By: Steve Balestrieri
The New England Patriots entered the season thin at defensive tackle depth with two strong starters in Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. Now with Wilfork gone for the season and Kelly hurt in the Cincinnati game and missing time at practice, the depth issue has come to the forefront.
Help may be on the way in the form of an off-season signing.
After Sunday’s game against the Saints, DT Armond Armstead is eligible to come off the NFI (non-football injury) list and start practicing with the team. Mike Reiss from ESPN Boston reported to PatsFans.com on Tuesday during an interview that Armstead has been at the facility and attending meetings while recovering from off-season surgery for an infection.
The early returns on Wilfork and Kelly were positive. The big men were playing well together and Kelly has provided the interior pocket push that the team has been missing for the past several years. Now Kelly could possibly miss some playing time and the middle of the Patriots defense is a question mark.
In their absence, the team has played two rookies Joe Vellano and Chris Jones. Both played fairly well in the pass rushing department but were pushed around in the running game in what will surely be their opponents’ plan until they can tighten up things or other players are brought in.
The team did sign DT/NT Andre Neblett this week to help in the middle; the 6’0, 310 pound 25 year old is a veteran of three NFL seasons with the Panthers. He spent this year’s training camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and was one of their final cuts.
But Armstead could be an intriguing option. Originally thought to be a possible 1st or 2nd round draft pick, his draft stock plummeted after suffering a heart attack while at USC. The illness was tied to medication (Toradol) given to him by team doctors but he went undrafted by the NFL and played a year in the CFL with no problems.
The Patriots signed him this off-season and the 6’5, 305 is thought to be more of a pass rush specialist than run-stuffer with his tall frame. Armstead has the body of a 3-4 DE playing the 5-technique but could kick inside and help out at tackle. If he is able to play he could provide a versatile role on the Patriots defense.
While no one knows at this point what his physical conditioning is, the fact that he’s been at the facility and attending meetings is a good sign that the team still has hope that he can contribute this season.
This will be an interesting development to monitor in the coming days. Once he comes off the NFI, the team has a three week roster exemption for him to either activate him or place him on season-ending IR.
Another intriguing player on the NFI for the Patriots is WR Mark Harrison. The 6’3, 230 pound Rutgers grad is slated to come off the list on Monday as well and PatsFans.com will have much more on him soon.