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With Patriots, undrafted does not mean unwanted

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / May 13, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH - When it comes to undrafted NFL free agents, it’s a bit like the Island of Misfit Toys.

For one reason or another, these players failed to be appealing enough to be drafted.

For most, they simply didn’t display enough talent on the college level for an NFL team to invest in them.

For others, there was a circumstance in college that raised questions. Whether it was a personal issue or an injury, teams didn’t feel comfortable wasting a pick on a player who could boom but more often busts.

The Patriots are the Kingdom of Misfit Toys. When you arrive at the Super Bowl, as they did in February, with 18 undrafted players on the roster, that opens the eyes of a lot of agents looking for a landing spot for their players. They know their undrafted free agents will get a fair shot from Bill Belichick.

The Patriots signed seven undrafted free agents this year, and those players got their indoctrination into the Patriot Way this weekend at the rookie minicamp.

All will get a fair shot at earning a spot, whether it’s on the 53-man roster or the eight-man practice squad.

“Each guy that we put out there we feel like can be competitive and has an opportunity,’’ Belichick said after the draft. “I’m not saying they can’t make the team, but certain players are eligible for practice squad who are currently on our roster. Obviously, the rookies would be eligible for that as well. Given the total scope of the competition, that’s kind of how we look at it.’’

The Patriots made a lot of moves in the offseason to increase the depth of the roster. There aren’t many holes remaining, if any. So spots will be scarce.

There are three undrafted players who, if they can overcome the issues that caused them to fall out of the draft, could find a spot on the 53-man roster in early September: running back Brandon Bolden, defensive lineman Marcus Forston, and offensive tackle Markus Zusevics.

Bolden (5 feet 11 inches, 222 pounds, with 4.64 speed in the 40-yard dash) seemed poised to have a standout senior campaign for Mississippi after he averaged 6.0 yards per carry and added 32 receptions as a junior.

But his final season got off to a bad start when he fractured his ankle in the season opener, which forced him to miss the next game. And despite being a team captain, Bolden was suspended for a showdown with Alabama because he violated team rules. The Rebels were blasted, 52-7, without Bolden and three other suspended teammates.

“You saw guys trying to step up and take those positions, and I felt horrible,’’ Bolden said at the time. “All of us felt horrible. It was like a snowball effect. It was bad.

“The young guys who do look up to me, they were hurt by it the most. I apologized to them, the day we got suspended, I apologized to everybody. Letting down my teammates. That’s what really hurt me.’’

The suspected reasons for the suspension and a question about Bolden’s attitude caused him to fall out of the draft.

“I’m a guy that looks forward,’’ Bolden said at the minicamp. “The injury happened, everything happens for a reason and you move forward. Just looking forward, I don’t dwell on the past, just keep moving. Things happen, you just can’t control everything.’’

And those questions about his character?

“Come investigate it. Just watch me,’’ Bolden said. “I pretty much really don’t have an answer for [the critics].’’

Bolden has a legitimate chance at making the roster. Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen showed glimpses of potential in their rookie seasons, but much is still unknown about them. Former Colts running back Joseph Addai was signed to add a veteran presence, but he has been hampered by injuries the past two seasons.

Forston (6-1, 301, 5.09) is a player with immense talent when he wants to show it. During his time at the University of Miami, he quickly drew comparisons to Warren Sapp. But he wasn’t on the field enough, and concluded a frustrating career when he surprisingly declared for the draft with one season of eligibility remaining.

“No regrets,’’ said Forston, who played only 19 games his final three seasons. “I’m working hard and I’m glad to be a Patriot.’’

Forston played immediately at Miami and was a freshman All-American. Then came a succession of injuries and an off-field issue. He had a stinger, gained a medical redshirt for an ankle injury, missed 2010 spring practice with a shoulder injury, was suspended for the 2011 season opener for taking benefits from rogue booster Nevin Shapiro, and then needed season-ending knee surgery after playing just three games last season.

He finished with seven sacks and 60 tackles in 31 games. He had 18 tackles and three sacks as a true freshman.

Forston said he’s 100 percent healthy now.

“Everything happens for a reason,’’ he said. “I’m a firm believer with that. I can’t control injuries; that’s part of the game.

“I’m willing to work hard, attack everything 110 percent. I want to come here and do everything right.’’

Forston will have an opportunity to continue to do that. Besides Vince Wilfork, the other interior defensive line players are Gerard Warren, Myron Pryor, Ron Brace, and Marcus Harrison. Warren didn’t make the team out of camp last year. Pryor has shown great talent but hasn’t remained healthy.

Zusevics (6-5, 303, 5.09) doesn’t have any off-the-field issues. But he is trying to come back from the torn left pectoral muscle he sustained bench pressing at the combine. Zusevics, a polished tackle out of the famed offensive line program at Iowa under former Belichick assistant Kirk Ferentz, would have been drafted if it weren’t for the injury.

Matt Light’s retirement opened up a lot of competition at tackle. The starters are Nate Solder (left) and Sebastian Vollmer (right), but the rest is wide open. Marcus Cannon can play tackle and guard, and the rest of the depth chart is filled with 2011 undrafted free agents Kyle Hix and Matt Kopa. Once Zusevics is healthy, a job is there for him to win.

Same goes for Bolden at running back, and Forston at defensive tackle.

The Patriots will be looking for the right fit from one of their misfits. They’ve each had issues in the past, but their Patriots futures are up to the players themselves.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregABedard.

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