By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Plenty of NFL-caliber prospects end up going undrafted every year for a wide variety of reasons. That doesn’t mean they have no chance of making an NFL team that same year – or perhaps making a significant impact.
Malcolm Butler proved a lot of things about himself, the Patriots, and his coaches when he made that one play in Super Bowl XLIX. Somewhere on that list is that the Pats’ rookie free agent class shouldn’t just be ignored.
This year’s class should be no exception to that rule. They’re on a nice run in recent years with UDFAs who have at least found a way to contribute to the big club, as evidenced by center David Andrews (2015), cornerback Jonathan Jones (2016), and defensive tackle Adam Butler (2017). So there’s a chance that the Pats have found at least one more NFL-ready talent in the 2018 group.
In all, the Pats confirmed nine undrafted free agent signings initially. They added a 10th after signing punter Corey Bojorquez out of New Mexico and waiving receiver Darren Andrews, who passed through and ended up on the Patriots’ non-football injury/reserve list. Former Rutgers (stop me if you’ve heard that before) punter Ryan Anderson also tweeted that the Patriots signed him, but the team has not confirmed it.
Both Bojorquez and Anderson, like incumbent Ryan Allen, are left-footed punters. So Bill Belichick appears serious about potentially making a switch at that position, or at least pushing Allen with some competition in camp. Either prospect could scrape some value out of the 2018 draft and safely occupy minimal space at the bottom of the Patriots’ cap. And to Belichick, he’d be getting that ROI at a position that he values more than most.
Help On The Way?
Those who desired more reinforcements for the defense are left to wonder if the Patriots found anything in Georgia defensive tackle John Atkins, Miami defensive end Trent Harris, or LSU defensive end Frank Herron. What immediately pops out about these players is that they played for strong football programs in premium conferences – Atkins and Herron in the SEC, and Harris in the ACC.
Atkins, in particular, started 14 of 15 games for the Bulldogs, where he shared a locker room with now-Patriots teammates Isaiah Wynn and Sony Michel. His draft stock failed to gain strength because he’s billed as a run-stopper with no pass-rush value. But if any coach can get the most out of Atkins and make him a legitimate NFL run-stuffing interior tackle, it’s Belichick.
Herron has the size (6-foot-5) and versatility to play either inside or outside on the defensive line. That’s certainly part of what drew Belichick to him as a free agent. Unfortunately, he’s a guy with a “reputation to take plays off,” which ostensibly dragged him down at the draft. But a report on NFLDraftBible.com described some Herron as a “fiery player who also demonstrates great leadership on the field,” among other qualities that the Patriots certainly would love about him.
Harris, meanwhile, played defensive end at Miami and is billed as a defensive lineman by the Patriots, but at 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds he projects more as an outside linebacker in the NFL. He could have potential as a rotational pass-rusher and help out immediately on special teams if he makes the 53-man roster.
On The Back End…
Despite signing second-round pick Duke Dawson, who will have a chance to be a factor right away, the Patriots also took a pair of shots at the cornerback position in free agency. Former Maryland corner J.C. Jackson sticks out due to his size (6-foot-1) and the fact that he could have value as a physical press corner.
Unfortunately, Jackson’s stock plummeted after his first year at Florida, which included an arrest for armed robbery and four felony charges. Jackson was cleared, but also got released by the Gators and had to transfer to Maryland. Jackson told SB Nation before the draft that he carries himself a different way now and that he’s confident he can be a “shutdown” corner in the NFL.
Mississippi’s A.J. Moore will have a tougher time making the Patriots roster, let alone seeing the field outside of special teams, since he’s projected as a free safety and joins a crowded depth chart. But he also started every game as a senior at Ole Miss at the nickel safety spot. If it comes down to him and Jordan Richards? Maybe Moore will represent an upgrade there.
But What About The Offense?
The Pats also addressed their depth at skill positions. One name to keep an eye on is Chris Lacy, a 6-foot-3 receiver out of Oklahoma State. He’ll compete with the likes of Kenny Britt for a roster spot, but could be too much of a project or one-dimensional wideout to stick. (UPDATE: He was too much of a project. Aaron Wilson reports that Lacy has been released.)
Running back is a position where the Patriots have uncovered some value in recent years. So it’s worth monitoring the progress of Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb, who mostly lacks NFL-quality speed and athleticism but likely stood out to the Patriots due to his field vision, consistency, and work ethic. He may never set the world on fire, but don’t be shocked if Webb turns into the next Brandon Bolden – or even BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
At tight end they signed Shane Wimann out of Northern Illinois. Wimann earned First Team All-MAC honors in his senior year in 2017, catching 30 passes for 283 yards and scoring seven touchdowns – a single-season record for the school. Wimann was slow to develop through his college career and may be no more than a depth tight end in the NFL, at least right away. But he’ll get a fair shot to compete for a spot on the depth chart behind Rob Gronkowski.
Ultimately, this is your typical post-draft rookie free agent class. A collection of flawed but intriguing prospects who could have a chance to thrive under the Patriots’ tutelage. That’s especially true for the players who came in with concerns about their makeup or off-field behavior, like J.C. Jackson or Frank Herron.
If Belichick can set them straight as professionals, perhaps he can make the most of their physical gifts. It would be far from the first time he achieved that with a player he signed off the street.
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.