New England Patriots

New England Patriots

L-R: QB Malik Cunningham, TE Johnny Lumpkin (USA Today)

Did you know that for the last 19 years, the Patriots have had at least one undrafted rookie free agent make their initial 53-man roster? If you’re even a casual fan of the team, you probably did – it’s an often-discussed topic around OTAs and training camp.

Not only is the streak notable, it seems to be important to the Patriots’ decision makers. It helps them when pitching UDFAs each year – for instance, Jakobi Meyers told reporters his rookie year in training camp part of the reason he signed in New England was the streak, knowing he’d have a real chance to make the team.

  • The UDFAs kept by the team during the near-two decade run have had varying impacts. Some, like Meyers, Jonathan Jones, J.C. Jackson, and David Andrews, have gone on to play starring roles in New England. Others played rotational roles, while some never appeared in a game with the Patriots, such as kicker Quinn Nordin.

    Last year, the streak was extended by a pair of special teamers in Brenden Schooler and DeMarcus Mitchell. Assuming the Patriots keep the streak going this year, which of their four UDFAs have the best chance of making the roster? Let’s take a look at each player’s case.

  • QB Malik Cunningham, Louisville

    ATLANTA, GEORGIA - SEPTEMBER 06: Malik Cunningham #3 of the Louisville Cardinals rolls out against the Mississippi Rebels during the first half of the Chick-fil-A Kick-Off Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on September 06, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

    ATLANTA, GEORGIA – SEPTEMBER 06: Malik Cunningham #3 of the Louisville Cardinals rolls out against the Mississippi Rebels during the first half of the Chick-fil-A Kick-Off Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on September 06, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

    Cunningham is undoubtably the most hyped of the four Patriots UDFAs. As a four-year starter as Louisville he threw for 9,660 yards and rushed for another 3,179 accounting for 120 total touchdowns. However, Cunningham’s inconsistencies as a passer and limited ceiling due to his age (he’ll turn 25 early this season, and is just a month younger than Mac Jones) leave questions about his role at the next level.

    According to reports, Cunningham exclusively played quarterback during the Patriots’ rookie minicamp last weekend. This comes after it was reported leading up to the draft he’d told teams he’d be willing to change positions to stick in the NFL. Much of the initial reaction to that report assumed a move to wide receiver, given among other things his speed and athleticism, and the Patriots’ history of moving players from quarterback to wideout. At the same time, he was a two-way player in high school and recruited not as a quarterback but as a safety to programs including Alabama, Georgia, and LSU.

    In some way, Cunningham should stick in New England. With his athleticism and high football IQ he’d be a valuable scout team quarterback to help the Patriots prepare for the more dynamic passers on their schedule – a role nobody else on the current roster could mimic as well. At the same time, the team also should view him as a project player, either at QB or elsewhere. The question is, does he stick on the 53-man roster, or the practice squad?

  • TE Johnny Lumpkin, Louisiana

    Johnny Lumpkin (88) with the ball as the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns take on Arkansas State as they celebrate military service. Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022 (Andre Broussard/Special to The Daily Advertiser/USA Today Network)

    Johnny Lumpkin (88) with the ball as the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns take on Arkansas State as they celebrate military service. Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022 (Andre Broussard/Special to The Daily Advertiser/USA Today Network)

    While Lumpkin doesn’t come in with the hype Cunningham does, he may have the easiest path to the roster. After all, he offers the Patriots something they don’t otherwise have at the tight end position.

    At Louisiana, Lumpkin wasn’t overly involved in the Ragin’ Cajuns’ passing game. He put up career-high numbers in 2022, with 16 catches for 143 yards and four touchdowns in 13 games. That being said, it’s not like the Patriots need more pass-catching options at the tight end position. They already have two pure receiving tight ends in Hunter Henry and Mike Gesicki.

    Instead, what the team may be looking for is a blocking tight end to put on the field in short-yardage and goal line situations. In that regard, Lumpkin may be the ideal player for that role. At 6-foot-5, 265 pounds he’s a people-mover who was a dominating run blocker in college. A good NFL comp for him is former Patriots tight end and converted tackle Michael Williams.

    Whether or not the Patriots keep a third tight end at all is its own conversation. If they do though, Lumpkin’s blocking ability could give him an edge over Matt Sokol and Scotty Washington for the final spot.

  • DL Justus Tavai, San Diego State

    Nov 26, 2022; San Diego, California, USA; Air Force Falcons running back Brad Roberts (20) is tackled by San Diego State Aztecs defensive lineman Justus Tavai (91) during the second half at Snapdragon Stadium. Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

    Nov 26, 2022; San Diego, California, USA; Air Force Falcons running back Brad Roberts (20) is tackled by San Diego State Aztecs defensive lineman Justus Tavai (91) during the second half at Snapdragon Stadium. Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

    Unlike the other three UDFAs, who signed the night the NFL Draft ended, Tavai didn’t sign with the Patriots until last week. He is the brother of current Patriots linebacker Jahlani Tavai.

    Tavai started every game for San Diego State last year after transferring from Hawaii, where he was a two-year starter. At 6-foot-3, 290 pounds he mainly played on the interior in college, but has the body type to play along the defensive line in the NFL. He’ll be competing for a depth role in a deep Patriots’ defensive line room this spring and summer.

  • LB Jourdan Heilig, Appalachian State

    Nov 9, 2019; Columbia, SC, USA; Appalachian State Mountaineers linebacker Jourdan Heilig (34) tackles South Carolina Gamecocks quarterback Dakereon Joyner (7) during the second half at Williams-Brice Stadium. Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

    Nov 9, 2019; Columbia, SC, USA; Appalachian State Mountaineers linebacker Jourdan Heilig (34) tackles South Carolina Gamecocks quarterback Dakereon Joyner (7) during the second half at Williams-Brice Stadium. Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

    Heilig has a very under-the-radar pre-draft process. In fact, he had initially entered the transfer portal rather than declaring, but changed course at the last minute.

    Heilig is listed as a linebacker, but played just 40 defensive snaps in his four years with the Mountaineers. However, he was a fixture on the special teams unit all four seasons in Boone. As such, it figures he’ll compete for a role as a coverage specialist with the Patriots.

  • Alex Barth is a writer and 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. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at abarth@985TheSportsHub.com.

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