With not even two weeks to go until their entire roster is scheduled to report to training camp, the New England Patriots currently have the league-allowed maximum of 90 players under contract. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns on September 5 and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer — just like we did the last three years as well — we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots keep their dynasty alive in Year One after Tom Brady.
Today, the series continues with a member of New England’s undrafted rookie class.
Name: Isaiah Zuber
Position: Wide receiver
Jersey number: TBD
Opening day age: 23
Size: 5-foot-11, 185 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2022 (2023 RFA)
What is his experience? Zuber arrived in the NFL when the Patriots signed him as an undrafted rookie free agent in late April. While he may not have appeared in any on-field activities for the team just yet due to the Coronavirus pandemic, he did participate in the team’s virtual offseason workouts as well as its rookie developmental program. Still, his experience at the pro level is virtually non-existent — something that cannot be said about a collegiate career that saw him play at Kansas State and Mississippi State.
After redshirting during his 2015 freshman season, Zuber went on to appear in 38 games for Kansas State and established himself as a productive member of the team’s offense: he caught 127 passes for 1,321 yards and 11 touchdowns — finishing the 2017 and 2018 season as the team’s leading pass catcher — and also saw regular action as a kickoff and punt returner. With one year of eligibility left after his 2018 campaign, Zuber decided to continue his career at Mississippi State as a graduate transfer.
What did his 2019 season look like? Coming off the best season of his college career — he caught 52 passes for 619 yards and five touchdowns during his final year with the Wildcats — Zuber had to undergo a surgery on his hip which forced him to sit out spring practices. The biggest development of the offseason, however, was that he opted to enter the transfer portal rather than continue his career at Kansas State after earning his undergraduate degree in sociology/criminology.
His somewhat surprising decision was followed by him joining Mississippi State as a graduate transfer, meaning that he was eligible to play for his new team right away. Zuber did just that and appeared in all 13 of the Bulldogs’ games over the course of the 2019 season, but failed to duplicate the success he had before his transfer. When all was said and done, he had just 14 receptions for 211 yards and two touchdowns on his résumé — his worst statistical output since his redshirt freshman year in 2016.
Zuber, who failed to catch a pass in six separate games, also did not stand out in any other categories: he gained just four yards on three rushing attempts, averaged only 15.8 yards on his 12 kickoff returns, and gained a mere two yards on his lone punt-runback. All in all, his decision to leave Kansas State and finish his college career elsewhere therefore proved to be a questionable one — and one that may have cost him a chance at getting drafted.
What is his projected role? While his production levels were not the same, Kansas State and Mississippi State both used Zuber in a similar fashion within their respective offenses: he lined up primarily in the slot or as a Z-receiver when split out wide. Furthermore, he also saw regular action as both a kickoff and a punt return option. Entering the Patriots’ system, the expectation is that he will be employed the same basic way.
What is his special teams value? While Zuber could see time on coverage teams as well, his main kicking game value lies in the return game: he ran back 33 kickoffs in college for an average of 15.5 yards per attempt, and also was on the receiving end of 11 punts that were returned for an average of 16.4 yards as well as one touchdown. Zuber may not be the most electrifying returner, but he has experience and can het the job done.
Does he have positional versatility? The 23-year old brings a versatile skillset to the table outside of his abilities to perform in the kicking game. He also saw the occasional hand-off in college and could thus be an option on misdirection runs at the next level — from end-arounds to jet-sweeps to reverses. He may not have the same versatility as Julian Edelman, for example, but his skillset is still an intriguing one in that regard.
What is his salary cap situation? After not hearing his name called during this year’s draft, Zuber signed a standard three-year free agency deal with the Patriots — one that included a $10,000 signing bonus and $90,000 in additional guarantees. Only his signing bonus proration of $3,333 is counted against New England’s books for the time being, but that number would jump to $613,333 in case he made the team’s 53-man roster this year.
What is his roster outlook? Even though only two members of the Patriots’ current wide receiver group — Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry — can currently be seen as locks to make the team this year, Zuber is facing considerable competition for a spot alongside them: at least seven players are battling for a role as a slot/Z option. As noted above, his best bet at making the roster might therefore come in the return game. The undrafted rookie still appears to be facing long odds to make the team, and might have to target the practice squad as a more realistic destination.