With the offseason workout program in the books and training camp being kicked off later this month, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 90 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in August and September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series continues with interior defensive lineman Akeem Spence.
Name: Akeem Spence
Position: Defensive tackle/Interior defensive line
Jersey number: 52
Opening day age: 29
Size: 6-foot-1, 305 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 UFA)
What is his experience? Spence originally arrived in the league as a fourth-round selection by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL’s 2013 draft. The Illinois product spent the first four years of his career in Tampa Bay and appeared in 56 games before taking his talents to the Detroit Lions (2017) and Miami Dolphins (2018). He split the 2019 campaign between stints with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Jacksonville Jaguars before being added to the Patriots’ practice squad midway through the 2020 season.
While becoming more of a journeyman since leaving the Buccaneers, Spence has seen regular action throughout his career and put up some solid numbers along the way. Appearing in a combined 109 regular season games, he registered 10.5 sacks as well as 204 tackles from various interior defensive line positions. He also saw regular action on special teams, playing a combined 449 kicking game snaps since starting his pro career.
What did his 2020 season look like? Even though he had appeared in the final nine games of their 2019 campaign, the Jaguars did not retain Spence as an unrestricted free agent. He therefore entered the open market in mid-March and generated little immediate interest: Spence remained unsigned throughout the offseason and training camp, only making the news over the summer when he argued in favor of the NFL canceling the 2020 season in light of the Coronavirus pandemic.
The veteran defender did see some action again in late August when the Buffalo Bills brought him in for a free agency workout. The Bills decided against adding him to their roster or practice squad, however, and it took until November before Spence was given another shot at proving his value to a team. That shot came in the form of a visit to Gillette Stadium: the Patriots brought him in and he apparently left a positive impression; three days after his visit he was added to the New England practice squad.
Just one week after signing his two-year contract, Spence saw his first live action as a Patriot: he played 15 defensive snaps as a game day elevatee from the developmental roster. One week later, he was officially added to the team’s 53-man squad. Spence remained there throughout the year, and received regular opportunities both on defense and in the kicking game. In total, he played 103 of a possible 417 defensive snaps after arriving in New England (24.7%) as well as 21 of 147 on special teams (14.3%).
Spence was unable to turn the Patriots’ defensive fortunes around after joining the unit, but he played some serviceable football despite only being added to the mix midway through the season. He registered nine tackles during his six games — all coming in the running game — and also had a pair of quarterback disruptions. 2020 was the worst year of his career in terms of playing time, but Spence did end it on a comparatively high note after remaining unsigned as a free agent for eight months.
What is his projected role? The Patriots made some big investments up front over the course of the offseason, making it hard for Spence to crack the starting lineup in his second season in the system. That said, he has some value as an experienced depth player along the interior D-line. As such and given his usage in 2020, he will likely sub onto the field in select situations such as early downs or short-yardage plays; in turn, his snap percentage is not expected to see an increase compared to last year’s.
What is his special teams value? Spence has some experience on the two return squads as well as the field goal/extra point kicking units, but the Patriots opted to use him in a comparatively one-dimensional fashion on special teams last year. All of his 21 snaps in the game’s third phase came as a pressure player on New England’s place kick blocking teams. He did not register any statistics in this capacity, but it can be seen a preview of his 2021 role.
Does he have positional versatility? Given their size, defensive tackles are somewhat limited in terms of versatility. That said, Spence has shown that he can be moved around the formation and still play effective football. During his first half-season with the Patriots, for example, he saw snaps from various alignments: the team used him at different techniques between the tackles, and on occasion even employed him as a nose (which was more a reflection of need than skillset, however) and outside the tackle box.
What is his salary cap situation? Spence received a two-year deal upon being promoted to New England’s active roster last November that will hit the team’s books with a salary cap number of $1.23 million this year. That cap hit includes a $1.08 million salary and $62,500 signing bonus proration as well as $250,000 in additional bonuses. Given the structure of the contract, the Patriots would only create $62,500 in dead money — the aforementioned signing bonus proration that is fully guaranteed — in case of a release of trade.
What is his roster outlook? His contract already suggests that Spence is not guaranteed a spot on the Patriots’ roster this season, and the team’s offseason investments also work against him. With five of the interior defensive linemen spots already taken by Lawrence Guy, Davon Godchaux, Deatrich Wise Jr, Henry Anderson and Christian Barmore, Spence will have to compete against five others — Byron Cowart, Montravius Adams, Carl Davis, Nick Thurman, Bill Murray — to make the team or practice squad. The latter seems easier to make than the active roster.