Patriots notebook: A 17-year streak of undrafted players making the roster might end


Bill Belichick

New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick always has a plan for the upcoming season, but for the first time in 17 years his opening-day roster probably will not include an undrafted free agent. Ashley Landis/Associated Press

The foundation of the Patriots dynasty starts with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, but the team has had contributions from hundreds of players over the last two decades.

And for the last 17 years, the Patriots have had an undrafted rookie make their opening day roster. That’s the third-longest streak in the NFL, behind the Los Angeles Chargers (24) and Indianapolis Colts (22).

The Patriots undrafted free-agent success includes players on this year’s roster with center David Andrews (2015), cornerback Jonathan Jones (2016), cornerback J.C. Jackson (2018), receiver Jakobi Meyers (2019), receiver/returner Gunner Olszewski (2019), fullback Jakob Johnson (2019) and running back J.J. Taylor (2020). The biggest success story is probably Malcolm Butler (2014), who capped off his rookie year by intercepting Russell Wilson on the goal line and preserving a win in Super Bowl XLIX.

That streak, however, could end in 2021.

The Patriots held their three-day rookie minicamp last weekend, but the orientation was limited in numbers. This year’s session included draft picks, headlined by quarterback Mac Jones. The only signed undrafted free agent in attendance was kicker Quinn Nordin.

The NFL allowed each team to bring in five tryout players, but The Providence Journal was told the Pats opted for only one, and his name wasn’t released.

Last year, the Patriots signed 15 undrafted free agents to go with 10 draft picks. In 2019, the Patriots brought in 10 undrafted rookies to go with a 10-player draft class. After speaking with multiple veteran NFL agents, there are a handful of reasons and speculation as to why the Patriots shied away from undrafted free agents in 2021.

“Overall, league-wide you’re seeing fewer and fewer,” said NFL agent Evan Brennan. “Teams likely feel that the draft class was smaller and the later and later into it, weaker. So, teams may not see many undrafted players as likely contributors or worth the investment. Perhaps the Patriots have taken this notion even further. You are seeing several players from last year that fell through the cracks get shots.”

A big reason may have to do with numbers. In 2020, the NFL had 1,932 players declare for the draft. This year that number dropped to 657. Due to COVID-19, the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility for all players who participated in the fall or winter. That led to more seniors staying for an extra year. Due to the pandemic, fewer underclassmen also declared for the draft after games were canceled. The FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) played an abbreviated schedule this spring that concluded after the 2021 NFL Draft.

“There were several teams that went into the draft not needing to sign many after,” said agent Mike McCartney. “One GM told me there were 200 less names on their backboard, so it makes sense that some teams decided early on to load up on younger players from previous drafts.”

Another factor for the Patriots is the roster. Last summer, the NFL gave teams two options for training camp – use a split squad with 90 players or a full practice with 80. That forced the Patriots to cut 10 players before camp. The roster is currently at 87 and will be at 86 when they process Patrick Chung’s retirement after June 2 for salary-cap reasons.

One veteran NFL agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that teams found “some serious advantages in reps and progress for those 80 instead of having extra guys hanging around that were not going to make (the roster).”

You also have to factor in the Patriots depth chart. After spending the most money in free-agency history, there’s less room on this Patriots roster for rookies to make the team in general. Another agent noted that might have diminished how much guaranteed money the Pats were willing to offer undrafted players. Others pointed out that there are still many veterans available on the open market due to the shrunken salary cap.

“There’s actually a stockpile of players between guys in 2020 who never got a tryout, never went to camp, and guys in 2021 who went undrafted,” said agent JR Rickert. “You have all those players who are available. It comes down to what each team’s philosophy is and how they address it after the draft. With the Patriots, they don’t worry about anything but who’s a fit for them.”

Whatever the reasons, it looks more likely that the Patriots undrafted streak will end after 17 years.

“They always have a plan and almost always the plan works. Never dispute the plan of someone who has that many rings on their fingers,” said agent Joe Linta. “There was not a great pool of players after the draft so I think they were more judicious in signing guys.”

Undrafted free agents who made the roster during the 17-year streak include:

2020: J.J. Taylor; 2019: WR Gunner Olszewski, WR Jakobi Meyers, FB Jakob Johnson; 2018: CB J.C. Jackson; 2017: DL Adam Butler, OT Cole Croston, TE Jacob Hollister, LB Harvey Langi; 2016: DB Jonathan Jones, RB D.J. Foster; 2015: C David Andrews, CB Justin Coleman, WR Chris Harper; 2014: CB Malcolm Butler; 2013: P Ryan Allen, OL Josh Kline, OL Chris Barker, WR Kenbrell Thompkins, TE Zach Sudfeld, DL Joe Vellano; 2012: RB Brandon Bolden, DE Justin Francis, DT Marcus Forston; 2011: LS Danny Aiken; 2010: DT Kyle Love, LB Dane Fletcher, TE Steve Maneri; 2009: QB Brian Hoyer, S Bret Lockett; 2008: LB Gary Guyton; 2007: QB Matt Gutierrez, LB David Herron; 2006: LB Pierre Woods; 2005: DE Mike Wright; 2004: CB Randall Gay

ACCORDING TO ESPN, the Patriots are adding even more offensive line depth for the offseason by re-signing veteran center James Ferentz and also bringing in veteran guard Alex Redmond.

Ferentz, 31, has been with the Patriots since 2017. After spending the bulk of his first two seasons on the practice squad, Ferentz was used as the Patriots backup center in 2019 and 2020. He made four starts with the Patriots over the last two seasons and has played in 45 career games dating back to his time in Denver. Ferentz gives the Patriots even better depth at center to go with David Andrews, Ted Karras and Marcus Martin.

Redmond, 26, comes to the Patriots with plenty of experience. His career started in Cincinnati where he started 24 of 32 games played at guard. He started 15 games at right guard in 2018 and started seven games last season for the Bengals. He tried out for the Patriots last week and adds more depth to an impressive offensive line group.

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