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Finding their next Malcolm Butler will be a lot harder for the Patriots this year

Related: Cam Newton, Jarrett Stidham leading the charge as Patriots kick off voluntary offseason workouts

New England Patriots Practice Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Despite next week’s draft taking place in a somewhat normal setting again, the Covid-19 pandemic is still having a major impact on the NFL this offseason. The latest order of business to be affected is the rookie minicamps set to take place all over the league next month.

According to a report by NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, teams will be allowed to invite only a limited number of tryout players to compete alongside draft selections and rookie free agent signings: a maximum of five players can be brought in on a tryout basis. While that is five more than last year — rookie minicamps were canceled in 2020 — this is still a challenging situation for teams and players alike.

Clubs usually like to bring numerous unsigned rookies while trying to find the occasional diamond in the rough — players that, for one reason or another, did not generate any momentum during the pre-draft and free agency process. While the majority of them will not be able to find a home in the league, the occasional contributor does emerge.

The most prominent example of a successful rookie tryout from the New England Patriots’ perspective is cornerback Malcolm Butler. After not hearing his name called in the draft and also remaining unsigned during the subsequent free agency signing period, Butler was invited to rookie minicamp and left with a contract in hand.

The rest is history, with Butler going on to earn himself a spot on the Patriots’ 53-man roster that summer and eventually making the game-sealing interception in Super Bowl 49.

“That’s an important part of the process — getting guys in that had a grade, getting that opportunity to come in there and compete and get an evaluation,” veteran agent Sean Stellato told the Boston Globe last year after the Coronavirus forced the NFL to cancel rookie minicamps. “If you go in there and open eyes, maybe you don’t sign that weekend, but any injuries, any hiccups off the field, you’re the first one they’re calling.”

While this year’s restrictions will be a bit looser than 2020’s, finding the next under-the-radar player through minicamp tryouts will be a lot harder than it is in a normal year.

Teams, after all, will have have limited opportunities to evaluate that second wave of undrafted rookies. And as Patriots head coach/general manager Bill Belichick pointed out earlier during the offseason, an absence of information is a challenge during the scouting process — either before the draft or after it as well.

“Less information is less information. That’s really all there is to it,” he said. “We’ll just have to see how all that goes in terms of the spring scouting and information gathering process.”

Teams are allowed to conduct their three-day rookie minicamps during either the first of second week after the draft. This camp will be followed by a rookie developmental program starting with Phase 2 of the voluntary offseason workout program on May 17.