Lazar: Early-Favorites to Extend Patriots’ 16-Year UDFA Rookie Streak

The Patriots’ success finding contributors out of undrafted rookies is now on a 16-year run that spans nearly the entire Belichick era.

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The Patriots’ success finding contributors out of undrafted rookies is now on a 16-year run that spans nearly the entire Belichick era.

For 16 consecutive seasons, an undrafted rookie free agent has made the initial 53-man roster, and they don’t just make the team, they make an impact and some blossom into stars. 

The streak began with cornerback Randall Gay in 2004, who started in New England’s Super Bowl victory over the Philadelphia Eagles as a rookie. Then others such as Super Bowl 49 hero Malcolm Butler, David Andrews, Jonathan Jones, Brandon Bolden, JC Jackson, and to keep the streak alive a year ago, wide receivers Jakobi Meyers and Gunner Olszewski, made the team out of camp. 

In all, the Patriots have the third-longest active UDFA streak in the NFL, trailing only the Los Angeles Chargers (23 seasons) and Indianapolis Colts (21 seasons).

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick makes players earn every opportunity, so the 15 signings following the 2020 NFL Draft will get no favors to extend the streak to a 17th season. 

But several intriguing prospects slipped through the cracks in April’s draft due to various reasons, including two quarterbacks, that ended up in New England.

After the Pats didn’t draft a quarterback, they signed Michigan State’s Brian Lewerke and Louisiana Tech quarterback J’Mar Smith.

Lazar: Patriots Got Draftable Talents in Undrafted Quarterbacks J’Mar Smith and Brian Lewerke

We’ll focus on non-quarterbacks signees here. But you can read my in-depth scouting reports on Lewerke and Smith in the link above, as both have a shot at extending the streak. 

Below are early-favorites and dark horse candidates to make the Patriots’ initial 53-man roster as undrafted rookies:

THE EARLY-FAVORITES 

WR Jeff Thomas, Miami

The explosive playmaker is already the solution for many Pats fans for New England’s lack of speed at receiver, but there are complications with Thomas buying into the Patriot Way. 

The former Hurricanes wideout violated multiple team rules during his time at Miami, leading to a dismissal from the squad during the 2018 season after a blowup with then-coach Mark Richt. 

Thomas nearly transferred after a long soap opera with Richt, but Richt unexpectedly retired following the 2018 season. New Canes head coach Manny Diaz convinced Thomas to return, just to suspend him for two more games in 2019 for more rules violations.

On the field, the 5-foot-9, 170-pound Thomas makes up for a slender frame by being a blur at all three levels of the defense, translating to a 4.45-second 40-yard dash (71st percentile). 

Some evaluators see a young Antonio Brown or Tyreek Hill-lite in Thomas. But a bit safer pro comparison might be Bills wideout John Brown or Ravens 2019 first-rounder Marquise Brown. 

As a deep threat, Thomas combines sudden moves at the line of scrimmage with easy acceleration to win over the top. Plus, he’s also effective as a ball carrier and intermediate route-runner. 

Starting with his vertical route running, Thomas is excellent at the line of scrimmage releasing against press coverage, avoiding contact to create free releases and gets corners off-balance.

Here, Miami isolates Thomas at the bottom of the screen. Thomas avoids contact at the line by using a double-stick release, stacking multiple moves together while continuing his forward momentum to get a free release. The corner tries to stay square at the line, patiently waiting for Thomas’s route to declare, but with no contact in the contact window, Thomas is moving at full speed in a hurry. The corner is too late to flip his hips upfield to stay over the top, and Thomas burns him for a long touchdown. 

Due to his diminutive stature, Thomas’s snaps will likely come out of the slot, where he can still get vertical or provide horizontal stretch, much like how the Chiefs use Hill. 

Thomas is a problem for opposing defenses on intermediate crossers or over routes, which is a staple route for slot receivers in New England. 

On this play, Thomas makes a spectacular one-handed grab on an over pattern. As he releases, the defense appears to bluff a safety blitz with Grant Delpit, who lines up over Thomas, with a capped defender behind Delpit taking anything vertical, while the inside zone-droppers should provide inside help. Thomas adjusts his route to curl behind the bluffing Delpit, holds the angle coming across the field, and makes a terrific catch along the sideline. 

Lastly, what makes Thomas extremely intriguing is his loose hips to move laterally, leading separation at the top of routes and yards after the catch.

Former Pats wideout Phillip Dorsett, for example, had 4.33 speed but was a linear athlete that won mostly in a straight line; Thomas can juke and cut as well as burn past the secondary. 

Although Thomas wasn’t targeted, here are a few examples of him stopping on a dime with snappy route breaks that create separation, which will help set up his vertical routes. 

And Thomas was featured heavily on wide receiver screens and jet sweeps due to his game-breaking abilities as a ball carrier, which also translates to punt returns. 

Without the off-field baggage, scouts had Thomas as a third or fourth-round prospect with few question marks about his talent.

Thomas will need to improve his hands to avoid body catches and prove that he’s durable enough to play with a slight frame, but neither are deal-breakers for his NFL outlook. 

The Patriots love investing in high-upside players that are reclamation projects off the field, and Thomas is the latest. If he can keep his head on straight, he will be an absolute steal. 

DE Nick Coe, Auburn

The Patriots need another stout run defender along their defensive line to play alongside Lawrence Guy and Beau Allen.  

In their playoff loss to the Titans last season, Tennessee circled Deatrich Wise and Adam Butler as the two weak points of New England’s run defense. Both players are more effective as pass rushers, but a lack of depth along the line forced them into early-down roles in running situations. And the Titans took advantage. 

Along with 2019 fifth-round selection Byron Cowart, Coe could get a chance to fill that run-stuffing role on the line of scrimmage.

The 6-foot-5, 280-pound versatile edge defender had a challenging career at Auburn. Sitting behind top draft selections Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson, and 2021 prospect Big Kat Bryant, Coe had some run-ins with the coaching staff over his playing time. He also had a reputation for falling asleep during meetings, lacking focus during the week.

Still, Coe has the ideal measurables and functional strength to play outside or inside, projecting as a perfect fit from a size and skillset standpoint for a weak side 3-4 end in the Patriots’ system.

And if Coe didn’t have all the character red flags, he would’ve easily been a day three draft pick. 

On this play, the blocking scheme wants the right tackle to bump Coe at the line of scrimmage before climbing to the second level on a combination block. The offensive line’s footwork suggests this is an outside zone handoff, and the right tackle puts himself almost immediately through to the second level rather than giving a sturdy bump to Coe. As a result, Coe drops his anchor in the gap and uses his nearly 34-inch arms to hold up at the point of attack and make the stop. 

Here’s a similar play with Coe rushing on the left guard this time. As the left guard steps to him, Coe comes with instant hands to get inside the guards’ frame and press out to create separation. Coe ends up caving in the left guard and plays with good discipline to sit in his gap, so the running back doesn’t have a cutback option. 

As a pass rusher, Coe is stiff and doesn’t possess an explosive first step. But he uses his long strides and heavy hands to soften the edge.

Along with an effective rush, this rep also shows Coe’s versatility to rush from a two-point stance outside the tackle. Coe opens up his long strides to eat grass quickly as he attempts to turn the corner. Then, he uses a chop-rip move to keep the tackles’ hands off of him by chopping down on the left tackles’ punch and then ripping up and through for the sack. 

Coe is not overly explosive or flexible as a pass rusher. But he can effectively push the pocket using his hand-fighting technique and gap discipline to collapse on the QB in Patriots fashion. 

If he can buy in, Coe could be what the doctor ordered in terms of adding another sturdy run defender to the defensive line. 

RB J.J. Taylor, Arizona

One of the deepest position groups on New England’s roster currently is at running back. But the outlook at the position is slightly different looking beyond the 2020 season. 

James White (28), Rex Burkhead (29), and Brandon Bolden (30) are all free agents after the season and are getting up there in age. Sony Michel and Damien Harris are the lone backs signed through 2021 on the roster, and Michel’s rookie deal expires after the 2021 season. 

In steps Taylor, an undrafted rookie whose top measurables match is former Pats running back Dion Lewis, and Taylor plays a little like Lewis too.

Taylor’s best chance to make the roster will be as a pass-catcher and return specialist, both of which display his athleticism in the open field and short-area quickness to avoid defenders. 

As a receiver, Taylor is a matchup nightmare for opposing linebackers and could be a featured back on New England’s option route series with dynamic route-running abilities. 

Here, Taylor reads the linebackers drop as he comes out of the backfield on the angle route. The linebacker is buzzing to his zone-drop in the flat, widening as he moves laterally, leaving plenty of space to the inside. Taylor squares up the defender to set up his move at the top of the route and exploits the open space by accelerating through the break to burst into the vacated area. 

Taylor is also effective on screens and leaks out in the flat as he can take a pass behind the line of scrimmage and create after the catch. On the play above, you also see Taylor’s ability to lower his pads and run through contact to break tackles. 

Standing at 5-foot-5, 185 pounds, one might expect Taylor to be a finesse runner, and although he is exceptionally elusive in tight spaces, he’s more physical than his size suggests. 

As a ball carrier, Taylor uses his height to his advantage, playing with a low center of gravity that makes him a compact runner that can finish behind his pads. Taylor can take on defenders with excellent power and contact balance to run through tackle attempts to churn out extra yards or convert in short-yardage situations by burrowing underneath bigger opponents. 

He can also stack multiple moves together in succession to get out of negative plays and generate yards after contact. Taylor is extremely elusive in tight spaces, and with great balance and a sturdy base, he can jump cut around tacklers and keep his feet in-position to stack another move within seconds to elude the next guy. 

Damien Harris, the 87th overall selection in 2019, has the skill set to be an effective pass-catching back. But my evaluation pits him as more of a check-down and screen back than a difference-maker as a receiver. 

Taylor plays faster than he times because of his short legs, but his 4.60-second 40-yard dash at the combine suggests his straight-line speed is only modest; he’s quicker than he is fast, which along with his size, is why he went undrafted. 

But if the Patriots want to keep a potential heir to James White around, whether it’s on the 53-man roster or practice squad, Taylor is a viable option to take over that role eventually. 

DARK HORSES

WR Will Hastings, Auburn

The former Auburn wideout averaged over 20 yards per reception on 26 catches with Jarrett Stidham at quarterback back in 2017. Hastings is a big-play threat from the slot with impressive burst and transitions on vertical routes to create separation down the field. He also possesses above-average lateral agility to stack moves together at the line of scrimmage to get away from press corners. He also has some of the typical shiftiness at the top of routes for a slot receiver, which was on display when he ran a 6.41-second three-cone at his pro day. Hastings and Stidham had chemistry when they overlapped at Auburn. But the UDFA wideout sat out the 2018 season due to a torn ACL, and durability is a concern with his smaller frame. At 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, Hastings’ arm length doesn’t register on an NFL scale at a shade over 27 inches, limiting his catch radius. Hastings also lacks experience on special teams, making it more difficult for him to make the roster. Still, he’s a dynamic route runner that adds a vertical element to the slot.

WR Sean Riley, Syracuse 

Riley was a spark plug for the Orange during his time at Syracuse, creating explosive plays on offense and in the kicking game. As a wideout, Riley is another undersized slot that has the play speed and change of direction skills to be a dynamic route runner. At his pro day, Riley ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash to go along with a blistering 6.41-second three-cone. He has the acceleration and speed to take a five-yard slant to the house, lateral burst to get off of press coverage at the line, and is tough to bring down in the open field. Plus, he has 115 career kickoff returns (21.2 average) and 50 career punt returns (11.3 average) on his resume. At 5-foot-8, 178 pounds, Riley has the same looming question as Hastings: can their speed translate against physical NFL defensive backs?  If Riley can prevent corners from smothering his speed, then he could carve out a role as a slot receiver and returner. 

LB De’Jon Harris, Arkansas 

Harris received the most guaranteed money ($15,000) and largest contract in total value ($140,000) for any Patriots undrafted signing this offseason, according to ESPN’s Mike Reiss. As a three-year starter for the Razorbacks, Harris had 100-plus tackles in each of his last three seasons in Fayetteville. Although he’s undersized for the position (6-feet, 234 pounds), Harris plays like a throwback linebacker packing a mean punch in the box. He’s got a thick frame, tremendous play strength, and isn’t afraid to throw his weight around. Harris also plays the run with above-average read and react to blocking schemes and plays through blocks to keep his eyes on the ball carrier. The Arkansas product went undrafted due to his size and limitations in coverage, as he’s too stiff to play on third down. But he might be Elandon Roberts 2.0 for the Patriots as an early-down linebacker.

TE/LB Rashod Berry, Ohio State

Berry is an intriguing two-way prospect that could battle for a roster spot at both tight end and outside linebacker. As a tight end, Berry is a limited pass-catching option, but he’s a bruising blocker that can effectively execute blocks both in-line and in more of an H-Back role. Berry didn’t get much opportunity to catch passes with only 17 career receptions, although there are some highlights of him making check-down throws into longer gains with tackle-breaking power after the catch. As a pass rusher, Berry flashes enough functional power to push the pocket, but he’s extremely raw and is a complete project at the position. Berry possesses the frame and athletic ability to play in the NFL, so finding a position and sticking with it to develop technique is a must.