The New England Patriots have a problem every team across the NFL wishes to have at this point in training camp: they have a really deep roster and some tough decisions to make in the upcoming two weeks. One of the deepest and most talented positions on New England’s squad is tight end.
Led by All-World player Rob Gronkowski and free agency acquisition Martellus Bennett, the Patriots have as good a tight end group as there is in the league. However, with roster spots at a premium, there is little room behind them on the depth chart. Consequently, multiple players are fighting for one or a maximum of two spots.
One of those players is A.J. Derby – and he continued to visibly make his case for a spot on the team during yesterday’s 23-22 preseason victory over the Chicago Bears.
Derby originally began his career at quarterback before switching positions prior to his senior season at Arkansas. The Patriots took a late round flyer on him during last year’s draft but waived him with an injury designation – stemming from a knee injury sustained during his last year in college – in August. Derby went unclaimed and thus to New England’s injured reserve list.
With a year on the sidelines, Derby had the chance to work behind the scenes and improve not only as a member of the Patriots’ complex offense but also as a skill position player. His work showed this offseason and his name was called regularly during practice and recently on game day as well: no other player on the Patriots has been targeted as often and caught as many passes for as many yards and touchdowns so far this preseason.
Of course, head coach Bill Belichick took notice of Derby’s development. “AJ has had a solid and pretty consistent several months for us here, going all the way back to the spring, to the offseason program, to OTA's, mini-camp, training camp,” Belichick stated after yesterday’s game. “He has shown up every day, he's improving [...] [h]e's a smart kid, he works hard, and he's gotten better.”
Derby did not only show up on offense but, as Belichick mentioned, on special teams as well. “He's making some plays for us in the kicking game, some tackles in coverage,” the head coach said after yesterday’s game.
His improvement makes Derby a major contender for one of the tight end spots behind Gronkowski and Bennett. After all, he is only scratching the surface of his potential and has outproduced fellow tight ends Bryce Williams, Steven Scheu and Clay Harbor, who despite being a different type of player seems to be his major competition for a roster spot, so far this summer.
However, as Belichick noted, the second-year tight end still “has a ways to go” – especially when it comes to the second integral part of playing tight end: blocking.
Derby has the frame and natural hands to work as a receiving option and uses his body well when making contested catches. However, his blocking is still a work in progress. However, he has been given a lot of opportunities to prove himself over the last few months. While not all was perfect, Derby was competitive in this area the last two games and has shown in flashes that he can be an effective blocker as well.
“I’m really just trying to get better every day,” the 24-year old said after yesterday’s game against the Bears – a game he finished as the Patriots’ leading receiver, catching six of seven passes thrown his way, for 71 yards and a touchdown. It remains to be seen if he can really get better every day and will be able to beat out his competition for a spot on the roster.
But if he stays on his upwards trajectory and becomes more consistent as an all-around tight end, he is making this tough decision an easier one for the coaching staff every single day.