It’s going to be hard enough for late-round draft picks and veteran players without a significant role to fight their way onto the 53-man roster. So is it even possible for an undrafted rookie free agent to make the cut?
Well, if the last 14 seasons are any indication, yes.
The Patriots have carried at least one undrafted rookie free agent on their Week 1 roster for 14 consecutive seasons. That’s tied for the third-longest active streak in the NFL behind only the Chargers (21 seasons) and Colts (19 seasons).
In the past, the Pats have opted to keep numerous undrafted rookies that have excelled in training camp. For instance, in 2013 the Patriots hung onto six players from their undrafted rookie class, including current punter Ryan Allen, offensive lineman Josh Kline, and wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins.
The six that made the 2013 roster were the most in one offseason during the Belichick era. But just last season tight end Jacob Hollister, offensive lineman Cole Croston, linebacker Harvey Langi and defensive tackle Adam Butler, who are all still with the team, made the cut.
Several of the undrafted overachievers made a quick impact with the Patriots. Randall Gay, who began the streak of undrafteds making the roster in 2004, started nine games that season and had two picks for a team that would win Super Bowl XXXIX. David Andrews started 11 games in 2015 as an unheralded rookie center handling snaps for Tom Brady and had a breakout season in 2017. While Ryan Allen has handled the punting duties for every game ever since he joined the team in 2013.
But the most obvious example of the Patriots finding a star among the ranks of the undrafteds is with now Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler.
Butler was one of two undrafteds, along with linebacker Deontae Skinner, to make the 2014 roster out of camp. He played just 184 snaps (17 percent of the total) on defense during the regular season, which was dead last among Pats cornerbacks. Butler didn’t see the field on defense in the divisional round against the Ravens and only logged 15 snaps in the AFC Championship Game against the Colts.
Then Butler changed the course of NFL history.
He played 18 snaps in Super Bowl XLIX – more than he saw in the entire playoffs to that point – and was in place to make the game-saving interception at the goal line when his pick of Russell Wilson sealed the title for the Patriots.
Butler is living proof that Bill Belichick isn’t too impressed by football pedigree. He will give an opportunity – even on the biggest stage – to players who prove on the practice field they can help the Patriots win, regardless of how they arrived in Foxboro.
However, the UDFA streak doesn’t guarantee anything for this year’s group of undrafted rookies who will have to earn their way onto an incredibly talented roster.
The Patriots have some intriguing undrafted options that could keep the streak alive, but here are the top three candidates with a quick scouting report on each (disclaimer: excludes punters):
1. Cornerback J.C. Jackson, University of Maryland
Watching #Patriots UDFA signing CB JC Jackson today. His work in zone coverage impressed me the most. Great at diagnosing route concepts, finding receivers and breaking on the ball. This was a terrific play to come off his assignment to break up this pass. pic.twitter.com/D6c9xsoM8B— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) May 1, 2018
An Under Armour All-American in High School, Jackson started his collegiate career at Florida before finding his way to College Park. Jackson earned an honorable mention from Big Ten coaches after a solid 2017 campaign that saw him start every game for the Terps posting 40 stops, three interceptions, and seven pass breakups.
Jackson fits the bill of a Patriots cornerback. He’s physical with a terrific punch at the line of scrimmage and the ability to move laterally to land his jabs to derail receivers, showing an impressive ability to play in press coverage. Jackson also showed great instincts, awareness and closing speed in zone coverage. Furthermore, he’s a sure tackler that seeks out tackle opportunities both against the run and the pass.
The concerns with Jackson stem from question marks about his ability to carry long speed and some footwork/fluidity issues at the top of his drop. Patriots coaches will try to perfect his technique to get rid of some of his slow hip movement and Jackson will need to improve at remaining in-phase when missing his jam. However, the University of Maryland product has already impressed at minicamp in June, and his physical nature and versatility to play inside or outside make him a great candidate to make the Week 1 roster.
2. Running back Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt University
Ralph Webb thread time. Another #Patriots UDFA signing this time at running back. Webb won't wow you with athleticism but his patience and vision are both a plus. Waits for his blocking to take shape here before hitting the running lane. pic.twitter.com/jmuoBGzb7R— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) May 3, 2018
Webb is one of the more decorated UDFAs to land in New England over the last few seasons. The running back holds the Vandy career rushing record with 4,178 yards and holds the single-season school record as well with 1,283 yards in 2016, garnering second-team All-SEC honors. Most importantly, Webb completed a streak of 49-straight starts for the Commodores in his final season, making him one of the most durable running backs in the nation.
If there’s one word to describe Webb’s game, it’s reliable. He won’t “wow” you with jaw-dropping moves in the open field or blazing speed, but he has terrific vision and feel between the tackles, protects the football, and flashed some receiving ability when given a chance. Webb may not create his own yards on a regular basis, but he’ll get what’s blocked and seldom loses yardage.
In many ways, his skill set is reminiscent of former Patriots running back and fellow undrafted free agent BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who played four seasons with the Pats including racking up 1,675 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns in a two-year span. If Webb can replicate the durability and reliability of Green-Ellis, he has a chance to stick with the Pats despite a loaded backfield in New England.
3. Defensive End Trent Harris, University of Miami
#Patriots UDFA signing DE Trent Harris is undersized for the position but due to that he's very explosive and agile. Look at the jump he gets here. Goes right around the tackle. pic.twitter.com/FFE58PlCoP— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) May 2, 2018
One of the leaders of the Hurricanes defense, Harris led the team with 8.5 sacks in his senior season and was a third-team All-ACC selection in 2017. Despite a lack of size and elite athleticism, Harris was an extremely productive player in college that had the versatility to play either strong-side linebacker in a 3-4 or as a pass rusher in a 4-3 defense, earning the nickname “toolbox Trent” due to his versatility and a wide variety of ways to beat you.
Harris made up for underwhelming physical traits with a savvy approach that starts with an excellent understanding of leverage and hand usage as a pass rusher. The question for Harris will be if his explosiveness off the snap and quickness in short areas will translate at the next level. At Miami, he showed surprising burst and quick-twitch ability on tape for a guy that isn’t known for being a great athlete.
With the Patriots, you can expect Harris to compete as a situational pass rusher and special teamer with some long-term potential in the Rob Ninkovich role as a strong-side defensive end. There’s a lot of competition at that spot this summer, including last year’s UDFA darling Harvey Langi, but Harris’ versatility to play all over the defensive front could win over the Patriots’ coaching staff.