Searching For The Next Mosi Tatupu

It’s been a busy summer for the New England Patriots, for many of the wrong reasons. Now that training camp lies just around the corner (yes, please), we figured we’d get away from all that nasty business and start compiling a list of potential fan favorites for 2013.

Whether or not you were a card-carrying member of Mosi’s Mooses, you probably know something about the late, great Mosi Tatupu, a long-time running back/special teamer who carved out a spot with the team and with fans’ hearts from 1978 to 1990.

Was former Patriot Danny Woodhead a Tatupu? We think so – Woodhead gave us a chance to literally root for the little guy. Those two shared some of the requirements we’ll look for in each subject, including:

Not an undisputed starter. Like Tatupu, our player could potentially start a few games, but you won’t see Tom Brady or Vince Wilfork on this list.

Special teams prowess. Though he’s not in the starting lineup, he should have the opportunity to make a consistent impact on the field. He should also get occasional chances to produce on offense or defense, which takes Matthew Slater out of contention.

An unusual name. This accounts for a natural interest in many players like Tatupu, Woodhead, and former New England cornerback Earthwind Moreland. Pats punter Zoltan Mesko fits this specific category, but because we can’t expect to see him on O or D, he misses the cut.

A general underdog feeling. Relates to our first requirement, but some hardship and/or quirkiness to the player’s background can go a long way. No high draft picks allowed (Sorry, Tim Tebow, although if you make the transition to tight end, we’ll rally around you).

On to our list…

Hoo, Child, Things Are Gonna Get Easier: Not sure if that is true for Michael Hoomanawanui, but with Rob Gronkowski’s surgeries, plural, and What’s-His-Name’s legal troubles (also plural), what was once a crowded tight end position got roomier this summer.

Starter: While Hoo-man should get a few starts in, he’ll probably platoon with other tight ends like Greg Ballard and (in our ideal scenario) Tebow.

Special teams: Has contributed and will do more with Gronk getting some rest.

Name: Oh, I’m sorry, did you say, “HUH-oh-MAH-nah-wah-NOO-ee?” Yeah. Whether Samoan like Tatupu or Hawaiian like Hoo-man, there’s inherent entertainment value in  Pacific Islander names.

Underdog: Often overlooked due to the other tight ends, Hoomanawanui kept his head down and complemented the offense as a fullback, “move” tight end, in-line tight end and receiver. We would never point to a player and say, “that’s the next Tatupu,” but this guy has great potential to become a fan favorite.

That Zach-tually A Good Idea: Rookie free agent tight end Zach Sudfeld earned notice this spring while taking reps for injured veterans.

Starter: Probably not, but could make the roster and see some time on offense.

Special teams: At 6-7, 255 with a 37-inch vertical leap, seems like a solid candidate (at the very least, he’s a natural for the field goal block squad). Has good quickness for his size.

Name: Gets points here in that, like most Z names, Zach has a little zing to it, and Sudfeld isn’t a name you read every day.

Underdog: Like all Patriots undrafted free agents (listed in detail in this column from April), Sudfeld has an unheralded rookie story that makes fans root for him. As a quirk factor, he distinguishes himself in a crowd with his long hair. If he has a productive summer, Sudfeld could stick to the roster and see his name on fans’ banners.

Brains, Brawn, Brown: College defensive lineman James Develin seeks to demonstrate his full conversion to fullback at the pro level. The Brown grad has the strength (39 bench reps at his pro day) and size (6-3, 260) to make a mark.

Starter: Highly unlikely. New England generally doesn’t start fullbacks, and often employs players from other spots on the roster to man that position.

Special teams: This will determine Develin’s ability to stick in Foxboro. Ideal size/speed ratio for many positions on kick and punt teams. Looking forward to seeing him block an onrushing third-string defensive back.

Name: Sounds like the cartoon “Devlin” from way back in the 1970s, a blatant attempt by Hanna-Barbera to capitalize on the Evel Knievel craze.

And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, congrats! You’re not that old!

Underdog: An Ivy League defender striving to convert to an archaic NFL position? Seems like Develin has this requirement covered. Played in the Arena Football League and the United Football League after trying out for Eric Mangini’s Browns in 2010. Has a mechanical engineering degree. (See his “Football Journey” with ESPN’s Mike Reiss here.)

Ben Don’t Break: Undrafted rookie Ben Bartholomew out of Tennessee, another fullback candidate, has the potential for cult status in Foxboro due to his position.

Starter: See above under Fullback, Archaic. Considering the competition from Develin and Hoomanawanui, just making the roster becomes a tough task.

Special teams: Like Develin, Bartholomew (6-2, 240) makes for a prototypical contributor. Showed flexibility in his time with the Vols, stepping in as a part-time tight end his senior year.

Name: He’s got something to work with considering the old-school feel of his last name and its alliteration with his first. Still, we’d probably give him more points if his first name were a Z name like Zach.

Underdog: Known as a blocker, Bartholomew carried the football just twice in 2012 and caught ten passes while filling in as a tight end. He showed selflessness and a sense of leadership that could get him noticed by fans of the Fightin’ Foxboroites.

Lil’ Ebner: More of a rugby player at Ohio State, second-year Patriot Nate Ebner was drafted for his special teams abilities last year and did well in that capacity.

Starter: Fans should hope not. While Ebner has become a dependable member of Patriots special teams, he needs some work to stay in the defensive backfield rotation. Could garner some experience as a late-game sub.

Special teams: Absolutely. Ebner had 14 total tackles last season, most of those on special teams. If he makes the team this fall, his work there remains the reason.

Name: Not too plain, but not too catchy, either. Doesn’t quite reach the Tatupu standard.

Underdog: Anyone drafted in the sixth round as a special teamer out of college has earned the right to be called an underdog. Something about jersey numbers in the 40s (Ebner’s 43, Sudfeld’s 44, Develin’s 46, Hoomanawanui’s 47) that evokes Everyman status.

Chop ’Til You Drop: Rookie free agent defensive tackle Cory “Pork Chop” Grissom has the kind of nickname that gives him a head start.

Starter: New England seems to have their interior D-line set with Wilfork and Tommy Kelly. Grissom could give each a breather and/or take reps in certain specialty situations.

Special teams: At 6-1, 300 pounds, has the size to block for punt and kick teams.

Name: Cory’s none too special, but Pork Chop? Hard to think up a better nickname. (To see an interview at South Florida where he discusses his real name and his fan allegiance – Celtics! – you can watch this video).

When I was a child, my mother would make us Shake ‘n’ Bake pork chops. Within several minutes I would experience the elation of that first bite and the disappointment of the last.

These days, my nickname would be Kale Smoothie. Or should be: It’s actually Munchkins I Buy On The Way Home Unbeknownst To My Wife.

Underdog: Grissom has a chance to take some of former Patriot rookie free agent Kyle Love’s reps to fill out the defensive line. Seems like the type of kid worth paying attention to from a fan’s perspective.

McDonalds Offer Pancake (Blocks) Before 10:30 AM: While one offensive lineman might have a hard time getting noticed, two brothers on the same team could become attention-grabbers. Patriots veteran Nick McDonald has hermano Chris McDonald to keep an eye on this summer.

Starter: Nick has started at center and filled in at guard for the Pats; Chris looks to make the squad as a backup.

Special teams: After guard Dan Connolly ran back a kickoff 71 yards vs. Green Bay in 2010, anything’s possible. Especially with a player like Chris McDonald, who had a strong 40 time at his Michigan State pro day (5.00 seconds).

Name: I once knew a kid named John McDonald in elementary school and I sang “John McDonald had a farm” to him on the bus and he punched me in the arm because he was in third grade and no way was he going to take that from a first-grader.

But, anyway, no points for that name.

Underdog: Both came into the league as undrafted rookies (Chris with New England this year, Nick with Green Bay in 2010). O-linemen generally get tabbed as unheralded because, well, they are. Also, on the bro thing: fans like to think of their teams as a bunch of guys who get along; keeping a couple of actual brothers on the squad seems like a solid idea.

A Vega Recollection: With origins in Brockton and a college career at Northeastern, Jason Vega comes down to Foxboro with some serious local cred.

Starter: No – he may not even make the team – but any pass-rusher who gets hot will see time in New England’s defense.

Special teams: A must for Vega, who has the right build (6-4, 250) and athleticism (4.69 40-yard dash) for them.

Name: Man, just give him the nickname Vinny and we’ll really have something here. He’ll be talking about what they call a quarter pounder with cheese in Paris in no time.

And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, then, um … I guess I’m a little disappointed.

Underdog: A local guy who comes from a now-defunct local college program gets his NFL chance after toiling for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers last year. That, my friends, defines underdog.

Seriously: Rudy watched the Jason Vega biopic and cried at the end.

Ask Not For Whom Kenbrell Tolls: New England addressed the receiver position during this year’s draft, but rookie free agent Kenbrell Thompkins could help round out the bottom of the depth chart.

Starter: Not likely with Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman and rookies Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce aboard, but Thompkins made the most of his spring opportunity and seemed to demonstrate enough ability and field awareness to get more looks this month.

Special teams: At the combine, Thompkins had good size (6-1, 193), a solid 40 time (4.46 seconds) and a notable 3-cone drill (6.88 seconds), all strong factors in determining his potential special teams skills.

Name: The name Kenbrell deserves notice, especially when coupled with his younger brother’s name, Kendal. Not exactly a Pacific Islander moniker, but has some merit.

Underdog: Yup. In this interview at the combine, Thompkins talks about Kendal getting a scholarship to Miami and how that worked as a wake-up call after Kenbrell had gotten into some trouble –

Whoa, whoa, WHOA. What do you mean, “trouble”?

Well, he got arrested several times as a teen –

STOP. Arrested? Several times? Have you watched any Patriots-related news in the past month?

Wait a sec. He came from a rough neighborhood, Liberty City in Miami, and –

You’re not helping.

– and he grew up without a father figure and got involved with a gang.

For Christ’s sake.

But now he has a child –

I think we’ve seen that that doesn’t necessarily help.

– and he’s turned his life around.

Oh, sure. Hey, maybe he can babysit my kids?

You know what, smart aleck? Just read this piece from the University of Cincinnati’s News Record before forming an opinion.

We don’t believe that Gillette should become some kind of halfway house. The Pats took their chances with certain players who have recently hurt the team; however, each case has different merits. Bob Kraft, Bill Belichick and Co. shouldn’t shut their doors to someone who has made obvious efforts to change his life because of the bad actions of others. Plus, speaking selfishly, Thompkins looks like he could help the team.

We’re rooting for him, and not just on the field.

You Don’t Know Beauharnais: Well, we had to include a Rutgers guy. Seventh-round rookie linebacker Steve Beauharnais demonstrated lots of heart and leadership ability in college, as one can see in this video.

Starter: At a relatively small 6-1, 240, Beauharnais looks like a linebacker for a nickel or dime defense. Not expected to usurp guys like Jerod Mayo or Dane Fletcher, but could get on the field as a speedier, quicker guy in coverage over Brandon Spikes. His college experience playing both inside and outside positions should help.

Special teams: Beauharnais had 83 total tackles for the Scarlet Knights last year and could replace New England special teams veteran Tracy White.

Name: When I first read it, I thought it sounded like “Bernaise” and tweeted something along the lines of, “Don’t get saucy with me, Beauharnais.” Then, of course, the proper pronunciation came to light (bo-HAR-ness) and made me look like an idiot.

True story.

Anyway, a name that takes up most of a jersey seems like the type of name to get noticed.

Underdog: Not sure if Rutgers guys count as underdogs at Gillette anymore, but, like most seventh-round picks, Beauharnais arrives with some fan goodwill. Not flashy athletically, seems to work hard, has moxie. (Wow. Moxie. Suddenly I’m Dashiell Hammett.) Also, per above regarding 40 numbers, wears jersey 45.

So, who’s your prediction for fan favorite? Give us a holler in the comments section below.

Chris Warner can be reached and scratched in that spot on his back – lower, left, ohh yeah – at [email protected]