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An ex-Patriot lineman shares his NFL experience, and how Dante Scarnecchia helped get him there

I chatted this week with former tackle Markus Zusevics. We talked about his story, and took a small peek into what sets the Patriots’ process apart.

NFL: New England Patriots-Minicamp Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Each year hundreds of football players from every corner of the country trudge a longer, tougher road to a career in the NFL than their drafted colleagues. Each player has different story, and each carries a chip on his shoulder that he’ll use to carve out his path to a spot on a roster.

There was a reason each guy was passed over. Some were too big or too small for their position. Some were too slow. Perhaps they were considered too “raw”, or came from small programs in athletic conferences harboring little to no advanced competition.

Former New England Patriots tackle Markus Zusevics — a name you likely don’t remember — didn’t fit into any of these categories.

When you meet Markus Zusevics, the American-born grandson of Latvian immigrants (a language he can speak fluently), you instantly realize that his size wasn’t likely to appear on any scout’s list of concerns.

He has dropped fifty pounds of playing weight since his time in football, but one glance at his broad-shouldered six-foot five-inch frame will leave you with little doubt that his officially-listed 303-pound number was carried with ease. Like all tackles, his thirty-three-inch arms are stout from the shoulder down through the wrist, and each connects to an enormous ten-inch hand that typically engulfs its counterpart during a handshake.

Program pedigree also wasn’t his issue. Zusevics went from being a stocky recruit from Prospect High School (just north of Chicago,IL), to starting twenty-six straight games at right tackle for Kirk Ferentz’s Iowa Hawkeyes — a program renowned for annually churning out elite offensive lineman and defensive front-seven prospects. Iowa gave him the opportunity to compete with some of the Big-Ten’s best, including some of the guys he saw daily on the practice field.

“Mike Diesel — great quickness, power, and leverage.” Zusevics recalled, referring to Mike Daniels, an emerging star along Green Bay’s defensive front, and a 2016 Pro Bowl snub. “He was kind of short, I think he's like six-foot, so it was easy for him to get lower than guys. Great strength.”

He remembers the “super long arms” of regular one-on-one drill mate Broderick Binns, the “amazing quickness and intensity” of current Tennessee Titan Karl Klug, and the potent combination of Adrian Clayborn’s power and quickness, which has been on display for six seasons in the NFC South.

Having never had the opportunity to play the coveted left tackle position with first-round picks Bryan Bulaga and Riley Reiff occupying the blindside during his tenure, Zusevics entered the pre-draft process as a pure right tackle, and was widely regarded as a mid-round selection. As with almost any prospect, some analysts and scouts were higher on him than others, with his critics citing a lack of elite core strength and a slower “get-off”. However, it was universally accepted, given his frame and remarkable consistency, that he would get drafted.

However, the 2012 NFL Draft came and went, and Markus Zusevics’ name was never called.

Why? Because sometimes a player can have everything from size, ability, pedigree, and character, yet still be missing the key ingredient in the recipe — luck. Markus Zusevics simply had a moment of bad luck. And it came at the worst time.

Seven weeks after his final game as a Hawkeye, he was invited to the annual NFL Combine in Indianapolis — the pinnacle of the pre-draft process and the culmination of years of hard work and training for its invitees. But while participating in the bench press event, something went wrong.

“I started (my reps), and I felt my chest pop, like a rubber band snapping. I was like, what was that?”

Zusevics had torn one of the pectoral muscles in his chest.

“I never had an injury before that. The doctor came over, saw me, and immediately told me I tore it. He knew just by looking at it because it had rolled up into a ball at the top of my chest.”

It would be a six month recovery process, ending any hope he had of being drafted in the middle rounds. Unsurprisingly, a majority of NFL team personnel and coaches were in contact with him so frequently before the injury stopped calling altogether — with the exception of a few.

Long time New England Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia was one of those few.

“He just wanted to see how I was doing — making sure I didn’t want to jump off a building,” Zusevics joked. “He wanted to see how the injury was coming along. And he told me they had a plan for me. You could just tell that he wasn’t full of s**t.”

It was that genuine care and concern from Scarnecchia that simplified the process for Zusevics as the draft was winding down.

“We were fielding calls from a few teams and looking at their depth charts and draft picks.” said Zusevics. “New England called in the seventh (round) and said they might draft me, but if not, they were looking to pick me up.”

“Once I found out I wasn't drafted, New England was a pretty easy decision for me. Bill called, we had a brief chat and I signed with them. A week later I was in Foxborough.”

The Patriots’ interest in Zusevics came as no surprise to those well acquainted with the ties between Iowa Head Coach Kirk Ferentz and Bill Belichick. Ferentz, after a three-year stint at the University of Maine, spent three seasons from 1993 through 1995 as Bill’s offensive line coach in Cleveland. In 1998, Ferentz was hired as Iowa’s lead man, and began building his program with the same Belichickian principles that we still hear today.

“Coach Ferentz and Bill are extremely a like.” said Zusevics, when asked about the similarities in how each coach operates his program . “I think that Iowa and New England definitely share a lot of the same core values. Accountability, ignoring outside noise, and working hard. Smart, tough football.”

“Neither really care if you are a top recruit, or a first-round pick, a walk-on, or a UDFA. They bring you on the team because they think that you can play, and you get an opportunity to prove yourself. I think that is why you see both (football organizations) having really productive walk-ons and (undrafted free agents).”

Once in Foxborough, Zusevics went right to work — aided by his Iowa pedigree.

“Yes, I think so.” he said, when asked if he believes being groomed in Iowa City prepared him for the NFL. “It was a pro-style system. Iowa stressed a lot of the same things the Patriots did, so I definitely think it prepared me.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a learning curve.

“There is just a lot of information thrown at you really fast. You obviously want to put your best foot forward and learn their system and verbiage. You learn their schedules, how they practice, how they lift.”

Heading into his first training camp, he was considered by many to be squarely on the roster bubble. But having not fully recovered from his pectoral tear, he was ultimately placed on the team's Reserve/Non-Football Injury list as camp concluded.

It was the plan Dante Scarnecchia had for him six months earlier.

Two months later, following the release of wide receiver Greg Salas on November 22nd (likely to the dismay of ESPN’s Mike Reiss), Zusevics was activated to the 53-man roster. Providing depth at tackle in a backup capacity, he dressed for two games in the 2012 season. It was to be the peak of his career.

The following year, he sustained a labrum injury in a preseason contest against Detroit, which landed him on IR for all of 2013. He was released in the spring of 2014. He signed with Rex Ryan’s Jets after receiving an invite for a tryout at their rookie minicamp. He was released during a round of roster cuts on August 23rd, 2014.

Markus Zusevics was an anomaly — an outlier. The moment he found himself lying face up on that bench in Indianapolis with a doctor rushing to his side, he should have been mathematically eliminated from the NFL equation. Yet, he persevered.

However, for a player to defy the odds and emerge from such adversity requires more than perseverance. It requires the proper environment and expertise of the personnel around him. What would have become of all the hard work and resilience Zusevics had shown had he not caught the eye of Dante Scarnecchia long before his downfall at the Combine? Would the wily line coach have even known where to look if it not for the Belichick-Ferentz connection in the first place?

This is why no team in the NFL does more with undrafted rookies than the Patriots. The long reaching branches of the Belichick coaching tree overturn stones that get left in place by other organizations. When talent is identify, their personnel know what to do with it, and a plan is put into action. The scouting and implementation of Markus Zusevics is the perfect example. Identify him, sign him, teach him, and stash him.

They extract value from every corner of the roster. Even if that value is something as seemingly insignificant as needing to fill a depth role for short time by activating an undrafted kid from Iowa who they signed after sticking with him through a grueling injury, knowing they could stash him away and use him if the time came.

If you asked the common sports fan to describe the average career of an NFL player, it’s very likely they would describe one with the tenure far more illustrious than one of Markus Zusevics. But they would wrong. The fact is that a vast majority of the men who step foot onto the practice field an NFL training camp never get as far as he did.

His story isn’t one of failure, it’s one of success. He spent the better part of three years entrenched in the game he loves, he made a little money along the way, and he built friendships he still has today.

“I still keep up with a lot of guys I played with at Iowa like Riley Reiff, James Ferentz, Tony Moeaki,” Zusevics said, “and I’ll still hit up Nate Ebner and see what he’s up to.”

It’s what he says he misses the most. The relationships — the locker room.

Although his playing days are far behind him, the football mind he developed under the tutelage of great teachers still remains. He’s incapable of watching games like a normal fan. When he watches, he dials in on the right tackle. He watches the various personnel groupings. He scans the field for mismatches.

He can’t help it — it’s what he was taught.

On Friday, the Patriots officially announced the signing of nineteen undrafted free agents. Each one will trudge that rougher path. Each one passed over for one reason or another.

Among them was a young man named Cole Croston. It’s name you might want to remember. He’s a tackle from Iowa.

Go ahead and follow Brian Phillips on Twitter - @BPhillips_NFL