Big takeaway: TE Sudfeld on the rise

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The “big takeaway” from Saturday’s slower-paced scrimmage style practice was that rookie free-agent tight end Zach Sudfeld appears to be ahead of “schedule” and should be one of the more intriguing players to watch in preseason games.

With the Patriots divided up into two teams, Sudfeld lined up with the offensive unit that included most of the projected starters, including quarterback Tom Brady.

At 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds (he is probably closer to 255), Sudfeld runs well for a player his size (4.71 in the 40) and that was evidenced by a few times that he threatened the seam Saturday. He has also proven to have reliable hands, going back to spring workouts.

There was one missed connection in Sudfeld’s direction Saturday, although the ball might have been tipped. Otherwise, when the ball was thrown his way, the end result was a catch.

Sudfeld’s expanded opportunity Saturday came, in part, as a result of the absences of Rob Gronkowski and Jake Ballard at practice. The timetable on Gronkowski’s return seems to be a bit of a moving target in September, while Ballard is still searching for a comfort level in his return from serious knee surgery. Ballard appeared to have a slight limp as he walked off the field Friday; it was noticeable enough that one reporter approached him to ask him if he was OK.

As for Sudfeld, when the Patriots signed him as a rookie free agent out of Nevada (his $17,000 in guaranteed money was the second-highest on the team among undrafted rookies), one line of thinking was that he might be a year away from possibly being a factor.

But the timetable might be accelerated, partially because Sudfeld has practiced well, and also because of other considerations around him at the position.

Sudfeld drew a media crowd after practice, and when we spoke, there were two points that stood out:

1. One of the biggest adjustments for him has been transitioning from a pistol-style offense in college to a pro offense that features more checks and reads that a tight end has to make. “All of a sudden, it’s this advanced graduate level of football,” he said.

2. Physically, blocking is the area where the greatest development would lie, specific to his footwork and technique. Developing more strength ties into that as well. “I lined up a lot at wing, and we did the read-option, the pistol with [Colin] Kaepernick [at Nevada]. Not that we didn’t block a lot, because we did, but it was a different offense," he said.

So as we look forward to preseason action next week, put Sudfeld’s name near the top of the list of players who will be intriguing to watch.

While there is a long way to go, he has positioned himself to compete for a roster spot.