With the third phase of voluntary offseason workouts underway, the New England Patriots are already fully “on to 2021.”
The team currently has 90 players under contract, but only 53 of them will be able to survive roster cutdowns in early September and ultimately make the active team. Over the course of spring and summer, just like we have in years past, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots bounce back from what was a disappointing 7-9 season last year.
Today, the series kicks continues with wide receiver Isaiah Zuber.
Name: Isaiah Zuber
Position: Wide receiver
Jersey number: 19
Opening day age: 24
Size: 5-foot-11, 185 pounds
Contract status: Under contract through 2021 (2022 ERFA)
What is his experience? Zuber arrived in the NFL when the Patriots signed him as an undrafted free agent last year. Despite the Coronavirus pandemic forcing offseason workouts and preseason to be canceled, the youngster still received a few opportunities as a rookie: he appeared in four total games and touched the football four times. But while his experience at the pro level is therefore limited, the same cannot be said about a collegiate career that saw him play at Kansas State and Mississippi State.
Zuber appeared in 38 total 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, 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 — a decision that did not pay off: he registered just 14 catches for 211 yards and 2 scores in his lone season as a Bulldog.
What did his 2020 season look like? Coming off his statistically worst season since 2016, Zuber did not generate much momentum entering the pre-draft cycle. He was not invited to the Scouting Combine and ultimately did not hear his name called during the NFL Draft. Instead, Zuber had to enter the league via free agency. That being said, it did not take him long to find a home: he was among the first undrafted rookies to be brought in by the Patriots after the conclusion of the seventh round.
With offseason workouts canceled due to the Coronavirus pandemic, however, Zuber joined a difficult situation and ended up among the players released during the first wave of roster cuts ahead of training camp. He was later re-signed but without preseason football to prove himself in an in-game setting was again released on cutdown day ahead of the regular season opener. Nonetheless, his time on the open market was again short: Zuber was signed to the practice squad the following day after clearing waivers.
The youngster did spend the entire 2020 season on New England’s developmental roster, but he also was elevated to the game day squad in Weeks 4, 6, 7 and 8. Zuber therefore finished his rookie year with four in-game appearances as well as 26 total snaps — all of which on the offensive side of the ball (of 1,011; 2.6%). When on the field, he touched the football four combined times: Zuber registered a pair of receptions that he took for 29 yards as well as two hand-offs for 21 additional yards.
Zuber automatically reverted back to the practice squad after each elevation, but due to the NFL’s rules was ineligible to be brought up again later during the season unless as a Covid-19 replacement. As a result, he spent the final nine weeks of the season on New England’s practice squad. When their season eventually came to an end after Week 17, the Patriots decided to re-sign the impending free agent to a reserve/futures contract.
What is his projected role? No matter if New England, Kansas State or Mississippi State, Zuber was used in a similar fashion within all of the respective offenses he spent time with over the last few years: he lined up both in the slot or as a Z-receiver when split out wide. Entering his second season in the Patriots’ system, the expectation is that he will be employed the same basic way and offer value both inside and outside the formation.
What is his special teams value? Even though the Patriots did not use him on special teams during his four in-game appearances last season, Zuber does have some potential as a return man. In college, he ran back 33 kickoffs for an average of 15.5 yards per attempt and also was on the receiving end of 11 punts that were returned for an impressive average of 16.4 yards as well as one touchdown. Zuber may not have a shot at the punt return role with All-Pro Gunner Olszewski ahead of him, but he could be used as a kickoff returner in Year 2.
Does he have positional versatility? The 24-year old generally brings a versatile skillset to the table, even though it was not on full display during his rookie year. That said, he was used not just as a pass catcher but also saw a pair of hand-offs — something that also happened in college and could thus be a sign of things to come for him heading into his second season as a Patriot. He may not have the same versatility as other players on the roster, but his skillset still allows him to play more than one role.
What is his salary cap situation? After the end of the Patriots’ 2020 season, Zuber was part of a 10-player group to sign reserve/futures deals with the club. This one-year contract will allow him to compete for a roster spot yet again this summer, even though it pays him a minimum-level salary: Zuber will get $780,000, which means that he is currently not counting against New England’s salary cap under the NFL’s Top-51 rule.
What is his roster outlook? Just like last year, Zuber is facing an uphill battle to make the Patriots’ roster. While he appears to be the favorite among the former practice squad wide receivers currently under contract — a group that also includes Kristian Wilkerson and Devin Smith — New England already has five players qualifying as either roster locks or relatively safe bets to make the team (Nelson Agholor, Kendrick Bourne, Jakobi Meyers, Gunner Olszewski, Matthew Slater). For him to earn what may very well be the lone remaining spot, Zuber would have to make a sizable second-year jump and prove his value against other wideouts such as former first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry. Despite Harry’s disappointing two seasons so far, that is a tall task.