How important are undrafted free agents for New England? Would the Patriots have won Super Bowl XLIX without an interception from cornerback Malcolm Butler? He was one of those undrafted gems the Patriots signed. Kathy Willens/Associated Press

 

As the NFL and NFLPA continue to negotiate the terms of the upcoming 2020 training camp and season, it’s clear that life will be much different for players this summer because of the coronavirus pandemic.

It also appears that hundreds of players – and potential hidden gems – will be without jobs in a matter of weeks.

According to multiple reports, among the things being negotiated is roster size for camp. It appears that teams will enter this summer with 80 players on their rosters, which is 10 spots fewer than the usual 90-man rosters. The thought process is that fewer players in camp will mean less of a chance of the virus spreading.

This new rule undoubtedly will affect teams across the league. Aside from costing the jobs of 320 players, it mostly will hurt undrafted free agents. That could have some ramifications for a team such as the Patriots.

Entering this offseason, the Patriots have had at least one undrafted player make their 53-man roster every year since 2004. That’s 16 years straight, which is an impressive streak when you consider how competitive these Patriots teams have been in that time span. Cutting rosters down to 80 players before training camp could cost the Patriots a player who might have made the roster in years past.

The best example of that is defensive back Malcolm Butler. In 2014, Butler went undrafted out of Division II West Alabama and had minimal NFL interest. The Patriots brought him in for a rookie tryout, during which they had him tested in multiple drills. After an impressive 40-yard dash, which was considerably faster than his college pro day, Butler was signed to the 90-man roster.

Butler was much closer to being the 90th player in training camp than the 53rd. He certainly impressed when practices started, but it took that opportunity for coaches to see him play. Had there been only 80 players invited to training camp, it’s likely that Butler never would have received that opportunity.

Do the Patriots win Super Bowl XLIX without Butler intercepting a pass by Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in the final moments of the game?

Butler is the extreme example of how this new 80-player rule could hurt a team like that Patriots. Of course, he’s not the only example.

In 2015, David Andrews made the Patriots’ 53-man roster as an undrafted free agent. That was noteworthy because the Pats had spent a fourth-round pick on center Bryan Stork the year before. Stork had a solid rookie season and looked like the future at the position. Injuries set him back, however, and Andrews started 10 games in his first season.

Now, he’s a captain.

In 2016, when the draft ended, Coach Bill Belichick picked up his phone and called undrafted cornerback Jonathan Jones. Heading into his last season at Auburn, Jones was considered a mid-round pick. An injury set him back, however, and his name was never called. Today, Jones is one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL.

In 2017, the Patriots had four undrafted rookies make their 53-man roster. Adam Butler is the last of those players still on the roster but has turned into one of the Patriots’ best interior pass rushers. Last year, the defensive tackle set a career high with six sacks.

The Patriots’ run of undrafted cornerbacks continued in 2018 with J.C. Jackson. Talent was never a question with this prospect, who left the University of Florida because of armed robbery charges, for which he was found not guilty. Jackson has turned into one of the most promising young players on the Patriots roster. Last season, Jackson had five interceptions after picking off three passes as a rookie in 2018.

Last year, the Patriots had two undrafted free agents make their initial roster – Gunner Olszewski and Jakobi Meyers. Olszewski was a late addition to the team in the spring and was certainly the 90th player on the roster before impressing in the preseason as a punt returner.

Stories like those have been made possible because of the 90-player roster limit.

After the conclusion of the 2020 NFL Draft, the Patriots signed 15 undrafted free agents. The question now is how many of those players won’t even get a chance to become the next hidden gem.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under:

Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.