As last week’s NFL draft coverage wound down, I got all excited because I thought for sure Joe Vellano was going to be a lock to get drafted somewhere. Sure, maybe not on the first day, but late in the second day definitely. A 2011 2nd-team All-American as a defensive tackle, numerous All-Conference ACC honors, zounds of tackles at his natural position, 14 tackles for loss last year — this guy is a shoe-in for being selected, right?
Joe Vellano had to wait while name-after-name got called before him, 254 to be exact, including fellow Terrapin wide receiver Kevin Dorsey. By Saturday evening, Vellano had no team at all, his height clearly being a major knock against him ending up in the NFL with absolute certainty. Turns out, that might make all the difference in the world.
Joe Vellano got the nod from the New England Patriots on Monday, after two nerve-wracking days of waiting on other team’s calls that never came. He was invited to the Patriots rookie camp on the same day, thus securing his first opportunity. That the Patriots reached out to Vellano shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, considering the interest head coach Bill Belichick took in Vellano during the offseason. Vellano watched game film alongside the three-time Super Bowl champion head coach, and also worked out for him twice. If one team were to come a knocking, it was going to be New England.
The Patriots are notorious for acquiring late-round talent and turning them into very serviceable NFL players. That list includes perhaps the biggest star in the NFL in Tom Brady (a seventh round pick), one of the best slot receivers in the game in Wes Welker (undrafted), but also extends to serviceable guys like Julian Edelman (seventh round), Matt Cassell (seventh round), and a center who started all sixteen games for the Patriots last year in Ryan Wendell (undrafted). That’s just the short list, because it’s plentiful over the years. This is just to point out that if there were ever a team that Joe Vellano would eventually find a home on, it’s the New England Patriots.
Vellano fits in perfectly with a New England team that is constantly searching for players who are more than capable of holding their own at numerous positions. The Patriots have employed multiple-front defensive schemes for years, and have more recently switched to a slightly more traditional 4-3 defense in an effort to stop getting beaten in the middle of the field, and to get to the quarterback as much as they once did in the “golden years.” In man-beast Vince Wilfork, the Patriots have one of the best tackle’s in the game, but the tackle next to him is the one that is wide open for the taking. Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick combined for a whopping three sacks combined all of last season, and that simply isn’t going to cut it. That spot is wide open in search of a more effective, perhaps traditional, tackle who can consistently rush the quarterback.
That is presumably where Joe Vellano could come in. If the Patriots continue their switch to a full 4-3 defense, then Vellano has an even better chance to become a player that sticks in New England. His natural position (at least the way I see it based on his frame and production at the spot) is defensive tackle, under tackle, whatever you want to call it. Vellano’s junior year was absolutely monster for a defensive tackle (94 tackles), and I think Belichick realizes what he is capable of when put in the right scenario. Next to Vince Wilfork, Rod Ninkovick, and Jerod Mayo, Vellano could very well shine. For his size, he’s got some pretty good foot speed, is a consistent pass rusher and play-disruptor, and gives effort every time he’s on the field.
And again, it’s not like Vellano can’t help out in a 3-4 as well, because even though Vellano’s tackles went down last year as he was forced to play in a 3-4, his production actually went up. He got to the quarterback way more often with over twice as many sacks, had more tackles for loss, and still appeared just as dominant despite playing injured just about every week. Yes, he will always be smaller than the next opponent, but it’s that versatility that will be Vellano’s meal ticket in the NFL.
Vellano has something that a lot of player don’t have but what Belichick loves, and that’s “game speed.” His 5.4 40-yard dash isn’t going to impress anyone, but his fundamental understanding of proper angling more than makes up for that. On numerous occasions last year, I can recall Vellano realizing that a running back would smoke him out of the water in the backfield, and taking a proper angle to make the tackle. His intelligence makes him appear faster than he is. That, and his relentless effort on the field. Seriously, he never stops going 100%, ever. Think Dan Klecko, if you want a good comparison.
Either way, if someone is going to figure out how to use the undersized yet very talented Joe Vellano, it’s going to be the Hoodie in New England. In all honesty, there’s not a much more perfect scenario for Vellano to hop into, and that blessing in disguise is thanks to him being an undrafted free agent.