When the NFL draft concludes, the Patriots arguably do some of their best work of the offseason.
After South Carolina tight end Justice Cunningham was selected with the final pick of the 2013 NFL draft by the Indianapolis Colts — ergo dubbed Mr. Irrelevant — the Patriots wasted no time burning up the phones looking to sign rookie free agents and fill out the team’s 90-man roster allotment. The process of signing and securing rookie free agents has been a particularly fruitful endeavor. New England is one of the few teams in the league with a strong track record of identifying those who are talented and yet overlooked — and then developing them into role players.
Before this class of rookie free agents was added to the pool, the Patriots roster included 10 players who came to the team undrafted or as first-year free agents. That includes quality contributors in the last two years like defensive lineman Justin Francis and running back Brandon Bolden, and more seasoned veterans like offensive lineman Ryan Wendell, linebacker Dane Fletcher and defensive tackle Kyle Love. But there’s been plenty more that have worked out well for the team in spurts (Sterling Moore) and have moved on. And there are others (i.e. Kyle Arrington) who somehow made their way to the Patriots and have found themselves to be a valuable addition.
“I think that’s been an important part of our team through the years,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said last week. “Once again, last year we had several players either make our team or make our practice squad or in a couple cases, some combination of both. Maybe they were on one or the other for part of the year, but other guys came in that weren’t drafted and contributed to our team, like [Marcus] Forston, like [Brandon] Bolden, Justin Francis and other guys like that in the past – the Brian Hoyers and the Mike Wrights, you can go right on down the list. So that’s still an important time in the team building process.”
Like most years, determining who will make an already talented but flawed roster is an inexact science. There are key positions that have been filled up by the team’s seven draft picks and other positions where the need won’t be known until the season is underway. Depth will be important. Training camp will be a battle ground.
Rookie free agents connected with the Patriots
Here’s a quick glance at the players who will get a shot at being a member of the Patriots:
Note: The official list of rookie free agents has not yet been announced. This is not meant to be viewed as complete list of those players.
– T.J. Moe, WR, Missouri — He’s 6-feet tall, 204 pounds and remarkably quick for someone with a 4.68 40-yard dash. He lacks the speed to breakaway, but he can definitely serve as a slot receiver. However the competition at that spot will be tough with Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman. He had 188 career receptions at Missouri for 2,101 yards and 11 touchdowns. He’s strong though. He put up 26 reps on the bench press at the combine.
– Matt Stankiewitch, C, Penn State — Stankiewitch was the most experienced of the Nittany Lions’ offensive linemen in 2012. At 6-3 and 301 pounds, he was courted to leave Penn State after the Jerry Sandusky scandal — even by Alabama — but chose to stay. He ran fairly slow at the combine (5.43) but could help fill a need as an interior lineman with Donald Thomas’s departure.
– Stephon Morris, DB, Penn State — At his pro day, he ran a 4.32 40-yard dash (officially clocking a 4.35) and showed decent strength for his size by pumping 18 reps on the bench press. At 5-8 and 188 pounds, he’s a cornerback that’s been productive (60 tackles and five passes defensed in 2012) and has good special teams experience as a gunner. He tackles well in open space.
– Zach Sudfeld, TE, Nevada — From Modesto, Calif. (say hello to Logan Mankins!), he’s a 6-7, 255-pound tight end has the size of Rob Gronkowski but lacks the strength. After suffering a leg injury that killed his 2011 season, he came back to the Wolfpack in 2012 and caught 45 balls for 598 yards and 8 touchdowns. He runs a 4.79 40-yard dash and put up 11 reps on the bench press.
– Josh Kline, OL, Kent State — The 6-3, 310-pound interior offensive lineman was a fifth-year senior at Kent State. He was second team All-MAC and has experience playing at tackle as well. He was, by some estimations, the 14th rated guard on the draft board.
– Kanorris Davis, S, Troy — Listed as both a strong safety and a linebacker (but most definitely a safety), Davis ran a 4.57 40-yard dash at Troy’s pro day (with an unofficial low of 4.44) while working out at both positions. At 5-10 and 211 pounds, he could figure in as special teams ace and a longshot for the team’s dime coverage defensive back. He led Troy with 70 solo tackles with three tackles for a loss and two forced fumbles.
– Quinton Hines, RB, Akron — Hines had limited exposure for Akron, with 35 rushing attempts in 2012 for 194 yards. He spent three years at Cincinnati before transferring to Murray State and then Akron.
– Kenbrell Thompkins, WR, Cincinnati — A former junior college player, Thompkins was pretty productive in two years for the Bearcats (78 receptions, 1,077 yards, 4 touchdowns). He ran a 4.46 40-yard dash at the combine but put up only eight reps on the bench press. However, he did show solid numbers in the vertical (33 ½) and broad (10’01”) jumps. He fits the mold of an outside receiver in the Patriots offense but he’ll have a tough time cracking in with heavy competition.
– Brandon Ford, TE, Clemson — He’s 6-4 and 245 pounds and has an amazing vertical (37). In 2012 he had 40 catches for 480 yards and 8 touchdowns. He’s much more in the mold of Aaron Hernandez than Gronkowski, but slower with a 4.74 40-yard dash.
– Cory Grissom, DT, South Florida — He was second-team All-Big East in 2012, recording 38 tackles and 2.5 sacks. He plugs holes but doesn’t shed blocks well. It’ll be interesting to see what opportunities he gets in camp.
Tweet of the week
It appears Devin and Jason McCourty’s mother has joined Twitter, much to the delight of all current and former Patriots defensive backs. Here, she reveals she is a Dallas Cowboys fan:
— Jason+Devin McCourty (@McCourtyTwins) April 28, 2013
Their mother, Phyllis, did say she roots for both players. And by the end of the week, she was dropping them some not-so-subtle hints at what to do for Mother’s Day. (Just an FYI: Mother’s Day is Sunday May 12.)
After the draft, many fans are still wondering what exactly has Belichick achieved given the number of Rutgers players selected and the view that some of those players are perceived as a reach of talent. That’s persisted throughout the week with readers chiming in on our comment boards. It doesn’t help that fans are still upset about the loss of Wes Welker.
I would say that this off-season has NOT improved the Patriots overall. Last year they were in the AFC championship game. Losing the most prolific and durable wide receiver in the game (Welker) and replacing him with Danny Amendola is not an improvement. But Belichick drafted Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce and having Jenkins and Jones he will try and have as many options available to him as he can.
I would say the Patriots have done exactly what they need to do to improve, including bringing in the next best slot receiver in the game with Amendola. The return of Edelman is a huge plus. But again, I think fans will get much more excited about the Patriots once we’re all sure the receivers will be able to digest the team’s playbook. Talent-wise, I think they’re there.
– This weekend is rookie minicamp. That means we’ll get a chance to meet all seven Patriots draft picks, which, as Bill Belichick said last week, will be “indoctrination for those guys.”
– Patriots will have on-field organized team activities (OTAs) May 20-21, 23, 28-30, and June 3-4 as well as June 6-7.
– The team’s mandatory mini-camp will be June 11-13.
– While no date has been set, the Patriots will likely begin training camp in the final week of July.
– The NFL season opens Thursday Sept. 5 with the Broncos hosting the Super Bowl champion Ravens. The Patriots will open the season on Sunday Sept. 8 in Buffalo. Only 128 days away.
Zuri Berry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @zuriberry.