There’s a carrot at the end of the stick for a fair share of Quad-A players.
Those branded with that label have gotten a taste of Major League Baseball before, but often spend their summers on the minor-league cusp, in purgatory, waiting for another as September call-ups see rosters expand from 25 to 40.
No such carrot exists in the National Football League.
An NFL clubhouse doesn’t grow overcrowded in September. Instead, the makeshift lockers are taken down, and so are the nameplates of 37-plus players.
But some helmets are left hanging in their stalls. Some folding chairs are left unfolded. Some cleats are left scattered. Woodrow Hamilton’s were last year.
After starting 25 contests over the course of his five seasons at Ole Miss, the 6-foot-3, 315-pound defensive tackle signed with the New England Patriots as an undrafted free agent in May. From there, he proceeded to enter into all four preseason games to log six stops before landing on waivers as the Patriots’ roster shaved down from 90.
Veteran defensive linemen Terrance Knighton, Frank Kearse, Joe Vellano and Markus Kuhn were gone by then. Hamilton, though, wasn’t gone for long. The Runnin’ Rebels product passed through unclaimed and stuck around on the practice squad for the first month of the regular season.
That was until early October, when Hamilton’s name resurfaced on the league wire. This time, the 23-year-old resided on the right side of the transaction.
Hamilton found himself the corresponding move as the Patriots parted ways with traded-for guard Jonathan Cooper. And 24 hours later, he found himself active for the first regular-season game of his NFL career – a 33-13 win over the Cleveland Browns.
With rookie third-round defensive tackle Vincent Valentine not making the trip to FirstEnergy Stadium due to a back injury, it was a game the newest face on the 53 even drew the start for.
Hamilton responded by recording two tackles.
Going between the nose and three-technique, he played a total of 22 snaps in a rotation consisting of elder statesman Alan Branch and 2015 first-round pick Malcom Brown. The Raleigh, Miss., native did not look out of place in their company.
He looked like a run defender.
No. 74 was able to stack and shed to some success. He was able to get skinny through the A- and B-gaps. He was able to redirect, and elongate, Browns ball-carrier Isaiah Crowell’s lanes.
It left an impression.
“He's working hard,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said of Hamilton in his postgame press conference, adding, “I'd say he’s – I mean, he's a big, strong, physical player.”
One who’d earn a second audition.
Hamilton played 20 snaps in New England’s 35-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals a week later, circulating an interior that featured the incumbent Branch and Brown, as well as elevated interior pass-rusher Anthony Johnson. In the process, he notched his third career tackle on an assist.
Yet Hamilton’s stop on Bengals running back Giovani Bernard marked his last of 2016. He left late in the third quarter with a shoulder injury and would be downgraded soon after.
Valentine missed one more game with his back ailment. Hamilton, on the other hand, never played in another. Both were ruled out ahead of New England’s Oct. 23 matchup with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the latter checked in as inactive for the following seven contests before being waived again to make room for quarterback Jacoby Brissett’s return from injured reserve.
Perhaps the need for interior depth was minimal at that juncture. Perhaps Hamilton’s impact versus the pass was, too. Even so, the rookie free agent managed to keep his locker – and football journey – intact in Foxborough.
“It was always a dream,” Hamilton said of playing in the NFL during an appearance on Totally Patriots in December. “But I never thought I’d be here.”
The Patriots ultimately retained Hamilton on the 10-man scout team for the duration of the campaign, and extended a reserve-futures contract to him as the confetti from Super Bowl LI settled. Yet Hamilton’s place remains far from settled now. 7. As he returns to a depth chart that still carries Branch, Brown and Valentine – not to mention versatile March addition Lawrence Guy – a familiar question faces him.
Is there room for him to stay, or play?
The second-year pro sits alongside fellow practice-squadder Darius Kilgo and this year’s undrafted rookie D-tackles Adam Butler and Josh Augusta on the fringe behind them. All four could be fighting for a spot that doesn’t exist.
Should the Patriots elect to keep a handful, however, Hamilton is the top candidate to be the last man in. He’s played regular-season downs for New England. He’s gotten a glimpse. The organization thought enough to reward him with just that in 2016.
Only there are no September roster expansions in football. There are no Triple-A affiliates. There’s a 53 and a practice squad.
And there are under two months for the Patriots to determine which one Hamilton belongs on.