A familiar face will be on the fields behind Gillette Stadium leading up to next Thursday’s preseason opener inside of it.
This time, Tyler Gaffney will be wearing a teal No. 34 practice jersey – digits currently shared with cornerback Ezra Robinson – as he revisits a New England Patriots defensive front he once provided scout-team looks for.
The Jacksonville Jaguars announced the signing of Gaffney on Wednesday in wake of fellow running back I’Tavius Mathers’ cervical spinal cord injury and offensive tackle Branden Albert’s retirement. And his mid-camp arrival fills the Jacksonville roster to 90 while also making the 26-year-old the lone ex-Patriot among them ahead of joint workouts in Foxborough.
Good for Gaffney.
The former sixth-round pick out of Stanford rushed for 1,709 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior in 2013, but never garnered a carry for the team that drafted him. A torn lateral meniscus led to the Carolina Panthers waive-injuring Gaffney in July of what would’ve been his rookie season, and the Patriots claimed him with the understanding he would not play a down in 2014.
Gaffney would not play a down in 2015, either.
The 6-foot, 220-pound back landed on injured reserve for the second consecutive year after missing all but the opening sessions of training camp. And it wasn’t until last August that he saw the first preseason action of his NFL career.
He made the most of it by taking a Jimmy Garoppolo handoff for a 44-yard touchdown in his debut.
"Patience. It just humbles you in life,” Gaffney said in the locker room after New England’s 34-22 victory over the New Orleans Saints, via Patriots.com. “The thing you love the most, and you came out here as an aspiring rookie and you get that taken away. And then you finally rehab and come back and get that taken away again. It's a long time coming. It's been 730 days or something.”
A long couple years of work transpired behind closed doors. It translated in the end zone on Aug. 11.
Gaffney went on to handle a team-high 35 carries for 152 yards by the end of New England’s 2016 preseason slate. By September, however, the result proved to be a similar one for the 2013 second-team All-Pac 12 selection.
He had been waived-injured for the third time and was ultimately released from IR in the days that followed.
Even that wouldn’t mark the conclusion of his stay.
New England added Gaffney to the practice squad a month later and promoted him to the 53-man roster for an Oct. 30 meeting with the Buffalo Bills. Gaffney, though, was a healthy inactive for that game, and by early November, he was involved in more transactions and rejoined the 10-man practice squad to finish out the Super Bowl LI campaign.
Mimicking opposing runners – and absorbing the contact they’d receive on Sundays – Gaffney earned practice player of the week honors on three occasions in such a role.
“Tyler – he's a smart guy, very team-oriented,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said in a December press conference. “If you ask him to do something he's going to give you a great look. I mean, there's nobody that takes more punches than he does. He must get punched in the stomach 10 times a day. The defense is trying to take the ball out. That's his role. That's his job. But they're slapping at the ball, they're pulling at it, they're trying to punch it out. Half the time they miss. He does a great job.”
The Patriots waived Gaffney for a final time this March, and despite an invitation to minicamp with the Chicago Bears, the reserve-futures signing remained a free agent until this week.
It is unclear how long it’ll be before he is one again.
Gaffney finds himself on a Jaguars depth chart featuring No. 4 overall pick Leonard Fournette, 2015 second-rounder T.J. Yeldon, onetime New York Jets 1,000-yard rusher Chris Ivory, third-year pro Corey Grant and undrafted rookie Tim Cook. And yet, in a career stifled before it began, his long shot with Jacksonville is a well-deserved one.
New England and Jacksonville will practice together on Monday and Tuesday morning before Thursday’s 7:30 p.m. ET kickoff.