COMMENTARY | Michael Buchanan was no lock to make the New England Patriots 53-man roster out of training camp. A seventh-round draft pick via the University of Illinois, Buchanan found himself battling the likes of Jermaine Cunningham, Marcus Benard and Justin Francis for a backup job off the edge.
Early on, that positional bout did not favor the rookie. No. 99 registered a quiet eight tackles through the first three exhibition contests, working primarily with third- and fourth-teamers -- all vying for their football livelihoods.
But after amassing 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble against the New York Giants in New England's preseason finale, Buchanan's pedestrian summer came to a close with the flash of promise.
Head coach Bill Belichick, defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and defensive line coach Patrick Graham took note. And by the time the final cuts transpired, Buchanan still had himself a locker inside Gillette Stadium.
Cunningham, Benard and Francis did not.
Buchanan's relevance has been on the rise ever since that Aug. 29 exhibition game at Gillette Stadium. It has, however, been a gradual process filled with earning reps and adapting to the physicality that restrains many in the college-to-pro transition.
Now at a glance, the long and lean Buchanan may not be cut in the mold of an every-down player or a run-stopper. His 34-inch arms, 4.78 40-yard dash and 6.91 three-cone time may cut him in the mold of something else:
A situational pass-rusher.
The 6'6", 255-pound defensive end and Fighting Illini "Bandit" outside linebacker played just 11 snaps in his Week 1 debut against the Buffalo Bills. Then, in the Thursday night showdown versus the New York Jets, he upped that number to 16 snaps.
In the grand scheme of things, what carries more weight than his playing time through two games is how he has been utilized during his time on the field. The 226th overall selection in April's draft has not only been implemented as New England's No. 3 defensive end; he's been implemented almost exclusively on passing downs.
Of the 27 snaps Buchanan has played thus far in the 2013 campaign, 22 have been pass plays and just five have been run plays, according to Pro Football Focus. His performance is based on a limited sample size. Nevertheless, entrusting a greenhorn to create a change of pace over 2012 third-round choice Jake Bequette could be a telling decision.
Buchanan is striving to make sure it's the right decision.
While Buchanan has spelled in at the five-technique -- head to head with the offensive tackle in the 3-4 defense -- the majority of his chances have come from seven-technique -- shaded outside the offensive tackle -- which has kicked starting right defensive end Chandler Jones inside to right defensive tackle, next to run-stuffer Vince Wilfork and left defensive end Rob Ninkovich.
Most recently, this hybrid front was on display for 13 plays during the Sept. 12 tilt with the Jets. It added a fast and athletic dynamic to the front line, and it added pressure into the backfield.
Buchanan was a key component in both of those facets.
On a 3rd-and-15 midway through the second quarter of New England's Week 2 faceoff with New York, Buchanan exploded outside the opposing left tackle, swarmed between the hashes and wrapped up rookie QB Geno Smith. It went down as a six-yard loss, and it went down as the Homewood, Ill., native's first NFL sack.
The Patriots coaching staff hopes it was the first of many.
So does Buchanan.
Could the final-round flier develop into more than a specialist later down the road? Certainly. Although for the present, the Patriots' three-defensive end alignment could be the venue for Buchanan's immediate impact.
It's a duty he's welcoming.
"That's the role I'm asked to play," Buchanan told Jennifer Toland of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette. "I'm trying to embrace it and do the best job I can do. It's my job to make sure there isn't a drop-off when I come in the game as far as our edge rush. That's what I'm trying to do."
If Buchanan can continue to run the arc and close the pocket as the season progresses, it will go a long way towards determining the success of the Patriots defense. He's got the frame, the lateral agility and the violent hands to disrupt offenses from the outside on in. It's just a matter of doing so consistently.
It's very early. And the defensive line rotation remains in a fluid state. But there's a belief that the rangy prospect once projected as a third- or fourth-rounder should have been one.
Oliver Thomas is a Yahoo contributor who also covers the NFL and the New England Patriots for NEPatriotsDraft.com. His work has been featured on BleacherReport.com, TheFootballEducator.com, USAToday.com, Patriots.com, Boston.com and NESN.com.
You can follow Oliver on Twitter @OliverBThomas.
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