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Malcolm Butler and the Proud Tradition of Undrafted Rookie Free Agents

You do not need to get drafted to become a successful player.

Two players, both undrafted. One just secures his team a Super Bowl win.
Two players, both undrafted. One just secures his team a Super Bowl win.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The college player Draft is the NFL's fountain of youth. Exactly one month from today, the 2015 version will take place in Chicago and the New England Patriots will try to bolster their championship roster via filling holes and creating depth. However, as the team has shown in the past, this is not the only way to infuse the roster with young talent.

There is another one: undrafted rookie free agents. The 2014 season is the latest example of the Patriots' ability to skillfully search the pool of undrafted rookies to find contributors.

Two undrafted free agents made New England's opening day roster in 2014, linebacker Deontae Skinner and cornerback Malcolm Butler – neither heard his name called on draft day, but both were signed by the Patriots in the days following the draft. Skinner appeared in seven games for the Patriots prior to being released after week 8, and spent the rest of the season on the team's practice squad. Butler, on the other hand, appeared in 11 regular season contests and all three playoff games and made the game-clinching interception in the Patriots' Super Bowl XLIX victory.

While Malcolm Butler was the only member of the team's 2014 undrafted rookie class to be on the 53-man roster on Super Bowl Sunday, he was far from the only player on the team to enter the league via the free agency road. Overall, 17 of 53 players who were on the team's active roster for the final game of the season went undrafted (five were immediately signed by the Patriots, twelve spent time on other teams' rosters before joining New England).

As can be seen by those numbers, undrafted rookie free agents play an important part when it comes to constructing a deep roster. Properly gauging the market, therefore, is key to creating depth. Looking at the past, we can find out that the Patriots have never shied away from doing just that.

Let's take a look at the undrafted free agents – Malcolm Butler's predecessors, if you will – of the Bill Belichick era, who made the team's opening day rosters.

Position Name College
WR Shockmain Davis Angelo State
OG Adam Davis Oklahoma State
DT Reggie Grimes Alabama
LB Matt Chatham South Dakota
LS Lonie Paxton Sacramento State

The two most notable names on this list are linebacker Matt Chatham and long snapper Lonie Paxton, who were both integral members of the Patriots' first three Super Bowl wins. Chatham was mostly a special teamer who played six years in New England, while Paxton was the team's long snapper from 2000 to 2008.


Position Name College
DT Jace Sayler Michigan State

Sayler, who played three years in the NFL, was signed by the Patriots after the 2001 NFL Draft but spent only two weeks on the team's active roster. He was the only undrafted rookie to make the initial 53-man roster in 2001.

Guard Stephen Neal was not on the opening day roster. He was signed by the Patriots as an undrafted rookie out of Cal State Bakersfield (after never having played football in college) but was waived during roster cut-downs and subsequently joined the Philadelphia Eagles. Neal re-signed with the Patriots later in 2001 and went on to spend his entire nine-year career in Foxboro.


No undrafted rookie made the Patriots' opening day roster. Rookie offensive tackle Matt Knutson, undrafted out of North Dakota, joined the roster in December but never appeared in a game for the team.


Just like the year prior, no undrafted rookie survived final roster cuts, although safety Shawn Mayer (Penn State) joined the Patriots' practice squad and was later promoted to the active roster. He played two seasons in New England and registered one tackle in the team's Super Bowl XXXVIII win.


Position Name College
CB Randall Gay LSU

Gay played four seasons with the Patriots and, due to injuries to Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, was a starter in the Patriots' Super Bowl XXXIX victory. He appeared in 39 games for the franchise and registered five interceptions and two fumble return touchdowns.

Career special teamer and back-up linebacker Eric Alexander (LSU) was originally signed to the Patriots' practice squad; he went on to spend the first six years of his career with the team.


Position Name College
DT Mike Wright Cincinnati

After going undrafted, Wright was signed by the Patriots – the team he would spend his entire seven-year career with. Overall, the defensive tackle appeared in 85 games for the franchise and registered 15 sacks and three fumble recoveries.

Two other undrafted rookies – wide receiver Bam Childress (Ohio State) and defensive tackle Santonio Thomas (Miami) – were activated during the regular season to provide depth; both were with the Patriots until after the 2007 season.


Position Name College
LB Pierre Woods Michigan

Woods spent five years in New England. As a rotational linebacker he played in 60 games in New England and registered two sacks. He appeared in the team's Super Bowl XLII loss. During the 2006 regular season, the Patriots activated another undrafted rookie, linebacker Corey Mays (Notre Dame), who had a five-year NFL career and appeared in nine games for the team.


Position Name College
QB Matt Gutierrez Idaho State
LB David Herron Michigan State

Before leaving New England in 2009, Gutierrez shared quarterback back-up duties with Matt Cassel in 2007 and Kevin O'Connell in 2008. He played in five games and attempted one pass (a 15-yard completion against the Miami Dolphins in his rookie year).


Position Name College
LB Gary Guyton Georgia Tech

After signing as an undrafted free agent, Guyton became a rotational linebacker for the Patriots. He spent four seasons in Foxboro, appeared in 62 games and scored an interception return touchdown in the 2010 season opener.

In 2008, New England also signed undrafted rookies BenJarvus Green-Ellis (Mississippi) and Ryan Wendell (Fresno State) to its practice squad.

Green-Ellis was promoted to the active roster later that year and became the team's leading rusher in 2010 and 2011 (before leaving the team in free agency). "Law Firm" rushed for 2064 yards and 29 touchdowns (he had a 1008 yard-season in 2010) and became famous for not fumbling once in the 516 times he touched the ball in New England.

Wendell spent the majority of his first two years on the Patriots' practice squad but ultimately became the team's starting center in 2012. He switched to right guard in 2014 and started in the Patriots' Super Bowl XLIX victory.


Position Name College
QB Brian Hoyer Michigan State

Hoyer was Tom Brady's primary back-up from 2009 until 2011; appearing exclusively in the pre-season and during blow-outs. After leaving New England, Hoyer spent time with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Arizona Cardinals (for whom he started one game) and Cleveland Browns (for whom started 16 games in two seasons). Hoyer recently signed a two-year deal with the Houston Texans.


Position Name College
OT/TE Steve Maneri Temple
DT Kyle Love Mississippi State
LB Dane Fletcher Montana State

In his four years in New England, Fletcher was a core special-teamer and back-up linebacker, who appeared in 44 games while registering four sacks. Love, on the other hand, spent three years in Foxboro and became a mainstay among the Patriots' defensive line; playing in 47 games for the team and starting 29.

Another name of note is Sergio Brown. After going undrafted, the safety out of Notre Dame was signed to the practice squad and promoted to the active roster in week 7; he spent the rest of the 2010 season as well as the team's 2011 campaign on the 53-man squad and signed with the Indianapolis Colts in 2012. Last year, during Brown's tenure with the Colts, Rob Gronkowski famously "threw him out of the club".


Position Name College
LB Jeff Tarpinian Iowa
LS Danny Aiken Virginia

Danny Aiken was originally signed by the Buffalo Bills but was waived during roster cut-downs and subsequently claimed by the Patriots. He has been the team's long snapper since and played in two Super Bowls; Aiken is currently a free agent but it would come as no surprise if he ultimately returns to New England.

Jeff Tarpinian spent the first two years of his career in Foxboro and was mostly used on special teams. He is currently a member of the Houston Texans.

Cornerback Sterling Moore also went undrafted; he joined the team in October. Moore appeared in only 14 games for the Patriots over the course of two seasons but secured his spot in Patriots lore during the 2011 AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens: he punched the ball out of wide receiver Lee Evans' hands late in the fourth quarter to prevent a potentially game-winning touchdown. New England reached Super Bowl XLVI after Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missed a game-tying field goal.


Position Name College
RB Brandon Bolden Mississippi
DT Marcus Forston Miami
DE Justin Francis Rutgers
OT Markus Zusevics Iowa

While Forston, Francis and Zusevics played a combined 16 games for the Patriots, the team got more production out of its undrafted running back: Bolden works as a core special-teamer and back-up runner and recently signed a two-year contract extension.


Position Name College
WR Kenbrell Thompkins Cincinnati
TE Zach Sudfeld Nevada
OT Josh Kline Kent State
OG Chris Barker Nevada
DT Joe Vellano Maryland
P Ryan Allen Louisiana Tech

2013 was the most active year for the New England Patriots when it came to signing and keeping undrafted rookies, as six players made the opening day 53-man roster. Allen, Barker, Kline and Vellano are all still with the team, while Thompkins caught 38 passes and four touchdowns in 14 games in New England. Numerous other undrafted players – among them guard Jordan Devey – spent time on the practice squad in 2013.


Position Name College
LB Deontae Skinner Mississippi State
CB Malcolm Butler West Alabama

As written above, only two undrafted rookies made the opening day roster in 2014; and only one would remain on the active roster until the Super Bowl: Malcolm Butler, who made the game-winning interception to secure the Patriots' fourth Lombardi trophy.


As the names above show, the Patriots have been more willing to give undrafted rookies a chance to compete during the regular season in the last couple of years. If we take the departure of former Vice President of Player Personell Scott Pioli after the 2008 season as a potential turning point, we find out that on average 1.3 undrafted rookie free agents made the opening day roster while he was still in New England. After Pioli left the Patriots to become General Manager of the Kansas City Chiefs, this number spiked to an average of 3.5 players.

Is this a coincidence? Probably, because the team had very little room on a talented and experienced roster in the early 2000s, whereas there was more turnover after Pioli left and veterans like Tedy Bruschi, Rodney Harrison or Matt Light retired.


The Draft is one of the highlights of the NFL offseason. However, as the examples above show, contributors can also be found after those three days. Beginning in exactly one month and three days.