In 2004, the New England Patriots started a streak is active to this day: every single season over the last fifteen years, at least one undrafted rookie survived roster cutdowns to make the club’s opening day team. From players such as Ryan Allen and Brandon Bolden to obscure foot-notes in franchise history like Steve Maneri and David Herron to superstar cornerback Malcolm Butler, New England has a proud history of undrafted players.
Will this streak be kept alive in 2019? With the Patriots having one of the deepest teams in the NFL, the natural reflex would be to say ‘no.’ The club’s track record and the list of rookies added via free agency this season vis-a-vis the current roster construction, however, may create a different outcome — and in turn make it sixteen straight years with at least one of them making the team. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet.
First, let’s take a look at this year’s contestants:
TE Andrew Beck, RB Nick Brossette, WR Ryan Davis, SS Malik Gant, OC Tyler Gauthier, LB Terez Hall, FB Jakob Johnson*, WR Jakobi Meyers, CB D’Angelo Ross, OT Tyree St. Louis, WR Gunner Olszewski
Including Jakob Johnson, who was assigned to the Patriots through the NFL’s International Pathway Program and does not count against the 90-man offseason roster limit, the reigning world champions have eleven undrafted rookies on their roster. Some of which at positions of strength, others with a comparatively unclear picture ahead of them on the depth chart — the latter is the group most likely to survive cutdown day.
This, in turn, means that the chances of some members of the undrafted rookie class do look worse than they do for others. Take the aforementioned Johnson, for example, who is behind arguably the NFL’s best fullback in James Develin. For him to make the team, Develin would have to suffer a significant injury (or Bill Belichick decide to bring back the T-formation just for the thrill of it). If everything goes according to plan, however, Johnson won’t make the 53-man squad.
Based on the current roster, the chances also do not look particularly good for running back Nick Brossette, linebacker Terez Hall, and defensive backs Malik Gant and D’Angelo Ross. That does not mean they won’t be able to make it, of course: the Patriots will keep a player around if they see value in him, no matter how deep a position is — just think of sixth-round rookie Tom Brady as the fourth quarterback in 2000.
When it comes to the question atop this article, however, we will have to eliminate these five men from the equation; they face an uphill climb steeper than others. This leaves six players:
TE Andrew Beck, WR Ryan Davis, OC Tyler Gauthier, WR Jakobi Meyers, OT Tyree St. Louis, WR Gunner Olszewski
All six men are playing positions currently unsettled: the Patriots have a new-look tight end depth chart following the departure of Rob Gronkowski, have no roster locks at wide receiver beyond Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman and first-round investment N’Keal Harry, and currently view their starting left guard — Joe Thuney — as the best option at left tackle until Isaiah Wynn and Yodny Cajuste return from injury.
Tyler Gauthier, an interior offensive lineman from Miami, might actually play on the deepest of the positions listed above. On paper, New England has ample depth at the guard spots and at center, but Thuney’s role on the team and the question marks at tackle make for an interesting dynamic moving forward. Under normal circumstances — i.e. Wynn returning to start at left tackle, Thuney moving back inside — Gauthier will get lost in the numbers game.
This leaves five players, and every one of them has a solid argument for making the team beyond the depth at his position:
TE Andrew Beck: Primarily as a blocking tight end. Has adequate size to improve as a target in the passing game but lacks functional athleticism and route-running savvy.
WR Ryan Davis: Led Auburn in receptions (69, for 546 yards) and touchdowns (5) in 2018. Lined up all over the formation, but projects primarily as a slot receiver at the next level due to his combination of quickness and size. Also has experience as a punt returner.
WR Jakobi Meyers: A bigger slot receiver that brings quickness and ball skills to the table. Was productive during his final season at N.C. State and caught a team-high 92 passes for 1,047 yards and 4 touchdowns.
WR Gunner Olszewski: Developmental college cornerback that was productive on special teams. Lacks size and experience at wide receiver, but has the athletic skills to make the move.
OT Tyree St. Louis: Brings plenty of experience — he started 34 straight games to end his college career — and versatility to the table, as well as an intriguing frame. Needs to improve his technique as a longer-term project.
All five players listed above are developmental options to a certain degree, with Olszewski in particular being a project at this point in time. A similar label can be attached to Beck and St. Louis as well, however, given their college careers. Meyers and Davis, meanwhile, are more polished but still need plenty of work to compete at the next level. Realistically, all five men are candidates for the practice squad and would benefit from time to work on their skills.
So, who does have the best chance of making the 53-man team in late August? That depends on what you are looking for: when it comes to competition or the comparative lack thereof, players like the five listed above might have the best chance. When it comes to collegiate production, maybe Malik Gant or Terez Hall could return to the equation. When looking at a potential special teams role, Andrew Beck might have a solid chance.
As things stand right now, Beck, Davis and company appear to have the best odds. Ultimately, however, it all comes down to performance over the next months — this will dictate whether or not 2019 will be the sixteenth straight year of an undrafted rookie finding himself on the Patriots’ opening day roster.