Valentine Keeping the Faith
By Kevin Duffy
FOXBORO -- When the Patriots placed Vincent Valentine on injured reserve last September, the second-year defensive tackle believed he’d be contributing by season’s end.
“I was working hard the whole time to get back,” Valentine said.
Per NFL rules, the Patriots were permitted to designate two players for return off injured reserve. The first was linebacker Shea McClellin, whose issues with concussions ultimately led to his retirement. The second spot was given to wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who practiced toward the end of the regular season but was never moved to the active 53-man roster.
Valentine, a promising third-round pick from the 2016 draft, was the odd man out.
“It was hard, a tough time in my life, a dark time, but I was able to press through,” Valentine said at his locker after Tuesday’s practice. “My faith pushed me through.”
Entering his third year, Valentine has found a new perspective. Time in the NFL is precious. Draft position only means so much. The Pats cut another third-round pick, Geneo Grissom, as he entered his second season. Similarly, third-round pick Taylor Price failed to make it to the end of his second year.
As Valentine put it, “Every day I’m fighting for a spot.”
“I’m thinking different, my mind is clearer, my vision is clearer,” Valentine said. “I already knew what I wanted, but you know how from your first year to your second year you can get a little comfortable, especially from the year we had, winning the Super Bowl, so I think that whole year just changed my whole perspective on everything.”
Coming off a season in which he didn’t play, Valentine said he took his commitment to a new level. He currently weighs 312 pounds, about 15 pounds lighter than he was when he was drafted out of the University of Nebraska. He’s re-tooled his diet and developed a “laser-sharp focus” toward his goal.
“I felt like I had to re-evaluate everything I was doing,” Valentine said. ”... I’m so zoned in now. I know what I want, I’m working hard. I won’t let anything knock me off my concentration.”
The next step for Valentine is securing a roster spot, which certainly will not be an easy task. The Pats appear set on the interior defensive line, as Danny Shelton, Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy rotated throughout training camp practices. Second-year pro Adam Butler, who a year ago established a role as a passing-downs interior rusher, has worked hard to expand his skill set. He’s added bulk, and is now up to 292 pounds, with the hopes of becoming an every-down player.
“That’s the goal,” Butler said. “I wanted to develop a role in the run game. I’ve still got two games left to prove that I can handle it, but I’ve just got to keep working.”
It’s possible that the Pats end up keeping five defensive tackles, including Valentine. They opened the 2017 season with five defensive tackles on the roster, but Valentine was swapped out for Grissom (who began the season on the practice squad) after Week 2.
Valentine was an intriguing prospect out of college due to his rare combination of length (6-foot-4) and strength. NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, who specializes in draft coverage, said he gave Valentine a “developmental grade,” which is equivalent to a fifth-round mark. The Pats took Valentine at the end of the third.
“Raw power, had a big-time sack against Wisconsin, and flashed but hasn’t put it all together yet,” Jeremiah said, referencing his pre-draft notes from 2016.
Two years later, Valentine is attempting to just that.
He played 28 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps as a rookie, became a regular in the defensive line rotation in November and December, and seemed to be on an upward trajectory. And then his career stalled.
“Sometimes, success can be one of the biggest hindrances on your development,” Valentine explained. “I feel like, I had success. Not that I felt it was easy, but I felt like I could still do the same thing and have the same success. Obviously, it wasn’t that. I needed to do more, I needed to press more. The road is uphill. It’s going uphill.”
Valentine saw 14 snaps in the preseason opener and 22 this past Thursday against the Eagles. He came through with a sack in the third quarter, cleaning up after second-year defensive end Keionta Davis got a hand on Philadelphia quarterback Nate Sudfeld.
After the play, which put the Eagles in a third-and-10, Valentine came off the field. He was greeted on the sideline by defensive end Deatrich Wise, who excitedly grabbed the back of Valentine’s shoulder pads and congratulated him with a tap on the helmet. It was only the second sack of Valentine’s professional career.
“It was amazing, man,” Valentine said. “I was just enjoying being out there with my guys... Being back out there means everything to me. I’m just so thankful and I’m blessed to be back.”