Underdog Wendell fighting for his spot

Underdog Wendell fighting for his spot
July 29, 2014, 4:30 pm
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FOXBORO -- Ryan Wendell is like the football version of Jeremy Lin.

Except Wendell is a center and not a hybrid guard in the NBA. And Lin captivated the sports-watching nation during a meteoric rise to short-lived superstardom (dubbed Linsanity), while Wendell just snaps the ball to Tom Brady and never had a Wensanity epoch.

Other than that, though, same guy. Nobody knew nor had much use for either until each forced their teams to take notice.

On Monday, Bill Belichick got to talking about Wendell’s rise. And the rise is at issue because in 2013 Wendell either plateaued or backslid, depending on whose opinion you’re getting.

Before talking about where Wendell’s at, here’s Belichick on where Wendell’s come from since May 1, 2008 when the Patriots signed him as an undrafted free agent from Fresno State.

“When Ryan first got here, he couldn’t even make our practice squad,” said Belichick. “He was a camp player. He wasn’t on our practice squad at the beginning of the season. We brought him back to the practice squad during his first year. 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 (in 2012).

“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 (former college wrestler and Pats lineman) 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,” marveled Belichick. 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.”

At 6-foot-2, 300 pounds, Wendell isn’t a huge man by NFL standards. Nor is he the kind of athlete that can blunder technically and still get away with it. He gets by on smarts and technical cleanliness.

He was a project. I asked Belichick why a team decides to stick with a player who -- at first -- is merely roster fodder taking reps while the real players rest.

How does that player nudge into relevance?

“I think as long as the player is improving you keep working with him and see how much more improvement they make,” Belichick explained. “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.”

It seems elementary, but the nuance of it is interesting. Belichick is saying that, at some point, a player will get to be as good as he’s going to be. And that’s when projections are made as to whether “as good as he’s going to be” is good enough. 

With Wendell, that point may be upon us. He was not good last season at center. Was he hurt? Was he dog-tired from leading the NFL in snaps in 2012? Was he worried about his looming free agency and putting too much pressure on himself? Whatever it was, his performance -- and the less-than-expected work of Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly -- probably played a role in the team selecting several offensive linemen in May’s draft.

Chief among them is Florida State product Bryan Stork. A center who is 6-4, 315 and was taken in the fourth round.

Before Stork gets his crack, though, two things need to happen. The first pertains to Wendell and establishing where he is now.

“Every year you start all over again,” said Belichick. “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 . . . 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.”

In other words, whatever you THINK Ryan Wendell’s level may ultimately be, he has earned the right to establish it through fair competition.

“That’s where we are in training camp now for really all the players,” Belichick added. “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.”