At this part of the off-season, everyone's looking forward to the upcoming draft and free agency. It's oh so obvious that the Pats roster isn't in Superbowl-winning shape - the Pats are obviously missing some of those 6'5", 250lb Outside Linebacker guys that Belichick builds dynasties around, as well as a couple of 6'2" or taller sprinters at WR to eventually replace Moss and hold the fort while Welker and Tate get healthy, a booming punter, maybe a punt- and kick-returner, perhaps a big, fast TE or two, and some depth at Inside Linebacker.
Problem is, you can look to free agency and the draft and you realise that the likelihood of filling some or all of these needs is at best a crap-shoot, and at worst an impossibility. However! I have a solution of sorts. I offer this - an untapped resorce of athletes who could potentially make a dent in the NFL. But you'll have to forgive me when it becomes obvious that they'll have a plethora of funny accents. I'll explain after the jump...
Before I begin this, I'll admit a certain bent towards athletes I have seen a lot of and know the capabilities of. I've also selected the guys I believe have the skills and intangibles to successfully convert to NFL play - so they're not necessarily the most gifted players in their respective codes. They're players I honestly believe would have a chance at cracking an NFL roster in the right circumstances. With that in mind, I present my offerings.
Outside Linebacker/ Tight End
The guy that immediately screams for attention is the South African rugby union player Pierre Spies (pronounced Speece). He's a bruiser at 6'5" and 244lb, is a very capable cover defender, and he is very fast in a straight line. And when I say "fast", I mean that he's been clocked for a 100m sprint in 10.7s - that's lightning quick for a guy that big. As any bad saleman will say, but wait, there's more. Rugby journalist and blogger Ryan Vrede notes (rather proudly; he's South African): "Spies power cleans 135kg (297lb). He dead lifts 240kg (529lb). He bench presses 165kg (363lb). Only mildly impressed? Wait, here are some more. He is able to do pull-ups with a 50kg (110lb) weight between his legs. He can launch his 108kg (238lb) body 1.4m (4'8") onto a raised platform, sprints for 835m (half a mile) before slowing on a repeated sprint-ability test and has a body-fat percentage of 6.5." But he's no workout warrior - he's a great defender and is absolutely devastating with ball in hand To be honest, I'm not sure what to project him as - OLB or TE. He'd either be a Ben Watson who can play linebacker, or he'd be a Mike Vrabel who runs the 100m in 10.7 seconds. Or both. That's a wonderful dilemma to have if he's on your roster. And to top it off, Pierre Spies is only 24 years old. So whatever you wanted him as, you'd have a fair amount of time to mould him into something useful.
The second player that comes to mind is the Pierre Spies' partner in crime, Schalk Burger. Despite his hunger-inspiring surname, Burger happens to be a brutal and uncompromising defensive workhorse reminiscent of a faster Ray Lewis - he's very fast, reads plays well to get into the right position, and he tackles very, very hard when he gets there. What makes Burger particularly interesting in terms of a potential NFL career is that he's 6'4" and 246lbs - that's around the size Belichick likes in his OLBs. While Burger has already carved out a fine rugby career - Burger has represented his nation in 55 test matches and he won the International Rugby Player of the Year award in 2004 - yet he's only 26 years old.
I'd project Burger as an Outside Linebacker that would be particularly effective against the run, especially at sealing the edges - Rugby Union flankers are particularly adept at lateral defensive sweeps. And we know that the Pats need one of those at the moment... As an added bonus, I'd think that Burger would also provide a Mike Vrabel-like Offensive role as well as his defensive abilities - Burger has scored 11 tries in his 55 test matches, a very good strike-rate for a position that's more defensive in nature than offensive.
My third offering is Adam Thompson. Thompson is a New Zealander, and a particular sheepy looking one at that - he's got a mop of curly blonde ringlets that any ram would be proud of. Except not many sheep are 6'5" and 246lb, and not many of them are as quick as Thompson. He's roughly on a par in terms of physical ability as Burger, although he's a relatively old campaigner at 28 years old. I'd project him to be a special teamer and backup linebacker; he's just a tackling machine in the Gary Guyton mould, and could fit in as an ILB too.
Sione Lauaki. A mountain of a man at 6'5" and 264lbs, he's devastatingly quick and very agile. When he can't sidestep or outpace someone, he's powerful and aggressive enough to flat out run over the top of them. He reminds me a lot of Brandon Jacobs, except I'd project Lauaki as a TE or FB who can fill in at HB on occasion instead of a full-time HB - he's unstoppable when he has enough of a head-start to get up to steam, so I'd prefer to see him catch the ball with a bit of space instead of taking a handoff from a QB.
The first guy that came to mind when I was considering who could make a successful NFL wide receiver convert is Israel Folau (Foll- as in follow, -au as in ouch). Folau comes from the ugly younger sister of Rugby Union, Rugby League (somewhat like what the CFL is to American Football). But Folau himself is no ugly little sister; instead, he's quite a specimen, being 6'5", 227lbs, and blindingly quick. However, Folau isn't just a guy with extraordinary physicals - in 65 Australian National Rugby League appearances, Folau has scored 47 times. The reason he's so successful in the NRL is that he's very strong in the air - the NRL doesn't have forward passes, but has something similar to the NFL's QB pass through very accurate chip kicks and punts. Folau has an unparalleled ability to outjump and claim those punts while racing forward, so I believe that skillset would transfer over to the NFL without too many problems. He's also very good as a runner, being very quick, shifty and with a devastating stiff-arm that allows him to blow past arm tackles with ease. I'd project Folau to be a big-bodied WR in a style reminiscent of Dallas Clark or Vincent Jackson - point him in a straight line and watch him carve up smaller defenders. And the best part about Folau? He's only 20 years old. That gives him plenty of time to learn the nuances of the NFL and become a star.
The second potential WR is a Samoan international Rugby Sevens star, Mikaele Pesamino (Pess-ah-me-no). This young man is a sensation in the 7's format (basically a stripped down, hectic-paced version of rugby with only 7 players per side. It's like the NFL if the NFL stripped out the O- and D-linemen and played non-stop for only 7 minutes per half). And in a format where everyone is extraordinarily quick, he's special. Not only can can he fly, he's also a fairly big man - 6'3" and 200lbs. But what convinces me that he has the ability and skills to play in the NFL is that Pesamino has also had a lot of experience playing Aussie Rules football, which means he's also particularly good at jumping up and over opposition players to claim aerial passes. Because he's big, very quick, and with proven leaping ability, I'd project him as a potential Flanker-type NFL Wide Receiver. To top it off, Pesamino is only 25 years old, which gives him plenty of time to learn the necessities of the NFL.
If you can have one big Pacific Island flier, why not have a treble? The third WR candidate is Josevata Rokocoko (Rock-oh-tho-ko). He's a similar size to Pesamino at 6'3", and he's a shade heavier at 216lbs. His nickname is "Rocket man", which gives an indication of his sheer pace on the outside. Given that speed, it's no surprise he has a phenomenal strike-rate at scoring in international rugby: he's touched down 45 times in 60 games for the New Zealand national team. That's a scoring rate that ought to make anyone sit up and take notice - scoring tries in rugby happens about as often as scoring touchdowns in the NFL. Converting that strike-rate to the NFL would mean he scores an average of 12 tds per regular season - Randy Moss-like statistics. But unlike Moss, Rokocoko is only 26 years old.
My final potential WR is Lelia Masaga (Mah-sung-ah). Masaga's a little smaller than the previous three guys, but he's no less deadly for it. Nicknamed "Flash", he's a dynamite winger in the Rugby Union code. He's very, very fast, he's extremely agile, and he has a nose for finding the space and running into it to create big plays. At 5'11" and 210lbs, he'd be a bigger, faster Welker, but with more outright pace than Edelman. He's a little like Steve Smith when he has space (the Carolina version, not the NY one). And like Steve Smith, I'd project Masaga to fill in at KR and PR due to his proven open-field skills.
There's one guy who when he plays rugby, he just looks like an NFL running back - Ma'a Nonu. Nonu is 6' and 230lbs, meaning he'd fit in with the Pats running-back stable. Yet unlike the backs in the stable, Nonu has a hard-earned reputation for being a punishing runner who regularly breaks tackles and gains most of his yardage after shrugging off a defender or two. It's been a while since the Pats could boast about having a RB who relishes contact. To put a frame of reference around Nonu, there was a recent article written by an ex-Australian national rugby player-turned-journalist - when the Australian was given his statistics at the end of the season, he was dismayed to see that out of the 20 tackles the Australian whiffed on or had broken from under him over the season, 16 were when he attempted to tackle Nonu. What makes that even more remarkable is that the Australian only played Nonu only played him twice out of 15 games. Nonu has speed, size, balance, strength, the ability to sidestep very well off both feet, a devastating stiff-arm to both sides, and dreadlocks. What's not to like?
Punter/ backup Kicker/ Wildcat QB/HB role.
This one's particularly speculative, but I couldn't really write this up without including the guy who is universally considered the most gifted Rugby player at this moment in time, Dan Carter. Carter is a playmaker with both his passing and attacking running in the Rugby code. Carter also happens to be a very good goal-kicker, with a success rate of above 80% at international level. He was voted the 2005 International Rugby Board player of the year. To top it off, he was also voted 2008's 11th Sexiest Man in the World (according to E! Entertainment Channel). But what would make him a candidate for an NFL roster spot is actually his third- or fourth-most important skill - his ability as a punter who is well known for extreme accuracy on long, raking kicks.
Carter doesn't quite fit the NFL mould - he's only 5'11" and 200lbs - but he's so supremely gifted in all facets of contact football that he's impossible to leave out of a list like this. If he wound up onto a Belichick roster, I'd project him to fill the Punter spot on the roster, but contribute as a Punter/backup Kicker/emergency QB role. If As a punter, he can punt off both feet for massive yardage. As a kicker, he can place kick and also drop-kick goals with aplomb. As a Wildcat QB, Carter can run extraordinarily well, showing both speed and acceleratin, as well as an ability to ghost through tackles with deceptive change of pace and a deadly sideste. He's also got the ability to lateral given his rugby background, meaning he'd be an automatic threat at triple-option plays. Carter also represented New Zealand as a bowler in cricket at age-group level, suggesing a better-than-average throwing arm - leaving the door open to his developing a QB-style throwing arm. Given all his skills, could he become a weird hybrid QB/K/P? I'd imagine he could. He could even be a game changer.
Consider this. You have him behind center on third or fourth down. If the pass is on, he can pass - he was decent throwing arm in cricket. If the run is open, let him run - he can either get the first down or open up the field and lateral it to someone in a better position it's not on. If neither option looks good and he's within 45 to 50 yards of the goal-posts, he could snap off a drop-goal and get three points. And if all else fails, he can pooch-punt off either foot and rake in 60 yards. Opposition teams would need to gameplan for all eventualities, meaning they'd either have less men on the line because they're ready to receiver the punt, or surrendering the yardage of the punt by stacking the line. It'd make for a pretty dynamic situation, and it's a weapon that I'd love to see Belichick have in the arsenal. It'd be out there, but remember, Belichick is the coach who put Doug Flutie on the field to kick the only drop-goal the NFL saw in the last 50 years. I'd love to see what Hoodie would do with a guy who has that in his base skill-set. And it sure beats watching Sammy Morris try to run in fourth-down conversions in a FB handoff that gets stuffed.