Throughout the whole of NFL history, there is probably not a team as capable of finding undrafted rookie cornerbacks and turning them into major contributors as the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick. From Randall Gay in 2004, to Malcolm Butler in 2014, to Justin Coleman in 2015, to Jonathan Jones in 2016, to J.C. Jackson in 2018, the organization has found diamonds in the rough time and again on the undrafted cornerback market.
Whether or not Myles Bryant will joint that illustrious list one day remains to be seen, but the early return on the investment is an encouraging one — despite him seeing very limited playing time over the first 12 weeks of his rookie regular season.
“We’ve been pretty fortunate this year in the secondary from a health standpoint and we have good depth back there,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick when speaking about Bryant during a media conference call earlier this week. “But, he had a good training camp and we had him on the roster. We just haven’t had a lot of opportunity to play him. The guys in front of him have played well in their opportunities.”
Those guys in front of him are an impressive assortment of talent. Led by the NFL’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore, the crew also features the aforementioned J.C. Jackson — currently second in the NFL with six interceptions — and Jonathan Jones as well as veteran Jason McCourty and former second-round draft pick Joejuan Williams. The Patriots’ cornerback group is as deep as any in the NFL.
And yet, Bryant has found a spot on the depth chart recently: after starting out as a healthy scratch, he made his professional debut in Week 8 against the Buffalo Bills and has played in four of New England’s five games since. His development behind the scenes appears to be the main factor in this progression when judged by Belichick’s statements.
“He’s learned a lot, he’s very attentive and asks a lot of good questions with Devin [McCourty] and Jason [McCourty] and Jon Jones and guys like that,” he said. “He’s always trying to absorb little coaching points and tips and that type of thing, and he has a good aptitude to apply them in the right situation and communicate it well on the field in practice, and as you said, in his opportunities in the game.
“They’ve been limited, but they’ve carried over positively from the same thing he did in practice. I think he has some versatility. We’ll see how it goes with him, but so far, he’s done a lot of good things. He hasn’t really been out there in the spotlight under intensive fire, but it’s been more situational roles and things like that. But, he’s done a good job with those.”
All in all, Bryant has been on the field 33 snaps on defense and 15 more in the kicking game since his debut. He is a role player that offers emergency depth, but simultaneously also a developmental prospect whose value is high enough from the team’s perspective to keep him on its 53-man roster ever since his promotion in mid-September.
“It’s a big compliment from Coach Belichick and Nick Caserio thinking that I deserve one of those spots,” the youngster said about the opportunity. “I just go out there every day, try to get better, try to learn from the vets — guys like Jason McCourty, Devin McCourty, Stephon Gilmore; just learn from those guys the best that I can since I think that those guys are the best at their position at what they do. Every day, just go out there and get better. No matter what happened yesterday, or what’s going to happen tomorrow, I just try to go out there and improve.”
His improvement is obvious when judged by the fact that he has accomplished two things so far: Bryant has seen action in a game even with Stephon Gilmore being active — the veteran was out with a knee injury, leading to Bryan’t first three in-game opportunities — and he has seemingly supplanted the aforementioned Joejuan Williams on the depth chart by playing four more snaps than him since Week 8.
While this is not necessarily a sign of things to come, it is a positive development nonetheless. It also is significant considering Bryant’s journey to Patriots’ 53-man squad.
Starting his career as a walk-on at the University of Washington and playing only a rotational role during his true freshman season, he developed into a starting defensive back for the Huskies in Year Two. Over his final three seasons in college, he therefore saw plenty of action, appearing in 39 games and registering four interceptions —one of them returned for a touchdown— as well as three forced fumbles and 3.5 sacks.
Despite his productivity and the fact that he offered experience at both cornerback and safety, Bryant did not hear his name called during the draft this spring. Instead, he had to go the free agency route before arriving in New England. Once there, he had to compete for a roster spot without a normal offseason or preseason football.
Still, Bryant looked good in training camp and even though he was eventually released on cutdown day made his way back onto the active roster via the practice squad.
“My mindset was really just come in and get better each day,” the rookie said about his experience thus far in the NFL. “I think a lot of guys might come in and they look at the depth chart and they look at certain things and are like, ‘Oh, this is going to be a tough situation.’ But my mindset was just, ‘Come in and get better each day,’ and then at the end of the camp you might look up and be where you want to be.
“Or you might not, but you did what you can. Those guys were kind of telling me the same thing, just come in here and be ready each day to compete — on and off the field, whether it be the classroom, the weight room, and on the field. They were just telling me, ‘Make the most of each day and you’ll be where you want to.’”