Thanks to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s equal opportunity approach, New England is riding an 18-season streak of an undrafted rookie free agent making the initial 53-man roster.
Starting with defensive back Randall Gay back in 2004, the Patriots’ impressive run of finding undrafted gems includes several standout performers. The biggest names on the list include Pro Bowlers J.C. Jackson and Malcolm Butler, team captain David Andrews, starting slot corner Jonathan Jones, and wide receiver Jakobi Meyers.
After rookie kicker Quinn Nordin extended the streak last season, the 2021 free-agent class and a ten-player draft class have the streak in jeopardy. There are seemingly fewer roster spots up for grabs this summer in the early stages of the post-draft offseason.
Based on their current 90-man roster, we would put the number of open roster spots at roughly ten, with 43 projected locks and a handful of veterans that have a good chance to make the team.
Although it’ll take an excellent training camp and preseason to make the roster as an undrafted rookie this year, New England signed eight UDFAs who showed NFL potential in college.
Here are the eight UDFAs signings ranked by likelihood to make the roster with a quick scouting report on each Pats rookie:
1. DL LaBryan Ray, Alabama
Ray was a former five-star High School prospect who has NFL traits in his size, frame and playing strength. However, he failed to live up to the hype due to injuries in four of his five seasons in Tuscaloosa.
What a damn rep by DE LaBryan Ray vs Sadarius Hutcherson
😳Stack n Shed violence 😳 pic.twitter.com/OA09bA8UVu
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) August 16, 2020
As a Nick Saban defensive lineman, Ray is technically sound at the point of attack to set a firm edge and work through blockers in the running game. He has the length and hand power to defeat single blocks and consistently flashes the ability to two-gap on the interior. After the Pats ranked 25th in yards per carry against the run last season, they need more early-down workers like Ray, who can build a wall along the line of scrimmage. For those reasons, Ray’s physical tools and the need to beef up the D-Line give him a chance to make the team.
2. QB/WR D’Eriq King, Miami
King is the most talented player among New England’s undrafted rookie signings. They worked out the former Miami quarterback several times during the pre-draft process, hoping that he might convert to wide receiver like Julian Edelman in the pros. King has electric play speed, change of direction, and ball carrying skills to elude tacklers in the open field. He has collegiate experience as a receiver with 58 catches in 2016-17, kickoff return experience, and, of course, played quarterback. King should be number one on this list based on pure football talent. But he’s a project as a receiver, and the Pats already go five deep at the position. Will there be a roster spot for him on the 53? Or are the Pats better off stashing him on the practice squad or injured reserve? It’ll depend on how much King flashes in the preseason.
3. DB Branden Schooler, Texas
Schooler played wide receiver, safety, and was a core special teamer for the Longhorns. His football instincts and play recognition pop off the tape, while he isn’t afraid to take ball carriers head-on and is a technically sound tackler. With the Patriots losing Brandon King and Brandon Bolden this offseason, Schooler could replenish the kick coverage specialists pipeline this season. The knock on him is play speed, though, so he’ll need to prove he can keep up with NFL-caliber returners.
4. C Liam Shanahan, LSU
The Patriots felt the need to add depth to the interior of their offensive line when they selected Cole Strange in the first round and Chasen Hines in the sixth round. Then, they brought in Shanahan and fellow UDFA center Kody Russey. With James Ferentz, Drew Desjarlais, Will Sherman, and Arlington Hambright as the veteran depth behind David Andrews and Mike Onwenu, the emphasis on interior offensive lineman makes sense.
Shanahan profiles as a bigger center at 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, similar to Ted Karras coming out of college. Despite his surroundings on a talented LSU line, Shanahan’s leadership and work ethic stood out amongst the group, starting every game at center for the last two seasons. He also has some noticeable first-step explosiveness off the snap, drives his legs and works his hand technique through the rep, and can make adjustments on the fly. He’ll need to bulk up and improve his playing strength to stick. But Shanahan was projected by some scouts as a potential starting center in the league.
5. CB Devin Hafford, Tarleton State University
If there is one area where the Patriots truly have a knack for finding undrafted talent, it’s at cornerback; J.C. Jackson, Malcolm Butler, and Jonathan Jones are the headliners there. Hafford was the WAC Defensive Player of the Year and had 12 interceptions in his collegiate career. This is a player with legit ball skills and man coverage ability with enough size to play on the outside. But his slower 40-yard dash time and reliance on instincts make his projection as a safety a cleaner proposition. It won’t surprise us if Hafford starts to flash in camp.
6. C Kody Russey, Houston
Russey’s athletic profile fits the David Andrews mold as an undersized but feisty center prospect. He plays the game with the tough demeanor needed in the trenches, seems to have a good grasp of blocking angles and leverage, and has a solid anchor in the tape we saw. However, Russey lacks explosive athletic traits and struggles to move laterally in the run game. Still, we’ll give him an outside chance because his strengths and weaknesses are similar to Andrews when he came out of Georgia.
7. EDGE DaMercus Mitchell, Purdue
The Patriots like how the Purdue program coaches their front seven defenders, with Mitchell joining fellow Boilermaker Ja’Whaun Bentley on the roster. Mitchell has some alignment versatility to play as a standup edge rusher and a hand-in-the-dirt defensive lineman. His first-step explosiveness is arguably his best trait, other than his versatility, and he has experience in coverage and as a QB spy. As a former running back, there are some flashes of explosive movements and speed to power, which also projects well on special teams. We have him currently as a long shot to make the roster because of his struggles setting the edge and with gap discipline. Mitchell wants to convert speed-to-power, and it causes him to lose his gap integrity at times, which we know is critical in Belichick’s defensive scheme.
8. P Jake Julien, Eastern Michigan
You might be surprised to see the punter ranked so low after we theorized that the Patriots could draft a punter to replace Jake Bailey. But passing several times on “Punt God” Matt Araiza bodes well for how the team views the 2020 All-Pro. Although it’s just my gut talking, an extension for Bailey before the end of camp wouldn’t be a surprise. Julien has a massive leg with two 70-plus yard punts in his career and 51 kicks of 50-or-more yards. His 43.4 career punting average is an Eastern Michigan career record, so he has some field-flipping talent. But, again, this was a great punter draft, and the Pats put their confidence in Bailey.