportunity. The 6-foot-4, 265-pound Bequette, known primarily as a pass-rusher at Arkansas (he had 23.5 sacks as a collegian, including 10 as a senior in 2011), was strong enough in practice that he was named a Practice Player of the Week in late October. However, he needs to assert himself now if he wants to become part of the mix in 2013.
Linebacker Brandon Spikes: The always-interesting Spikes would probably make this list regardless of his situation, but for these purposes, it’s because he’s going into the final season of a four-year deal he signed as a rookie. When he’s been healthy, he’s evolved into one of the most feared run-stoppers in the league. But he hasn’t played a full 16-game schedule to this point in his career, and while he’s an elite run-stopper and big hitter — just ask Ryan Fitzpatrick — he’s also still considered a two-down linebacker. (That being said, he someone managed to rack up seven passes defensed last season, one of the most remarkable stats on the team.) If Spikes can stay healthy and be a consistent presence on passing downs, he could be in line for a sizable payday. Ultimately, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out with Spikes over the course of the 2013 season.
Running back Brandon Bolden: The undrafted free agent made a big splash right out of the gate last season, rushing for 137 yards on 16 carries in a September win over the Bills in Buffalo. Seemingly poised for a breakout performance, he only had 33 carries the rest of the year — part of that was because he was suspended for four games because of a violation of the league’s policy on performance enhancers, and part of it was because of the emergence of teammate Stevan Ridley. But as it stands right now, Bolden will likely battle veteran LeGarrette Blount (who was acquired on draft weekend in a deal with Tampa Bay) for the role of big, workhorse back.
Cornerback Ras-I Dowling: Whenever you talk about Dowling, you have to keep two things in mind: one, the coaching staff thought enough of him to have him start his first two games as a rookie. And two, he’s never really been healthy since he started collegiately. The 33rd overall pick of the 2011 draft, he had a strong start to his rookie year when he opened his first two games as a pro with the No. 1 defense, but he landed on season-ending injured reserve on Oct. 29 because he needed hip surgery. And 2012 started poorly when he suffered a hamstring injury early in camp and missed nearly three weeks. As a result, he slipped down the depth chart, and began the season as a nickel back. Then, he made it all the way to late October before suffering a thigh injury in an overtime win over the Jets, which sent him to IR again. When he’s been healthy, the 24-year-old has been an intriguing physical presence in the secondary — at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, he brings a size that New England had been lacking at corner for several years, at least until Talib came along. But Dowling now has to prove that he can stay healthy for an entire season before the Patriots start to lean on him seriously — he could be pressed by rookie third-round pick Logan Ryan, a similarly-sized corner.
Linebacker Dane Fletcher: The 6-foot-2, 245-pounder, who beat the odds to make the team as an undrafted free agent out of Montana State in 2010, carved out a nice niche for himself over the first two years of his career on the inside, providing depth for guys like Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes. However, he suffered a knee injury in the 2012 preseason and was lost for the year. He returns to face a crowded depth chart on the inside — in addition to Spikes and Mayo, Dont’a Hightower emerged as a relatively dependable presence on the inside as a rookie in 2012, and New England drafted Jamie Collins, who has played both inside and outside linebacker at a high level as a collegian.
Safety Adrian Wilson: First, let’s get one thing clear — Wilson is not your average safety. At 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, he’s practically a linebacker. (He’s one of the biggest defensive backs the Patriots have ever had, maybe the biggest one Bill Belichick has ever brought in to Foxboro.) And when you combine that with the fact that he’s clearly got a sizable chip on his shoulder when it comes to how his time in Arizona came to a close, the veteran has something to prove in 2013. (The five-time Pro Bowler is rankled by the fact that some suggest he has lost a step.) It still has to be determined how much the 33-year-old can play, but at this point, he is clearly in the mix for some sort of role as a strong safety, and could ultimately challenge Steve Gregory for playing time at that position.