It’s an annual right of passage. Some rookie who managed to slip through all seven rounds of the draft without a team selecting him manages to make a stacked, Super Bowl-contending Patriots team and find a way to contribute against the odds.
It’s a testament to New England truly being a level playing field once players arrive. Play better than someone who the team spent a draft pick on? You’re on the team, regardless of how it makes Bill Belichick’s “draft grade” look to the pundits. That’s why undrafted players are excited to come to Foxborough every summer, because one or two of them is almost certainly going to make the team.
Here’s a quick look back at the last nine years of UDFAs that have made the roster, and which three I think are most likely to continue the trend in 2017.
- 2008: Ryan Wendell, Benjarvus Green-Ellis, Gary Guyton
- 2009:Brian Hoyer
- 2010: Dane Fletcher, Sergio Brown, Kyle Love, Ross Ventrone
- 2011: Jeff Tarpinian
- 2012: Brandon Bolden, Justin Francis
- 2013: Joe Vellano, Kenbrell Thompkins
- 2014: Malcolm Butler
- 2015: David Andrews, Brandon King
- 2016: Jonathan Jones
There you have it. Nine years with at least one UDFA and often more than one. And many of them ended up having significant NFL careers, including Hoyer, Green-Ellis, Bolden, and Butler, while Andrews, King and Jones all look well on their way to being Patriots for the forseeable future.
To make the team a number of factors must come into play. There must be a need at the position. The player almost always must be an outstanding special teams players. And finally they must make the most of their chances and likely have some injury attrition above them on the depth chart.
Here are my three favorite guys I think could do it this year.
- Damarius Travis – Travis is a versatile defensive back out of Minnesota, who’s NFL position is likely strong safety, though he has coverage experience both in the slot and tight ends. He’s also described as an outstanding special teams player with high character, good instincts and a violent hitter. The needs that Travis can fill are obvious — taking over for Jordan Richards as a back up to Patrick Chung, while contributing immediately on special teams.
- David Jones – Jones is also a safety, but a little more in the mold of a rangy free safety. This position isn’t as much of a need with McCourty and Harmon in place, but Jones has NFL size, speed and skill. At 6’2″, 210 pounds with a 4.43 40 and a 34-inch vertical, Jones checks all the physical boxes. Praised for his intelligence and ball skills, it would seem he has the mental aspect as well. The biggest key for him, like so many, will be to stay healthy as he fractured his forearm and missed half of his senior season. He might not have the special teams pedigree that Travis has and there might not be as much of a need for a safety who skews more toward the back end, but he’s a player to watch.
- Harvey Langi – The Patriots were oft connected to Langi before the draft so it’s not a surprise to find him here as one of the favorites. What makes Langi stand out is his athleticism. He was a top performer in the 20- and 60-yard shuttles at the combine and has ideal linebacker size at 6’2″, 250 pounds. The Patriots’ need at linebacker is an important one. I’m not sure Langi can fill any holes on defense as a rookie, but he has the athleticism to contribute immediately on special teams as he settles in at linebacker and learns the Patriots’ defense.
Honorable Mention (and likely practice squad candidates):
- LeShun Daniels Jr., RB: Just a log jam at the power running back position now.
- Austin Carr, WR: Also a log jam at receiver.
- DJ Killings, CB: Undersized slot corner who’s super smart and tenacious. Beating out Coleman, Cyrus and Jonathan Jones a tall order.
- Jason King, G: Durable four-year player from a crappy team, opportunity at the third interior lineman spot vs. Ted Karras.