Undrafted players making mark on 2012 Patriots

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Undrafted players making mark on 2012 Patriots

FOXBORO-- There are 29 players on the Patriots 53-man roster drafted by the team. Tom Brady is the earliest (2000) and Alfonzo Dennard is the latest, drafted in the seventh round of the 2012 NFL Draft.

The Patriots went through a bit of a dry spell during the Draft from 2004 to 2008. Just five players remain from those classes none from 2007 (in their defense, they traded three early ones that year).

Since then, they've hit some home runs. Seven draft picks from 2010 should play major roles this season, while last year's rookies like Nate Solder, Ras-I Dowling, and Stevan Ridley look to make a leap.

This year? Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower look like absolute steals based on what we've seen, and rugby sensation Nate Ebner has beaten out a number of safeties that had much more experience than he.

But all that said, it's the Patriots' eye for talent unseen by others -- at all -- that has really helped shape the team into contenders each year.

Get this: Of the active 53-man roster, 17 of those players were undrafted in the NFL. That number doesn't include undrafted special-teamer turned linebacker Dane Fletcher, who is now on season-ending IR.

That's nearly a third of this season's active roster filled with players passed up by every single team time after time . . . after time. No, the Patriots didn't sign them all out of college, but they saw enough out of some early on in their careers to scoop them up before they established themselves in the NFL.

So what do these undrafted players taken in by Bill Belichick have in common over the years?

"They've come in and they've performed to a good, competitive level and show us that they can possibly get higher," he said. "That they've been competitive and that there's upside for them to continue to develop as a player and get better. How far does that take them? How high do they go? I don't know, but I'd say that would be the common thing with those players going all the way back to Patrick Pass and guys like that even from the beginning that were late round draft choices or undrafted free agents."

In all, the Patriots have eight players that were at one point rookie and first-year free agents with the Patriots: Ryan Wendell (2008), Kyle Arrington (2009), Kyle Love (2010), Sterling Moore (2011), Mike Rivera (2011), Brandon Bolden (2012), Marcus Forston (2012), and Justin Francis (2012).

Arrington has had a major role in the team's defense over the past couple seasons, and Love has really come into his own on the defensive line. Wendell is certainly a late bloomer, but a player that Belichick seems particularly proud of in terms of progress made.

"Hes been very well coached. Obviously Pat Hill and his staff at Fresno State did an excellent job with him and Logan Mankins and all the other linemen that have come out of there," Belichick said of Wendell. "When we first had Wendy, we actually released him off the practice squad and then brought him back to the practice squad so thats a guy whose level has risen dramatically from when he first started here. Hard work, hes gotten stronger, hes improved his athletic skills, his numbers, his quickness, explosion, power, strength, all those things Hes done a good job for us all the way through. Hes always been a solid, dependable player. Hes earned it; hes definitely earned it."

Earning it - perhaps a bit more than players drafted in the higher rounds is something each and every undrafted free agent must do throughout their careers.

Wes Welker was undrafted out of Texas Tech and had a subpar career before he was traded to New England from Miami in 2007. He's undoubtedly earned his place and then some in the NFL. Danny Woodhead was undrafted out of Chadron State College and has found success in the running game with the Pats. And versatile offensive lineman Nick McDonald, undrafted out of Grand Valley State University, has drawn praise from Bill Belichick in camp.

So, no, a coaching staff probably doesn't go into camp with the expectation that an undrafted free agent will bounce out a more established player, but if the right ones come in the competition will be fierce, and it's up to the coaching staff to realize it before it's really too late.

"They played well in training camp and you evaluate the player and say, 'This guy, really with a little more experience and a little more time he might be even better' -- the Matt Cassell's and the Steve Neal's of the world and all that. I think that's what they need to show to get to that next opportunity that they've got to keep getting better or they just fizzle out and somebody else will move along with kind of the same resume and nudge them out, get ahead of them."

And so the process repeats itself.

Thuney stands out in first day of one-on-one work

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Thuney stands out in first day of one-on-one work

FOXBORO -- With the introduction of fully-padded practices typically comes the opportunity for linemen on both sides of the football to shine. Unfortunately for the Patriots offensive line, Saturday was sort of a rough day.

Guard Jonathan Cooper, who has been playing as the right guard on the first offensive line unit through the early portion of camp, had to be carted off the field with a foot injury. Center Bryan Stork left practice in the middle of the workout for an undisclosed reason. Guard Shaq Mason took off for some conditioning on a lower field soon after practice began. And, while healthy enough to be on the field, Marcus Cannon had difficulty trying to keep defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Jabaal Sheard in check. 

One of the bright spots for offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia's group was rookie third-round pick Joe Thuney. The North Carolina State product has served as the left guard for the first-team offensive line thus far, and he more than held his own when the hitting commenced. 

He never appeared out of sorts next to left tackle Nate Solder, he blocked up to and through the echo of the whistle on a play-to-play basis, and he was one of the most impressive Patriots -- rookie or otherwise -- during the first one-on-one period for linemen during this year's camp. 

On his first snap, he was matched up across from last year's first-round pick Malcom Brown and held his ground against the team's top defensive tackle. Later, Thuney handled veteran free-agent pickup Frank Kearse. And on his final rep, he walled off second-year player Trey Flowers. 

For Thuney's part, those few minutes, encouraging as they might have been, had to be flushed from his memory quickly. 

"You can't think too much into one specific drill," he said. "You just gotta try and take it one play at a time and not put too much stock in one drill or one rep. If you have a bad one, just move past it. If you have a good one, move past that too and just go to the next play."

Thuney's aggressiveness and his understanding of the playbook to this point have to be as encouraging to the Patriots coaching staff as -- what appears to be, at least -- his sound technique.  

Mild-mannered in his interactions with reporters, Thuney was touted as a versatile and intelligent player coming out of college. He gushed about his college teammate Jacoby Brissett's leadership qualities soon after Brissett was drafted by the Patriots in May, and he's gone viral for his ability to slay the Rubik's Cube in a blink. 

He has some nasty to him, though. 

"I think inside every offensive lineman there's an inherent desire to play through the whistle," he said. "Obviously we don't want to play dirty or anything, but we try and play as hard as we can from whistle-to-whistle. And yeah...I do take pride in that." 

Thuney wasn't the only rookie lineman to play well on Saturday. When Cooper went down, it was sixth-rounder Ted Karras who began to see more work. 

Together, they caught the eye of at least one veteran defensive lineman. 

"They're physical," said defensive tackle Terrance Knighton. "That's a good start. Obviously they'll have to work on different techniques. Coming from college you have different terminology, a different playbook, a different style of game probably. 

"I try to help them out as much as I can even though we go at it. After the play if I feel something, I'll definitely share with them, whether [to] help them going up against myself or help them in the long run because we're all on the same team at the end of the day."

Whatever lessons Thuney's received thus far -- whether they're from coaches or from teammates on the other side of the line of scrimmage -- it looks like he's taken them to heart.

Patriots excited by massive fan turnout for Saturday's practice

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Patriots excited by massive fan turnout for Saturday's practice

FOXBORO -- For years now, Patriots training camp practices have become an event. The opportunity to get an autograph, the sunny weather and the non-existent entry fee all make the two-hours-or-more practices a significant draw. 

But rarely do the crowds get as big as they were on Saturday. Fans filled the bleachers and lined the ramps that scale the outside of Gillette Stadium just to get a glimpse of what Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots were up to. 

The team's official Twitter account announced after practice that a whopping 21,781 fans had been in attendance. 

"It's awesome," said defensive end Chris Long, who spent the first eight years of his career in St. Louis without ever having made the playoffs. 

"As if being in pads the first day isn't exciting enough, you come out and these fans give you a real boost. It just speaks to the passion that these fans have. We're warming up in the hot tub, and we can see the fans filing in on ESPN or NFL Network. They beat us out on the field. It's pretty cool what they've got going here."

Defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, a Connecticut native who grew up following the Patriots, has spent time with the Redskins, Broncos and Jaguars, but Saturday's crowd caught his attention. 

"If I wasn't playing, I'd be up there too," he said. "This is a winning franchise and . . . the fans are loyal. This is a place that I've played at in the past, and the games are always sold out and the fans will give you a hard time when you're on the opposing team. I just happen to be on the good side now."

The Patriots are in the middle of their first stretch of five consecutive days of practice. Two of their first three practices have been held with temperatures reaching around 90 degrees, and Saturday's practice was the first padded session of the week. They'll go through their in-stadium practice on Monday night before they're given a full day to rest.  

Players indicated that having the kind of fan support that they had Saturday seemed to give them a jolt. Especially for the players who are new to the organization. 

"There's excitement in the air with these fans," Long said. "They're awesome sports fans. Boston sports have always been known to be passionate, but until you're here, you don't really get a feel for it. They are a lot of fun to play in front of out on the practice field."

Knighton kicks himself off Twitter

Knighton kicks himself off Twitter

FOXBORO -- If you're on Twitter and you follow Terrance Knighton, you know where he stands on all sorts of topics. 

He thought the Sen. Elizabeth Warren speech at the Democratic National Convention would be "epic." He watches the WNBA. He loves the Celtics. He hates it when his dog looks at him naked. He wants an uncensored sports talk show on the radio when he's done with his playing career. 

And those are things you could gather from his timeline in the last week alone. 

Three days ago, the avid Twitter user called it quits. For the time being. 

"I'm just gonna try something different," he said when asked about his self-imposed Twitter ban. "The environment that I'm around, everyone's just focused on football. I'll be off it for three weeks, and as soon as I break it in three weeks, I'll have a lot to say I'm pretty sure." 

Knighton said he's not concerned about getting himself into any trouble with what he may say on the social-media site, but given the amount of focus he wants to put into his job, it makes sense for him to back away now that training camp has begun. 

"I would never say anything to get in trouble," he said. "But I speak on everything so right now, all the Democratic and Republican conventions, I just keep them quiet right now." 

He added: "In the locker room, you don't see guys on their phones all the time. You don't see guys joking around. They're always doing something productive to win. I decided to give [Twitter] up for three weeks, but like I said, I can't wait to get back to Twitter because I always have a lot to say."