FOXBOROUGH — They all want to prove that they belong, that they are worthy of a spot on the Patriots’ 53-man roster.
For the defensive ends jockeying for the few spots available at the position, the best chance they have to showcase their skills is in the one-on-one battles they have against the offensive linemen, which have become the must-see drill of training camp.
“Definitely, because you’re singled out and it’s your time to shine,’’ said Marcus Benard, a fifth-year veteran free agent out of Jackson State who signed with the Patriots Jan. 24 after being released by the Browns last October. “It’s pretty much man-on-man and who’s going to come out victorious.’’
The 6-foot-2-inch, 260-pounder from Ypsilanti, Mich., has drawn some sizable opponents in the drills.
“I’ve gone against Logan [Mankins] and SeaBass [Sebastian Vollmer] and [Will] Svitek,’’ Benard said Saturday morning after wrapping up the eighth day of training camp at Gillette Stadium. “Those are some big boys.’’
Benard knows it is up to him, as well as the other prospective candidates battling for the right to help provide depth behind pass-rushing defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich, to go get it.
And so, when he plants his hand on the ground, and begins to rev up his motor to launch himself from his three-point stance in the one-on-one drill, Benard has only one thought in mind.
“I start sniffing,’’ he said. “I start smelling the quarterback, my eyes turn red and I’m ready to go.’’
Benard said he would not be in this position to compete for a job were it not for the fact he survived a motorcycle accident two years ago that cut short his third season with the Browns to four games.
Benard suffered a broken right hand on Oct. 10, 2011, while riding home from practice. A witness told police Benard was traveling at a high rate of speed on I-71 near Brooklyn, Ohio, when he crossed four lanes of traffic and smashed into a guard rail.
After Benard spent three days in the hospital, the Browns placed him on the reserve/non-football injury list. He missed the remainder of the season but returned in 2012, went through offseason workouts and training camp, and was placed on injured reserve Aug. 28 when he suffered an elbow injury. He was released on Oct. 10, 2012, a year to the day of his motorcycle accident.
“It was tough,’’ Benard said. “This is what I love to do, and this is what I’m used to doing, having played the sport for a long time. It just kept me hungry and kept me grinding and wanting it even more. So I stayed positive and kept working out.’’
He wanted to be ready for the next opportunity that came his way.
When he signed with the Patriots, Benard felt fortunate to land on his feet with “a great organization, a great team,’’ he said.
“You stay positive when bad things happen, and you try to work your way through them,’’ Benard said, when asked if his accident was life-altering. “I can’t say that I smiled and laughed through everything, definitely not.
“I just stayed focused. I knew what my goals were, and knew where I wanted to be in life. So I just kept my nose to the ground and just kept working.’’
Benard’s approach has seemed to make a positive impression on coach Bill Belichick, who described the 28-year-old as a “hard-working kid.’’
“He’s got a good attitude, good motor, works real hard,’’ Belichick said. “I think he’s been competitive.’’
Benard gave a glimpse of that competitive spirit in 2010 when he led the Browns with 7½ sacks while playing in 15 games (two starts).
Now he will have to rely upon that spirit to gain separation from a group of players that includes second-year ends Justin Francis, who played in 10 games and made the first three sacks of his career in the regular-season finale vs. Miami, and Jake Bequette, a third-round selection out of Arkansas who played in three games.
“The competition drives us all, every day,’’ Bequette said. “There are a lot of players in our room, a lot of good players. And I think us watching each other and working with and against each other every day is only going to make us better.
“Obviously we can’t all make the team, but I think that competition is going to raise the level of our individual play.’’
It seems to have had precisely that effect on Benard, who considered himself more than fortunate to have survived the personal tumult of the past two seasons to reach this point of his career.
“I consider myself blessed,’’ he said. “I definitely feel like somebody’s watching over me. It was a tough journey and I’m here now and I’m going to keep on working and keep doing what I’ve always done.’’Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.