Few if any teams in the NFL have struck undrafted rookie gold as often as the New England Patriots through the years. Whether it was the likes of cornerbacks Jonathan Jones, J.C. Jackson and Malcolm Butler, center David Andrews, or running back Brandon Bolden, the team has been able to turn several draft-day afterthoughts into valuable contributors.
Whether or not any members of the 2022 UDFA class will eventually reach the same status remains to be seen, but the early returns have been promising — especially in one case: Brenden Schooler, who already looks like a special teams superstar in the making.
Coming off an eventful six-year college career that saw him play in all three phases of the game and spend time with three different schools, Schooler did not hear his name called in the 2022 NFL Draft. He did find a home with the Patriots shortly thereafter, though, and has not looked back since.
The 25-year-old already established himself as a prominent presence in the kicking game in during spring practices, regularly spending time with New England’s veteran special teams leaders in practice. He turned those opportunities into successful on-field performances in training camp and preseason, and eventually was able to find his way onto the active roster in late August.
He has seen action in all nine of the Patriots’ games and was on the field for 167 special teams snaps since then — third most on the team behind only Matthew Slater and Jahlani Tavai. For head coach Bill Belichick this is all a result of Schooler’s instincts and intelligence.
“Schools is an instinctive kid, he picks things up quickly,” Belichick told reporters earlier this week. “He’s played multiple positions for us, in the kicking game, in both the coverage and the return units, so that’s been valuable for us. And it’s been good experiences for him.
“I think when you play multiple spots like that, you not only learn how to play the spot you’re in, but then you understand what’s some other guys are doing, what their issues are, how they can help you, or not help you, and so forth, based on having played that position himself. He’s a pretty versatile player and a smart kid.”
Schooler’s exposure is not the only thing that stands out about his rookie campaign so far. He has also been a big-play machine for the Patriots in the game’s third phase. Not only is he first on the team with eight combined tackles, he also has recovered a pair of fumbles — one in Week 2 and another in Week 6 — and picked up Jonathan Jones’ blocked punt against the Indianapolis Colts last week and returned it to the 2-yard line.
Those numbers do not just hold up next to his teammates, but also in a league-wide comparison. His eight tackles are tied for fifth in the NFL, with his seven solo takedowns good enough for second. His two takeaways, meanwhile, are the most among all special teams players in the league.
Belichick credited not just Schooler himself for making an immediate impact in the kicking game, but also assistant coaches Cam Achord and Joe Houston as well as team captain Matthew Slater.
“Cam and Joe spend a lot of time with all the rookies there, with Schools, and of course now with [Raleigh] Webb in there and DaMarcus Mitchell,” he said. “Those guys have really taken a lot of extra time and of course Slate’s done a great job with them as well. Those guys spend a lot of time together. They’re kind of our core group and they’re on just about every unit, except for field goal protection.”
Schooler started the season on the punt and kickoff return teams as well as the two coverage units. After veteran special teamer Cody Davis was lost for the season with a knee injury, the rookie also picked up a role on the field goal and extra point blocking teams.
As Belichick mentioned, he is now part of the core kicking game group alongside the aforementioned Slater and Tavai as well as fellow undrafted rookies Raleigh Webb and DaMarcus Mitchell. All of them have made notable contributions this season, but the highlight-reel plays have belonged to Schooler.
“We really needed a guy that would be able to step up and be an impact player,” Slater said about his young teammate. “He has been doing that, and he’s not playing like a rookie, let me tell you that. He’s playing like he’s been doing this for a long time, and we’re really fortunate to have him. He’s giving us a boost right now.”
His ability to perform like a veteran has also drawn the attention of other teams now, Belichick pointed out.
“Schools has continued to make some instinctive plays,” he said. He’s been doubled, but they also doubled Slater a lot as well and so that’s given other guys opportunities. Playing with Slater is always a good thing for everybody else, because you know he’s going to attract a lot of attention. Schools is starting to draw some double teams too, so I guess that’s a compliment in a way to recognizing his production.”
So far, said production has been nothing short of impressive. And with Slater closer to the end of his career than the beginning, the Patriots might just have found a player worthy of one day filling his legendary shoes.
Quite a turnaround for a player who did not hear his name called in the draft just six months ago.