FOXBOROUGH — While on one hand it speaks to the durability and conditioning of Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich that they were both able to play more than 95 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps last season, the fact they were forced to play so much also points to a lack of depth at the end position.
New England signed veteran Will Smith in the offseason to try to bolster that depth, but another option could be a young player they drafted last year, Michael Buchanan.
A seventh-round pick out of Illinois, Buchanan is 6 feet 6 inches and listed by the team at 255 pounds, though he spent part of his first offseason trying to gain some weight but not lose any of the speed he needs as an edge rusher.
With Jones and Ninkovich getting the night off against Washington last Thursday, Buchanan started and played the entire game, on the field for 60 (of 76) defensive snaps. He was credited with seven tackles, including the Patriots’ only sack, two quarterback hits, and two tackles for loss.
“I definitely felt like I could have did better in some situations, but you can critique every single play,” Buchanan said after Sunday’s practice. “I was just trying to go out there and compete and it was actually a really good experience for me to be able to play the entire game and I learned a lot from it.”
Buchanan played in all but one game last year, mostly on special teams, though he did see defensive snaps in 10 games. He was credited with two sacks; he also had seven special teams takedowns.
Like most players, Buchanan found his first NFL offseason beneficial and used it as a time to focus on things he may not have been able to during the regular season in the hopes of improving in Year 2.
“Pretty much everything — my mental approach to the game, I watched a lot of film in the offseason, obviously my body, working on bulking up a little bit but trying to maintain my speed,” he said. “Perfecting my craft as far as pass rushing and playing the run.”
Coach Bill Belichick gave a fairly positive assessment of Buchanan’s development, but he noted there was one major knock on his play against Washington, as he was flagged three times.
“Mike is certainly way ahead of where he was last year as a rookie. He got a lot of experience last year on defense and in the kicking game,” Belichick said. “He’s been a pretty durable player for us, he’s out on the field a lot, hasn’t missed much time and therefore he works hard and continues to get better.
“I think he’s improved in his overall understanding of the game and understanding of the defense and the kicking game. Had a good offseason in the weight room and has gained some strength and a little bit of bulk and still runs well and is athletic.
“Unfortunately the three penalties were more than you want any player to have. That’s definitely an area he’ll have to concentrate more on. But overall, he’s built on his first year experiences and knowledge and is in the process of taking a jump his second year.”
While acknowledging that he still has plenty of work to do, Buchanan said things are getting a little bit easier for him in terms of understanding the defense and his role in it.
“A lot more comfortable. Now, just getting the huddle call, I’m able to actually anticipate what the offense is going to do instead of worrying so much about my assignment and where I’m playing,” he said. “Now it’s kind of get the call and go. I definitely feel a whole lot more comfortable.
“That was due to a big offseason of me going over the playbook and learning what other people around me were doing, which made me able to understand my job a lot better.”
He hopes to get more chances on defense this season; sometimes in football dependability and durability are more important than ability, so if Buchanan can continue to be a consistent presence on the field, that chance likely will come.
“I definitely just want to do my best and be able to contribute however the defense needs me to,” he said. “I do feel like I’ve grown some and I do want to be a bigger contributor this year but I’m just ready for any role that I’m asked to do.”