A little more than a year ago, on August 28, 2014, the New England Patriots played their fourth and final preseason game in New Jersey's MetLife Stadium against the New York Giants. The two franchises facing off in the final week of the preseason has become an annual tradition – just like both teams resting those players, whose spot on the 53-man roster is safe.
22-year old rookie linebacker James Morris wasn't one of those players, even though he has had a strong training camp and preseason and looked like a prime candidate to join fellow undrafted rookie defender Malcolm Butler on the Patriots' active roster. However, with the players who were locks to survive final cuts not playing, somebody had to suit up. Morris was one of those players and started the game as the middle linebacker in the team's 4-3 defense. He ended the game gingerly and assisted by trainers walking off the field.
Midway through the second quarter, with the Patriots defending near their own goal line, Morris' right knee gave in while getting blocked by a Giants offensive lineman during a run play. The result: a torn ACL and a rookie season spent on injured reserve.
Almost exactly one year later, Morris is in almost the exact same spot. Not geographically, because the Patriots and Giants will play in Foxboro, Massachusetts tonight, but in terms of his role on the team. With starting linebackers Dont'a Hightower, Jamie Collins and Jerod Mayo unlikely to play given the fact that all three are coming off different sorts of injuries, Morris – who also had a strong training camp in 2015 – will almost certainly have to suit up. Again, he will play a prominent role in the middle of New England's defense.
The last time he had to do so, he was unable to take the final hurdle between him and an NFL roster because his knee ligaments were unable to withstand the pressure put on them. It was a setback and it was not the first one in the career of the now 23-year old.
Despite starting 41 games during his collegiate career at Iowa, being one of only six players to ever record 400 tackles during his time there, and being named team captain both his junior and senior years, he went undrafted in 2014. Six days after the seventh and final round of the 2014 NFL Draft ended, Morris signed a contract with the New England Patriots. Only four days later, though, came the next setback: the team waived the rookie after failing a physical. He was later treated for a blood clot in his leg.
More than a month would pass before he was again part of an NFL 90-man roster. The Patriots re-signed Morris on August 3 and he went on to have a solid training camp, making a strong case to earn a backup role on the final 53-man roster. However, the quest for a roster spot ended on the MetLife turf 25 days after again becoming a Patriot.
Just like last year, Morris looks like he is on his way to earn a spot on New England's roster after coming back from the injury and having a nice 2015 offseason. Head coach Bill Belichick had to say the following about the former Hawkeye last week:
He gives you great effort out there on the field in all situations – defensively and in the kicking game – works hard in practice, prepares hard. He's rehabbed off his injury from last year, works hard in the weight room, the training room. He's a typical Iowa kid. He's tough, hard-working, blue collar, dependable, consistent.
Tonight, James Morris will once again face the New York Giants in the final game of the preseason. Unlike last year, though, he hopefully will be able to finish the game healthy – to clear yet another hurdle; the final one between him and New England's roster.