By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Patriots have confirmed all but one of their undrafted free agent signings. That means it’s time to go digging for treasure.
In the NFL Draft, Bill Belichick’s picks in the first two rounds rightfully get most of the attention either way. But the Patriots head coach and his staff have also been unbelievably consistent at finding undrafted rookies who become viable NFL regulars, if not better than that. Just look at their recent history with players like Malcolm Butler, David Andrews, Jonathan Jones, Adam Butler, and J.C. Jackson.
Then there’s the streak. The Patriots have rivaled Cal Ripken Jr. or The Undertaker at WrestleMania with their undrafted free agent run. They’ve named one to the 53-man roster every season since 2004 (Randall Gay) and consistently get real value out of them. If they’re not a Super Bowl hero.
With 15, likely 16 names to choose from in 2020 – and a lot of roster turnover to begin with – there’s a chance you see even more than one UDFA earn a spot.
Wide receiver Jakobi Meyers and receiver/returner Gunner Olszewski kept the streak alive in 2019, as did Jackson in 2018. Now we can look for the 2020 version of a hidden gem. That’ll be much harder to figure out if there’s not as much training camp to watch. But let’s get to digging.
QB J’Mar Smith, Louisiana Tech
Why he could be a hidden gem: His arm talent and athleticism are legit. Belichick won’t have a ton to refine in that department. It feels like a three-quarterback kind of season for the Patriots, so Smith may be in the lead for that spot to begin with.
What’s holding him back? Smith’s issues are entirely related to consistency and the mental aspects of the game. He needs to improve his ability to read defenses and perform under pressure. Belichick may not be able to unlock that, despite his physical talents.
WR Will Hastings, Auburn
Why he could be a hidden gem: Belichick has been looking for a future slot receiver for a few years now. Hastings fits into the same mold as recent prospects like Braxton Berrios, Riley McCarron, and Olszewski. What he has going for him is he played with Jarrett Stidham at Auburn and could rekindle some chemistry. He does have short-area quickness and showed an ability to separate if he can avoid press-man coverage, a pair of traits that Belichick certainly wants out of his receivers regardless of who’s throwing them the ball. The Patriots’ receiver competition should be wide open after Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry.
What’s holding him back? He was too undersized to get drafted and has no special teams experience. He has no chance of taking snaps away from Edelman as a rookie. He’ll have competition behind Edelman in the slot with Olszewski and Jakobi Meyers.
DT Bill Murray, William & Mary
Why he could be a hidden gem: At 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, he has the adequate size to earn a spot in the rotation on the defensive interior in the Patriots’ system. He’s described as more of a space-eater than a playmaker, but he made plays at William & Mary. Belichick likes players with gap responsibility and the Pats could use more guys like that against runs up the middle. Non-Combine invitee who was forced into an impromptu virtual workout after NFL scouts were blocked from W&M’s Pro Day, which may have sent him flying right under the radar.
What’s holding him back? The Patriots are close to set at defensive tackle with Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler, Beau Allen, and Byron Cowart. He could squeeze Cowart for a spot if the second-year DT can’t build upon a solid preseason as a rookie, but the competition is stiff.
DE Nick Coe, Auburn
Why he could be a hidden gem: He has the ideal size (6-foot-5, 285 pounds) and strength to fortify the point of attack as a defensive end in a 3-4 front. That’s exactly the kind of D-lineman the Patriots lacked in 2019 and a reason they were linked to top prospects at the position like Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa.
What’s holding him back? His draft profile at NFL.com describes sloppy mechanics, below-average pass-rushing, and subpar instincts. There’s always a reason or three that a prospect with Coe’s size and strength ends up undrafted. Belichick will be excited to work with Coe’s physical traits and he could fill an immediate need, but he ultimately may not improve enough this summer to show he deserves a spot on a crowded Patriots defensive line.
LB De’Jon “Scoota” Harris, Arkansas
Why he could be a hidden gem: He’s relatively undersized at 6 feet and 234 pounds – but he has NFL-ready playing strength. Great tackler who made at least 100 of them for three straight seasons. Tough and physical, just like Belichick likes it from his linebackers.
What’s holding him back? Pure early-down linebacker who may not even have the requisite athleticism to hang with NFL talent, despite his experience against plenty of future NFL-ers in the SEC. Lance Zierlein at NFL.com questions whether Harris’ strong college performances will translate at the highest level. That’s ostensibly the same concern that every team had about him at the draft.
In The Mix
QB Brian Lewerke, Michigan State
Why he could be a hidden gem: He has better size than Smith and showed more promise in his early days at Michigan State before regression. He was a two-time captain and three-year starter. He looks the part of an NFL quarterback with decent pocket presence. His ability to make seam throws may interest the Patriots with their system.
What’s holding him back? His inconsistent accuracy in the short-to-intermediate areas of the field would drive Belichick up a wall. He didn’t go through his progressions or make decisions with the ball quickly or cleanly enough. His first year at Michigan State may have been his peak.
WR Sean Riley, Syracuse
Why he could be a hidden gem: He’s fast and could be dangerous after the catch. He averaged 21.2 yards per kick return and 11.3 yards per punt return at Syracuse. His versatility and special teams experience could give him an edge in Belichick’s view. Smart player who earned ACC All-Academic honors in 2017. Profiles similarly to Gunner Olszewski, who improbably earned a roster spot last year.
What’s holding him back? One of his strengths – that he’s similar to Olszewski – could also be what prevents him from making the team. As an undersized slot receiver/returner, he has stiff competition for limited spots. The lack of size is legit – he’s only 5-foot-8 and 178 pounds. The kind of size (or lack thereof) that makes it tough for anyone to make it in any pro sport.
TE Jake Burt, Boston College
Why he could be a hidden gem: The Patriots’ tight end competition is as wide-open as any position on the roster. Burt is a true hometown hero, calling Danvers, Mass. home and attending Boston College. He would have added appeal if he performs well enough on the field. He signed one of the bigger contracts for a UDFA with $80,000 in guarantees.
What’s holding him back? There’s going to be a nice competition at tight end, but two of them are roster locks. The Patriots traded up for both Devin Asiasi out of UCLA and Dalton Keene out of Virginia Tech and Matt LaCosse and Ryan Izzo have the edge in experience in the system. Burt is going to have to prove he’s a better option than anyone who played tight end for the Patriots in 2019.
WR Isaiah Zuber, Mississippi State
Why he could be a hidden gem: Mississippi State describes him as “athletic” and “versatile”. He has experience at both receiver and returner, always a consideration for Belichick and his desire to use every player in as many different ways as possible.
What’s holding him back? It’ll be tough to crack the 53-man roster with Edelman, Harry, Meyers, and Mohamed Sanu still on the team. He also has competition from other UDFAs, like Hastings and others.
RB J.J. Taylor, Arizona
Why he could be a hidden gem: He does have traits that Belichick loves to see in running backs- toughness, decisiveness, receiving ability, return experience. In the right system and behind the Patriots’ offensive line at top health and performance, the Patriots could maximize his talents.
What’s holding him back? At only 5-foot-5 and 185 pounds, his lack of size does not match his physical running style. He won’t be big enough to be a pass-protector, which limits his versatility and unpredictability. He’d have to perform like a better Danny Woodhead to earn a roster spot amid a crowded depth chart. He may ultimately not be big enough to hold up in the NFL.
TE Rashod Berry, Ohio State
Why he could be a hidden gem: He can block very well in the run game, which is something that the Patriots sorely lacked throughout the tight end depth chart in 2019. He also projects as a better blocker than Asiasi or Keene, which could ultimately make room for him on the roster.
What’s holding him back? He’s not much of a pass-catcher, which is a big mark against him according to Belichick’s own philosophy when it comes to tight ends. Belichick prefers to coach a tight end up and “work around” his blocking. If you can’t catch that’s a much bigger hurdle to overcome.
DT Courtney Wallace Jr., Louisiana Tech
Why he could be a hidden gem: Dealt with injuries for multiple years before finally staying healthy and breaking out as a senior. He totaled 41 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks in his final season. The injuries and lack of a body of work may have led him to be undrafted and create some hidden value.
What’s holding him back? As mentioned before, defensive tackle is one of the most crowded positions on the team. At 6-foot-2 and 305 pounds, he may not quite have the kind of size Belichick wants to make the roster and earn a regular role.
LB Kyahva Tezino, San Diego State
Why he could be a hidden gem: Tough and physical against ball carriers in the middle of the field, which appears to have piqued Belichick’s interest. He was effective as a tackler and instinctive as a run-stopper in college.
What’s holding him back? Woefully undersized for his position/playing style at 6 feet and 235 pounds. On top of that, he’d be one-dimensional as a pure run-thumping linebacker in the mold of Elandon Roberts. That does mean that Belichick may see a role for a player like Tezino, but he’d need to prove as versatile and coachable as Roberts was to stand a chance.
CB Myles Bryant, Washington
Why he could be a hidden gem: As a slot corner, he’d really only compete with Jonathan Jones for reps. He’s a hard worker who plays above his size. He’s shown good instincts in the way he follows the routes of slot receivers and positions himself to make plays.
What’s holding him back? About the size … 5-foot-9 and 183 pounds is undersized even for a slot corner. Even Jones is 5-foot-10 and 190. He may lack to requisite speed to hold up against faster, dynamic receivers who line up in the slot like the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill. Not to mention, bigger slot receivers will give him trouble.
WR Jeff Thomas, Miami
Why he could be a hidden gem: Now what did Thomas do to deserve his own section? He’s a unique combination of high-end physical traits and character concerns. The latter dropped him all the way off everyone’s draft boards. But Thomas proved at Miami to be a dynamic slot receiving threat and explosive playmaker when at his best.
What’s holding him back? The aforementioned character concerns. Thomas and Miami reached a mutual agreement to part ways before his senior year, but he ended up getting a reprieve with the team’s new coach. However, he also served a suspension in 2019 for violating team rules. He profiles as the most frustrating kind of player: good talent, but can’t match it with consistency or reliability for coaches.
Who Makes The Team?
Thomas may be the pick if he didn’t project so unpredictably from a coaching and dependability standpoint. And despite the Patriots’ seeming uncertainty at quarterback, I’m ultimately predicting that they just go with Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer. Oh, and I’m predicting all of the Pats’ 2019 receivers to keep their jobs for now too.
I’m going with two front-seven defenders: Nick Coe and Scoota Harris. Both of them could fill roles immediately against the run and/or on special teams. They’re going to need depth at inside linebacker and never really had a D-lineman last season who could do what Coe can possibly do as a 3-4 end.
The offense will surprise some people. And they’ll do it with the guys they already have. It’s the defense that can use some personnel refinement on the depth chart. The 2020 draft class and UDFAs have a good chance to do that.
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.