New England Patriots Pre-Season Darlings

Every preseason a couple of players seemingly come out of nowhere and flash in a game or more. This prompts the inevitable over-projecting of these performances against second or third string players. So far this year Adam Butler, Austin Carr, Devin Lucien Jacob Hollister and Harvey Langi have all made strong cases to make the roster. The future for these guys is difficult to determine. Some of them will make the roster, others won’t. Some will go on to have Pro-Bowl caliber seasons; others will fall out of football within a year.

Lets take a look at some of the players that have passed through New England over the last few years. They all seemed destined to do great things, but several didn’t even make the team.

 

Armond Armstead – DT – USC

Armstead was an unfortunate victim of circumstance rather than an overrated preseason player. His heart attack suffered while at USC saw him go undrafted and play a season in the CFL where he earned All-Star honors. His six sacks from the interior line earned him a 3-year contract with the Patriots in 2013. Fans were intrigued to see what he could do, but he mysteriously (at the time) stayed away from the practice field. The longer he stayed away, the more his legend grew. He was projected to step in and provide much needed help to a maligned defensive interior. The help never arrived. It turned out Armstead had an infection relating to his initial heart attack and retired having never taken the field as a Patriot at the age of 23.

 

Malcolm Butler – CB – West Alabama

Early on in 2014, the former try-out was impressing in camp. Patriots Football Weekly experts Andy Hart and Paul Perillo had him earmarked to potentially make the roster having impressed throughout training camp. He subsequently made the roster, and despite being inactive some weeks, he saw some game time in his rookie season. Butler will be forever immortalized by his actions in Super Bowl XLIX. His interception in the closing seconds of Russell Wilson was the defining point of the game and one of the defining all-time Super Bowl moments (Watch here). He has since become a top NFL cornerback and will most likely earn a huge payday at the end of this season when he becomes a free agent. A payday no Patriots fan can ever deny him.

 

Jeff Demps – RB/KR – Florida

Demps was probably the fastest man to ever play for the Patriots. A star college track athlete who would later represent the USA in 2012 Olympics in the Men’s 4x100m relay, Demps’ career in New England was short lived. He was put on injured reserve in his rookie season and ended up being part of the trade that would bring LaGarette Blount to the Patriots. Whilst Demps’ athletic career got a lot of hype, he was far from a track athlete that wanted to play football. At Florida he had strong numbers averaging 6.8 yards per carry in his four seasons. His pure athleticism excited everybody and fans were intrigued to see what he could do with the ball in his hands. Demps’ career is proof of how important football intelligence is in the modern day NFL and how being ‘just an athlete’ is not enough anymore. He is now a speed and agility coach.

 

AJ Derby – TE – Arkansas

Derby was a 6th round pick in 2015 that ended up on Injured Reserve early in pre-season. When he returned to full health in 2016, he joined a crowded Tight-End room with Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett, Michael Williams and Clay Harbor. He flashed in the pre-season games and stood out as a frontrunner for the third string Tight-End spot. The Patriots kept him on the roster early in the season but he was traded for a 5th round pick to Denver before the trade deadline. Not only did the Patriots get decent value for Derby but he was predominantly a pass-catching Tight-End, where the Patriots usually like a player that can act as a blocker first and catch second as their third Tight-End option – think Steve Maneri, Michael Williams, Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan for comparison. Derby is currently on Injured Reserve again going into the 2017 season.

 

Marcus Forston – DT – Miami

Forston is a more obscure “Preseason Darling”. His college career was blighted by injury but when he did play he displayed NFL talent. After going undrafted in 2012, he showed his ability in the preseason and made the final 53-man roster. At the time the Patriots has an anemic defensive interior, so Forston’s pre-season play had the fans excited that Kyle Love, Brandon Deaderick and Jermaine Cunningham had some competition. The reality was Forston couldn’t really cut it against starting NFL Offensive Linemen and was subsequently waived and signed to the Practice Squad. He would spend the 2012-13 seasons alternating between the active roster and the Practice Squad until he was finally cut in August 2014. Forston fell out of the league in 2014 but re-signed with the Rams for 2015 but failed to make the roster. He is now working as a policeman in Atlanta.

 

Tyler Gaffney – RB – Stanford

When the Patriots claimed Gaffney from Carolina after he was cut with an injury designation, there were a few eyebrows raised. Had Bill Belichick seen something in Gaffney in pre-season? His final year college numbers were outstanding, (330 rushing attempts, 1709 rushing yards, and 21 rushing touchdowns). Could Gaffney be the bell-cow for the Patriots when he came back from injury? The next two years with the Patriots were a continuation of his injury problems. He ended up on Injured Reserve on each of his three seasons. By the time he was released in 2016, he was no longer an up and coming player. He was an injury prone 26 year old Running Back with little NFL game-time experience. Gaffney signed for the Jaguars for this coming season but was placed on IR again at the beginning of the month.

 

Chris Harper WR/KR – California

The California native was undrafted in 2015 but an excellent pre-season saw him make the 53-man roster. Fans were excited to see how his return and playmaking ability at the receiver position would translate on a week-in week-out basis. Unfortunately it never really worked out for Harper once the regular season rolled around. He had only one six yard catch to his name in 2015 and a lost fumble on a punt against the Broncos, which ultimately cost the team the game and Harper his job with the Patriots. He is now in New York with the Jets with a good chance to make one of the poorest receiving cores in the league.

 

Josh Kline – G – Kent State

Kline is the second Kent State alum to arrive at in New England in relative inconspicuousness but had a better career than anyone could have imagined, (the first being Julian Edelman). Kline saw extended playing time in pre-season and only narrowly missed out on making the roster. He was quickly signed to the Practice Squad and promoted to the active roster when injury hit the Offensive line. Kline’s versatility was always a big plus in his favor. Being competent at almost all positions (except Left-Tackle) he quickly became the swing interior lineman in his rookie season. He went on to feature in over 12 games each season for the Patriots between 2014-15. In a surprising move he was released just before the 2016 season and was claimed off waivers by the Titans. He had his best season in 2016 being part of a line that was third in rushing yards per game.

 

Cre’Von LeBlanc – CB – Florida Atlantic

The Patriots are always trying to improve their secondary. It has been a problem position for them for a number of years especially when it comes to the draft. They have swung and missed on a high number of draft picks recently. Names such as Wilhite, Butler (Darius), Dowling and Wheatley have Patriots fans roll their eyes in disappointment. As a result, there are usually one or more Cornerback spots to be won on the roster. In 2016 it came down to Cre’Von LeBlanc and Jonathan Jones for the final spot. LeBlanc appeared to be quite a bit ahead of Jones during preseason and was expected by many to be odds on to be part of the final 53. His one-handed interception against the Saints had Patriots fans gushing (Watch here). Mike Reiss of ESPN gave a good breakdown on the differences between the two (Watch here). It basically came down to Jones having a big edge on Special Teams and LeBlanc only having a small edge on defense. The Bears claimed LeBlanc off waivers where he carved a decent role in their secondary last year.

 

Dion Lewis – RB – Pittsburgh

Few eyebrows were raised when Lewis, a four-year veteran, was signed to a futures contract in 2015. He was projected to be a camp body and nothing more. He also hadn’t played in an NFL game since 2012. Once he hit preseason and training camp the perception changed. He started to play to his college form. His injuries had healed and he was electric in the passing and rushing game. He made the roster with ease but his injury problems continued. His 2016 play had deteriorated due to a knee injury suffered in 2015 and there were question marks over his ability to make the roster in 2017. His form appears to have returned and projects to be the primary backup behind Mike Gilleslee.

 

TJ Moe – WR – Missouri

Moe was slated early in mini-camp to be in the reckoning to make the roster. He had outstanding production in his sophomore college year with 1,045 receiving yards and 12 Touchdowns. Moe is in a similar mold to Austin Carr, just short of 6 foot and 200lbs. The future looked bright but it was ended early in camp when he tore his Achilles in camp. He never recovered and was released. He signed with the Rams the following year but was cut early in preseason. He is now a podcast host based in St. Louis.

 

Kenbrell Thompkins – WR – Cincinnati

Thompkins like all the others on this list started to make waves in his rookie preseason. His career zenith came in his first regular season catching 32 passes and 4 touchdowns. His trajectory started a downward turn in 2014 where he only featured in two games before being released. Of all the receivers on this list, Thompkins really did appear to be the real deal, a diamond in the rough plucked from anonymity. He was claimed by the Raiders but didn’t play much. In a move that surprised many, the Patriots brought him back in 2015 to the Practice Squad. He only lasted a month. Since then he has been on the Jets practice squad/active roster merry-go-round.

 

Brian Tyms – WR – Florida A&M

Tyms was seen as the second coming of Kenbrell Thompkins when the Patriots signed him in 2014. One could argue his performances ultimately brought about the end of Thompkins time in New England. He brought the rare quality that Patriots fans had been seeking since Randy Moss was traded – the ability to catch the deep ball. In one preseason came he caught five passes for 119 yards. Once activated to the roster he scored a 49-yard Touchdown in his first game, which brought him into mainstream consciousness. He ultimately failed to make further impact and had to wait to the last game of the season before he recorded another catch. He was released after the end of the season and now plays for the Hamilton Tiger Cats in the CFL.

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