When undrafted rookie cornerback Randall Gay survived the New England Patriots’ roster cutdown day in 2004, he kicked off an impressive streak that still is active to this day. Over each of the last 16 seasons, at least one rookie free agent was able to make the Patriots’ opening day team — a list of players that contains 36 names and ranges from the obscure like David Herron, Steve Maneri and Jeff Tarpinian, to the well-established such as Malcolm Butler, David Andrews and Jonathan Jones.
A streak like that is always in danger of coming to an end, considering that players go unselected in the draft for a reason and there is no telling how any of them will adapt to life in the NFL. This year, however, it faces a special challenge due to the Coronavirus pandemic and the impact it continues to have on life in pro football. Not being able to participate in on-field offseason workouts has already put New England’s 15-member undrafted rookie class at a disadvantage, now a new challenge could arise.
As first reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Monday, the NFL offered the NFL Players Association to cancel the preseason altogether this year after a previous proposal called for reducing it from the standard four to just one contest. The NFLPA has always supported eliminating the exhibition schedule in favor of a longer adaptation period — its board unanimously voted earlier this month to recommend canceling preseason — and it now looks as if it will get its wish.
This, of course, is bad news for undrafted rookies trying to make a team’s opening day roster; the New England Patriots’ are no exception:
QB J’Mar Smith, QB Brian Lewerke, RB J.J. Taylor, WR Will Hastings, WR Jeff Thomas, WR Isaiah Zuber, WR Sean Riley, TE Jake Burt, TE/DE Rashod Berry, DT Bill Murray, DT Courtney Wallace Jr, DE Nick Coe, LB Kyahva Tezino, LB De’Jon Harris, CB Myles Bryant
The 15-member group was already in a tough spot to begin with due to its collective status, but canceling preseason on top of the abbreviated offseason could make it near-impossible for them to earn spots on the team. Just take last year’s undrafted rookie class as an example.
Jakobi Meyers already looked good during offseason workouts last year, and was able to build on them over the course of training camp and preseason to carve out a depth wide receiver role. Gunner Olszewski, on the other hand, earned his spot on the 2019 team by finishing the exhibition schedule as the Patriots’ leader in all-purpose yards. International offseason addition Jakob Johnson, meanwhile, was able to climb his way up the depth chart to earn a practice squad spot in preseason.
This year’s free agents will likely not get that chance, and in turn will have to make the most out of every practice rep they will get during a training camp that will in itself look markedly different. That could still happen — J.C. Jackson, for example, laid the foundation for making the team in practice back in 2018 — but the circumstances as a whole will make for a challenging mix that could leave some unheralded talent behind.
“No NFL preseason games is the right decision for 2020, all things considered,” former Patriots linebacker Matt Chatham, who made the team as an undrafted rookie back in 2000, stated on Twitter following Schefter’s initial report. “We’re in super weird times. Terrible year to be an UDFA. Birth certificate bingo, just pulled a bad year. You still have to grind, the entry just may be a little bit steeper or delayed than other years. Is what it is...”
How the league as a whole will adapt to the likely cancelation of preseason remains to be seen — practice squad sizes could be increased, or special reserve lists created — but as Chatham pointed out: it is a terrible year to be entering the NFL via the undrafted route.