With opening day almost two months away and training camp not starting until later this month, we are still caught in possibly the most quiet part of the NFL offseason. However, while the football world seemingly turns slower these days it does not stop.
During workouts and studying sessions, players still have a chance to lay the foundation for their spots on the team. Over the course of the next few months, we will take a look at the men fighting for them on the 2017 New England Patriots. 53 of currently 90 players will be asked to help the team defend its Super Bowl title.
Today, we will continue the series with one of the Patriots' backups at offensive tackle.
Name: Cameron Fleming
Position: Offensive tackle
Jersey number: 71
Opening day age: 25
Size: 6’6, 320 lbs.
2016 review: Just like the rest of the Patriots' offensive line, Cameron Fleming was able to bounce back from a terrible outing in the team's season-ending 2015 AFC Championship Game. So much so, that he was able to establish himself as the team's third offensive tackle – behind starters Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon – over the course of the offseason. Fleming would go on to play this role for the rest of the year.
As such, the Stanford product appeared in all 19 of New England's 2016 games and played 283 offensive snaps (of 1,120; 25.3%) during the regular season and another 17 (of 242; 7.0%) in the playoffs. Fleming's role as a member of the Patriots' offense was two-fold: He served as both a tackle eligible in the run game and a depth swing tackle, who started in weeks one (left side) and five (right side) in place of an absent starter.
When not starting, Fleming saw offensive playing time in 13 of the team's games and played between 7.4% and 27.5% of snaps. No matter his role, though, he looked much improved from his inconsistent 2015 campaign: Fleming became more consistent as both a run blocker and pass defender; the latter perfectly reflects his growth as an offensive tackle in his first year under new line coach Dante Scarnecchia.
In 2015, serving in a similar role to the one he played in 2016, Fleming gave up a total of 29 pressures in 290 pass protection snaps (10.0%). The number decreased to a mere nine in 131 plays this year (6.9%, per NESN.com) as Fleming surrendered three hits and six hurries. Of course, the overall quality of the line contributed to this improvement but it also is a testament of how the third-year pro has been able to take a step forward in 2016.
Fleming, by the way, did not only see playing time on offense. New England also used him as a protector on punt attempts as well as field goal and extra point tries. In the kicking game, he played 81 of a possible 449 regular season snaps (18.0%) and 16 of 93 in the postseason (17.2%).
2017 preview: Prior to the start of the new league year, the Patriots placed the original round restricted free agency tender on Cameron Fleming. In April, the 24-year old signed it and will thus play on a non-guaranteed salary of $1.797 million this season – the 24th highest cap number on the team and a potential obstacle for Fleming to make the team amidst talented and cheaper competition.
Currently, New England has three virtual locks to make the 53-man roster in starters Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon and third round rookie Antonio Garcia. Consequently, Fleming finds himself in a six-men battle for what is projected to at best be one open roster spot; a battle against veteran LaAdrian Waddle as well as rookies Conor McDermott, Andrew Jelks, Max Rich and Cole Croston.
His closest competition for practice and playing time – and ultimately a roster spot – appears to be sixth round draft pick McDermott. And while the UCLA product offers higher upside as a blocker and raw athleticism to work with, Fleming brings plenty of proven experience in the Patriots' system to the table. It would therefore not be too big a surprise to see him beat out the rookie and serve as a backup alongside rookie Garcia.
But even in case Fleming does not win the competition, his tenure in New England might still not be over. After all, he is still eligible for the practice squad and would provide quality depth at a position that has at times needed it in the past. And as such, he should have value for the Patriots.