In New England's mostly forgettable 23-6 preseason loss to the Redskins on Thursday night, Michael Buchanan was one of the few players who stood out.
The 2013 seventh-round pick out of Illinois was used last season mostly as a special teamer once Andre Carter was signed in October to help the Patriots pass rush. But Buchanan has had his cracks at playing defensive end during training camp and that continued against the Redskins.
In 60 snaps Thursday -- the most of any Patriots defensive player, according to ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss -- Buchanan recorded seven tackles and made the only Patriots sack of the night.
For a New England pass rush that could use buttressing, Buchanan offers some potential. He's listed at 6-foot-5, 255 pounds, and he runs well enough to be a trusted cog in kickoff coverage. At times he appears light for his position -- he has had trouble anchoring the end of the defensive line and keeping contain on his side -- but his athleticism can be problematic for lumbering tackles.
Bill Belichick said in a conference call on Friday that he liked the way Buchanan's game was progressing.
"Mike I think is certainly way ahead of where he was last year as a rookie," Belichick said. "He got a lot of experience last year on defense and in the kicking game. He’s been a pretty durable player for us, he’s out on the field a lot, hasn’t missed much time and therefore he works hard and continues to get better. I think he’s improved in his overall understanding of the game and understanding of the defense and the kicking game. Had a good offseason in the weight room and has gained some strength and a little bit of bulk and still runs well and is athletic."
The Patriots imported veteran defensive end Will Smith as a free agent this offseason to help spell Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, who both played over 95 percent of New England's defensive snaps last season, most of any player in the league at that position. Smith, however, is coming off of a season lost to ACL surgery and it's still uncertain the level at which level he'll be able to perform come the start of the regular season.
Third-year defensive end Jake Bequette, who has flashed briefly in one-on-one drills during training camp but has spent the bulk of his first two years inactive on Sundays, is another pass-rushing option at Belichick's disposal. Same goes for rookie sixth-round pick Zach Moore, who is a project out of Division 2 program Concordia State, but has the physical tools to be disruptive. From this perspective, Moore showed good power and an ability to bull-rush opposing offensive linemen in his passing-down opportunities on Thursday, making him perhaps a different type of rusher than the agile Buchanan.
It may be that Buchanan seizes the opportunity to prove himself as the team's best option for a third pass-rusher thanks to his in-game experience and young legs. He still has plenty to clean up in his game -- it seems as though he could stand to gain strength, and he committed a whopping three penalties against the Redskins -- but he's headed in the right direction.
"Overall," Belichick said, "he’s built on his first-year experiences and knowledge, and is in the process of taking a jump his second year."