Bill Belichick loves an underdog, and he found one in center Ryan Wendell.
The starting pivot for the New England Patriots arrived as an undrafted free agent in 2008, with a strong recommendation from Belichick pal and confidant Pat Hill, whose experience as an NFL offensive line coach gives him credibility beyond his bond with the longtime Patriots’ head coach.
It wasn’t abundantly clear where, when or if ever Wendell would fit in the Patriots’ plans.
“When Ryan first got here, he couldn’t even make our practice squad. He was a camp player, wasn’t on our practice squad,” Belichick recalled Tuesday.
Two months into the 2008 season, Wendell was added to the practice squad.
“He has worked his way from there on to a consistent practice squad player to a roster player to playing more plays, or whatever it was, played as many plays as anybody in the league did (last season),” Belichick said of Wendell, who started all 16 games for the Patriots in 2012 and 2013 and played a league-high 1,231 snaps last season. “I’d say it’s been about as big of a progression as really any player could have, any player I’ve had or any player could have — maybe Steve Neal … same kind of thing, guys that weren’t even on the practice squad that eventually became starting players in the NFL. That’s a pretty big jump.”
Wendell is a grinder, a polished run blocker who survives on effort and desire in the passing game. He was rewarded in March with a two-year, $4.55 million deal despite not performing at a peak level in 2013. The Patriots will keep him at center in front of quarterback Tom Brady, but would like to see improvement in his pass protection.
“Physically he’s developed,” Belichick said of the 300-pounder. “So, he’s had a lot of good people to work with. He’s taken advantage of that. He’s put in a lot of sweat equity himself and he’s got a good result to show for it. It’s a great story. It’s a great example of perseverance and dedication and hard work with good results; I love to see it.”
Reliability is a calling card of offensive linemen in the Belichick regime. He missed only six snaps the past two seasons. There was a bigger reason personnel boss Nick Caserio and Belichick kept Wendell around.
“I think when you look at the overall performance, the overall projection of where you think the player is going to be based on whatever — his age, his experience, his work ethic, his training or age, whichever way it’s going, there’s a certain projection there but you wait and let it play out,” Belichick said. “…Certainly if we would have projected Ryan Wendell and Steve Neal their rookie years; none of us would have thought — (Tom) Brady for that matter. His rookie year, he didn’t do anything either. None of us would have thought that those guys would be the contributors they ended up being. That’s why we go out there and have training camp. That’s what competition is about. Sometimes you find out things differently.”