If there is one golden thread running through the NFL season, it is change. This is most prominently displayed when it comes to personnel: whether it is because of performance, specific matchups or injuries, no 53-man roster in the league stays the same for a prolonged period of time. And while the New England Patriots were fortunate when it comes to team health so far, they still saw plenty of changes to their squad.
Since cutdown day in early September, the team made almost 80 transactions impacting both the active roster and the practice squad. Not all of of the players added through in-season moves are still with the club, but those that are are currently preparing to play in the biggest game of their season — and in many cases, their career leading up to this point. One of those players is tight end Stephen Anderson.
After starting his career with the Houston Texans, Anderson was released by the club in early September and found his way to the Patriots’ practice squad shortly afterwards. The move to New England, however, was not that easy as he told Pats Pulpit earlier this week. “It was a tough transition to go from playing that much to go to the practice squad to not playing at all and having to do extra workouts and practice squad reps and stuff like that.”
Anderson appeared in 30 games for Houston before his release and despite the circumstances of the team going through multiple quarterbacks, at least was regularly used on both offense and special teams. However, he pointed out that he quickly realized that getting let go and subsequently getting picked up by the Patriots was in hindsight the best-case-scenario for the former undrafted rookie free agent.
“I feel like it was really a blessing in disguise,” the 26-year old said. “There would really not be any other situation to get that much work in and get those reps in and be able to work different situations. I came with the approach ‘I’m just coming to work, just trying to get better, improve on something little every day’ — and I think I did well for myself, got scout team player of the week a couple of times.”
“Even though I haven’t played up to this point, the team bringing me up for the playoffs and having me even eligible to play is a major compliment on the work that I’ve put in. Overall, I’m happy, it’s a big week. I’m just enjoying this whole process and making memories really,” continued Anderson. Him getting promoted from the practice squad to the active roster on January 8 was the latest in a series of in-season moves made by the Patriots this year.
One that was made early during the season was adding edge defender John Simon, who remained unsigned for almost four weeks after getting released by the Indianapolis Colts. “It felt great to join a team that’s been very successful for probably longer than anyone and has had a good stretch and knows how to come in to work and be professional,” Simon said. “It was really exciting when I got the phone call.”
“It felt really good, because I got a chance to play,” said another defender picked up by the Patriots during the year: Ufomba Kamalu, a former teammate of Anderson’s in Houston. Kamalu went from the Texans to the Arizona Cardinals to the Patriots in only two months but the biggest change for him personally had little to do with learning different playbooks or the like: “It is pretty warm in Arizona and coming to that pretty cold weather was probably the biggest change.”
As for the rest of transition, the 26-year old credited some of his fellow defenders for helping him with the move. “Guys like Derek Rivers, Deatrich Wise and Trey Flowers were all really helpful. They helped me learn the playbook, helped me find a place to stay,” said Kamalu, who appeared in two games since joining the Patriots but has been a healthy scratch for the team’s two previous playoff games.
Kamalu touched on something that other in-season acquisition also mentioned: getting help from their new teammates to get acclimated to a new environment and up to speed as quickly as possible. For special teams ace Brandon King, he himself one of the more experienced players on New England’s roster now despite being only 25-years old, helping incoming players is a natural move.
“You’re only as good as your weakest link, so for us we’re really proactive with getting everybody on the same page,” King said. “If one person is a little shaky at something they might not play to their full potential. With us being with these guys a lot and being able to have some carryover from the things that we do year after year, it’s a little bit easier to talk to guys that might not be so familiar with it and break it down to a point where they can understand it in a way the coaches see it.”
“Still to this day I don’t have all the answers, I still get corrected all the time by Matthew Slater and Nate Ebner and vice versa,” the four-year veteran continued. “But we’re all on the same team, we’re working for a common goal and we’ve been blessed for a long time now. We’re just trying to keep improving and take this thing out the right way. It’s been a long time from the first time we met.”
For Anderson this support came from fellow tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Dwayne Allen. “Rob and Dwayne, they’re vets, they’ve been there, they’ve seen a lot, they’ve had a lot of success,” he said. “They have helped me in terms of the approach I like to take every single day. Dwayne has really helped me with blocking, Rob has really helped me with just full concepts. They have helped me get better and encouraged me that I will keep moving and keep pushing. Those have been the two most influential figures for me.”
John Simon also pointed out how the team — its coaches and players — helped him get up to speed in New England. “I think they helped me transition very well, welcomed me into the family very quickly and helped make it a little smoother than it probably would be for most teams. And then the defense had some similarities to when I played in Houston, so that was another thing that made the transition pretty smooth.”
This smoothness of Simon’s move to the Patriots is also illustrated in the fact that he is now a core member of the team’s rotation at the defensive edge: he appeared in 13 games since joining the club and registered a pair of sacks while playing around a third of both New England’s snaps on defense and in the kicking game. Speaking of which: special teams has had some big in-season moves as well through the signings of Albert McClellan and Ramon Humber.
“It wasn’t really hard to come back here,” said Humber, who has been with the Patriots before: the team added him as a free agent in March 2016 but let him go again half a year later. Still, his previous experience with the club is valuable when it comes to getting up to speed. “I’ve been here before, knew the facility, knew the area, and just knew how things are run. The fact that I was able to come back to a situation I’m familiar with makes it easier.”
“It was a great feeling, knowing that that’s a team I’ve been with and I’m familiar with,” he continued about his thoughts when the phone rang and it was the Patriots on the other end of the line. Humber, who started the season with the Buffalo Bills, but joined New England in mid-November has quickly adapted to his new home and is now a core member of the team’s special teams units.
Another player to help the Patriots tremendously in the kicking game, and one that was actually ranked as Pro Football Focus’ top special teamer during the regular season, is Albert McClellan. Unlike Humber, however, he only knew Foxboro from a visiting player’s perspective: spending the first 8.5 years of his career with the Baltimore Ravens, McClellan was a stranger to the club and had to undergo a transition similar to those of John Simon or Ufomba Kamalu.
And as the two fellow defenders said, McClellan also credited his teammates with helping him get used to being a Patriot. “I would give most of the credit to the guys on the team, those guys welcomed me to the locker room pretty quickly and allowed me to be myself and everybody to be themselves and everybody basically gelled together which made the move a lot easier,” said the 32-year old.
“Another guy that also helped out a lot was team chaplain Jack Easterby, just talking with him day-in and day-out made it a little bit easier. It’s hard leaving your family and moving to a different city, a different state to come to a team in the middle of the year,” McClellan continued. “That most definitely made things a lot easier and a lot smoother. And then, basically just keeping my mind on football. A lot of the guys, we talk football a lot but at the same time it’s not demanding but more voluntarily.”
For McClellan one other thing helped: the Patriots’ desire to win. “Just being around people that want to win helps things move a lot smoother,” he said. Now, he has the chance to add one final win — despite his season, just like those of New England’s other in-season acquisitions — taking unexpected turns.