Each day leading up to the start of camp, the Herald will explore one of the biggest questions facing the Patriots this summer. Several pertain to the offense, which held the team back in 2019 and will feature a new quarterback this season. Others cover the defense and special teams, units whose success should hinge on the play of a few players and/or positions.
Once the Patriots hit the field, here’s what they must learn before the 2020 season kicks off.
Which undrafted free agent rookies will make the team?
When it comes to the Patriots, the question is never “will” any undrafted rookies make the team. It’s more like, “which one” or “how many?”
The streak tells the story. For 16 consecutive seasons dating to 2004, at least one undrafted free agent has cracked Bill Belichick’s 53-man roster.
Last year, not one, but three undrafted rookies kept the streak alive. Wide receivers Gunner Olszewski and Jakobi Meyers, along with fullback Jakob Johnson, made the cut. The previous year, it was cornerback J.C. Jackson.
Perhaps even more eye-opening are the contributions made from some of the players on the list, as other notables include Super Bowl hero Malcolm Butler, center David Andrews, cornerback Jonathan Jones, and defensive lineman Adam Butler.
So who bumps the streak to 17 in 2020?
First, it’s important to put the chances of that happening in perspective. Given the restrictions from the pandemic, the odds are even more stacked against any team, the Patriots included, from keeping an undrafted rookie.
Toss in the likelihood of no preseason games to make an impression, and the limitations created by the coronavirus seriously puts the streak in jeopardy.
It’s going to be hard enough for any of the drafted rookies or first-year players to learn and grasp what’s expected. It’s even more of an uphill climb for the UDFAs. They are easily the group that’s most impacted by a shortened or eliminated preseason.
That being said, let’s look at the glass as being half-full. Someone from the list of possibilities may buck the odds. In all, the team signed 15 players who didn’t get taken in the 2020 NFL draft. But let’s narrow it down to a couple with the best chance.
Let’s start with De’Jon “Scoota” Harris. He’s probably at the top of many lists as being the next one.
Follow the money.
Seeing who the Patriots paid the most provides the best clue. That, and filling the greatest need.
Harris fits the profile. The linebacker heads the list when it comes to guaranteed money received. That means he was a top priority signing.
In terms of need, with the team losing a trio of linebackers (Kyle Van Noy, Jamie Collins and Elandon Roberts) in free agency, there are roster spots up for grabs. While Harris’ draft stock may have been hurt by his lack of size (5-11, 234 pounds), he packs a wallop.
In college, Harris led Arkansas in tackles for three straight seasons, including in 2018 when he topped all SEC defenders. It’s certainly possible for him to slide in and fill Roberts’ role as a thumper in the middle of the field if he shows well in camp.
A second choice?
Miami wideout Jeff Thomas.
He’s a bit of a wildcard. His resume has a significant red flag — he was sent packing from the team in 2018 after multiple suspensions for violating team rules.
Thomas was eventually brought back by new head coach Manny Diaz.
Getting past the rubble, there’s plenty to like from a football perspective. The Hurricanes wide receiver is supremely talented. When he played, he had no issue separating from defenders, leading the team in receiving in 2018.
Belichick hasn’t shied away from UDFAs with baggage. Butler, for example, got kicked off his community college team before landing at West Alabama.
And, there’s certainly a need for a receiver who can get open, especially against man coverage. Add his ability to return kicks, and Thomas may be a surprise final roster addition.
One other player to mention is Auburn defensive end Nick Coe. All the draft guides thought he had NFL potential, given his physical talent. He didn’t wow anyone his final season, but with some prodding, could further develop the talent he teased at Auburn.
Whether it’s Harris, Thomas, Coe or one of the others, there’s still a chance for that diamond in the rough, whether they make the final roster, or ultimately find a home on an expanded practice squad.
And while it will be more difficult this year, it’s never a good idea to count a UDFA out, especially in New England.