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James Ferentz still carving his own football path with Patriots

After 38 starts at Iowa and a year out of football, James Ferentz is now fighting for his fourth NFL season.

In Foxborough, James Ferentz is a fresh face with a familiar last name.

The 27-year-old center stands among group of 17 offensive linemen on a New England Patriots roster that now stands 90 players deep. How long he will remain one of them is tentative. It could be organized team activities, training camp, or the end of the preseason. It could be longer.

Given the manner in which Ferentz set foot in Gillette Stadium – let alone, the NFL – it’s anyone’s guess.

Ferentz quietly signed last Thursday along with rookie free-agent tight end Sam Cotton as the organization waived guard Chris Barker. It was a low-level move in a 2017 offseason that has included very few of such variety for the Patriots. And yet, Ferentz’s background does not fly as low on the radar as most late-May additions. Neither does the patience it’s taken him to become one.

The bloodlines did not hurt.

His father, Kirk, served under Bill Belichick as the Cleveland Browns’ offensive line coach from 1993 through 1995, and has been the head coach at Iowa since 1999. His older brother, Brian, meanwhile, spent four seasons with the Patriots as a scouting assistant, offensive coaching assistant, offensive assistant coach and tight ends coach before returning to Iowa as O-line coach in 2013. And his younger brother, Steve, was a walk-on member of the Hawkeyes football team from 2012 through 2016.

That football lineage holds its weight. A seasoned career in the Big Ten – in a program revered for its cultivation of NFL offensive linemen – does, too.

Ferentz had both while playing under his father.

After lettering in wrestling and football at Iowa City High School – where he once was teammates with future Patriots draft pick and current Denver Broncos tight end AJ Derby – Ferentz redshirted for the Hawkeyes in 2008 and entered for one game in 2009. But he went on to string together 38 consecutive starts at center over his final three seasons at Iowa.

During his redshirt senior campaign, the permanent team captain earned second-team All-Big Ten accolades from the league coaches to go with an honorable mention from the media. He earned an invitation to the East-West Shrine Game in January of 2013 as well.

Yet January would mark the beginning of a long year for Ferentz.

A year away.

A vastly undersized prospect regarded for his mobility, technique, intelligence and potential in a zone scheme, Ferentz went undrafted three months later. He participated in rookie minicamps with the Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins from there – only no contract offers would greet him at the end of either.

The 6-foot-2, 285-pound pivot ultimately spent the entirety of what would’ve been his rookie NFL season out of the league. He spent that time working full-time for a carpet company before signing with the Houston Texans in May of 2014.

“I’ve known James for a while,” Texans head coach Bill O’Brien, who resided on the Patriots’ sideline for five years, told reporters during that summer’s training camp. “James is a guy that we brought in during the spring and when you look at him, he’s not the biggest guy in the world, but he’s strong. He’s tough. He’s very, very smart. He’s obviously a coach’s son.”

In Houston Ferentz would stay as the Texans kept him on the practice squad for the duration of the 2014 season. Though by the start of 2015, his stay was over. It was then that Ferentz found himself claimed off waivers by the Broncos.

The transaction proved worthwhile. Ferentz entered into 14 regular-season games and one playoff game – logging one down against the Patriots in the AFC title bout at Mile High – that year with Denver. A Super Bowl 50 ring was secured in the process of it.

But while Ferentz did not play in the Broncos’ 24-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers two weeks after defeating the Patriots, he was there in Santa Clara. He was active.

It took a lot for that to come to fruition.

“It’s hard for me to talk because I’m his dad, but he’s a good story. He’s a really good story,” an emotional Kirk Ferentz said in a January 2016 press conference as his son was advancing in the playoffs. “The guy was working for Randy’s Carpets, basically moving carpet around. I don’t think they actually let him put it down – he’s not that refined – but that’s what he was doing, and training here. It’s a good story of sticking with your dream and chasing it. I always encourage our guys, all of our guys in their 20s – that’s what your 20s are for, in my mind – to chase your dreams and see where they’ll take you. You’ve got your whole life to work a real job. It’s just great. I’m really happy for him.”

The younger Ferentz again chased down a 53-man roster spot with Denver this past season, despite undergoing an arthroscopic knee procedure prior to its kickoff. By Week 17, he’d seen action in seven contests behind the top center on the Broncos’ depth chart, former sixth-round pick Matt Paradis.

But Paradis would not miss a start during Ferentz’s time in Denver.

The latter was waived earlier this May.

Now five years removed from college and four years removed from his delayed entrance into the league, Ferentz has accrued 15 snaps on offense and 63 on special teams over 22 career games. He’s with his third team since September of 2015. He’s the lightest offensive lineman listed on the Patriots’ roster, and also the third-oldest. He’s sharing jersey No. 59 with undrafted rookie edge-rusher Corey Vereen.

Even so, Ferentz is in an interesting situation in New England. It’s too soon to say it couldn’t be a fitting one.