FOXBOROUGH – Patriots offensive lineman Ryan Wendell never loses sight of the hard work and tireless dedication he put into becoming an everyday NFL center.
During the dog days of training camp, those feelings are particularly strong, as Wendell often thinks back to when he toiled as a member of the Patriots’ practice squad, before finally gaining traction with the team in 2009.
“I always try to remember where I came from, I feel confident that if I try to do the things I did when I was younger in the same manner, it will help me keep going where I want to go,” Wendell said after Tuesday’s training camp session. “If Bill [Belichick] says I improved a lot, I think it just means I started at such a bad spot and had to get a lot better, and I just keep trying to get better every day.”
In 2012, Wendell’s journey as an undrafted free agent from Fresno State culminated with 16 starts as the team’s center, playing 1,379 snaps – the most of any NFL player.
Last season, Wendell repeated as the Patriots’ starting center. Before Tuesday’s training camp session began, coach Bill Belichick heavily praised the improvements Wendell has made.
Belichick went as far to compare Wendell to Stephen Neal – the Cal State-Bakersfield wrestler-turned-NFL-guard who won three Super Bowl rings as part of a prolific 10-year professional football career in New England.
“When Ryan first got here, he couldn’t even make our practice squad,” Belichick said.
“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. 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, but it’s the 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. It took a lot of time, a lot of hard work and he’s certainly done his part and worked hard. 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.”
As Wendell made his journey from the practice squad to his role as an everyday starter, he was privileged to be under the tutelage of standout offensive linemen like Neal and Logan Mankins.
Now, the 28-year-old Wendell said he’d embrace the opportunity to provide the same leadership to the Patriots’ younger interior linemen, like rookie center Bryan Stork and second-year guard Josh Kline.
“I just do what the older guys did for me when I came here,” Wendell said. “Guys like Dan Koppen, Steve Neal, Russ Hochstein, Logan Mankins, all those guys helped me out so much by telling me what was expected of an offensive lineman of the New England Patriots.”
It was perceived that Wendell’s performance in 2013 was not as strong as his 2012 campaign, but Wendell brushed aside that notion.
When asked about how he perceived his performance in 2013, Wendell responded with a proverbial, “there’s always room for improvement.”
When pressed on how he felt he could improve, he said, “I think you have to ask coach Belichick what I need to improve on.”
Unsurprisingly, Belichick also dodged the idea that Wendell’s performance was below par last season, saying instead that this year was an opportunity for the center to hit the reset.
“I think every year you start all over again,” Belichick said. “We all do. Within any year certainly we all have our moments that are good and we have some that aren’t so good that we’d like to have back. So, I’m sure you could find good and bad plays from all of us that have participated – players, coaches, every position, every year. 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.”