Undrafted players making mark on 2012 Patriots

Undrafted players making mark on 2012 Patriots
September 5, 2012, 9:15 pm
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FOXBORO-- There are 29 players on the Patriots 53-man roster drafted by the team. Tom Brady is the earliest (2000) and Alfonzo Dennard is the latest, drafted in the seventh round of the 2012 NFL Draft.

The Patriots went through a bit of a dry spell during the Draft from 2004 to 2008. Just five players remain from those classes none from 2007 (in their defense, they traded three early ones that year).

Since then, they've hit some home runs. Seven draft picks from 2010 should play major roles this season, while last year's rookies like Nate Solder, Ras-I Dowling, and Stevan Ridley look to make a leap.

This year? Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower look like absolute steals based on what we've seen, and rugby sensation Nate Ebner has beaten out a number of safeties that had much more experience than he.

But all that said, it's the Patriots' eye for talent unseen by others -- at all -- that has really helped shape the team into contenders each year.

Get this: Of the active 53-man roster, 17 of those players were undrafted in the NFL. That number doesn't include undrafted special-teamer turned linebacker Dane Fletcher, who is now on season-ending IR.

That's nearly a third of this season's active roster filled with players passed up by every single team time after time . . . after time. No, the Patriots didn't sign them all out of college, but they saw enough out of some early on in their careers to scoop them up before they established themselves in the NFL.

So what do these undrafted players taken in by Bill Belichick have in common over the years?

"They've come in and they've performed to a good, competitive level and show us that they can possibly get higher," he said. "That they've been competitive and that there's upside for them to continue to develop as a player and get better. How far does that take them? How high do they go? I don't know, but I'd say that would be the common thing with those players going all the way back to Patrick Pass and guys like that even from the beginning that were late round draft choices or undrafted free agents."

In all, the Patriots have eight players that were at one point rookie and first-year free agents with the Patriots: Ryan Wendell (2008), Kyle Arrington (2009), Kyle Love (2010), Sterling Moore (2011), Mike Rivera (2011), Brandon Bolden (2012), Marcus Forston (2012), and Justin Francis (2012).

Arrington has had a major role in the team's defense over the past couple seasons, and Love has really come into his own on the defensive line. Wendell is certainly a late bloomer, but a player that Belichick seems particularly proud of in terms of progress made.

"Hes been very well coached. Obviously Pat Hill and his staff at Fresno State did an excellent job with him and Logan Mankins and all the other linemen that have come out of there," Belichick said of Wendell. "When we first had Wendy, we actually released him off the practice squad and then brought him back to the practice squad so thats a guy whose level has risen dramatically from when he first started here. Hard work, hes gotten stronger, hes improved his athletic skills, his numbers, his quickness, explosion, power, strength, all those things Hes done a good job for us all the way through. Hes always been a solid, dependable player. Hes earned it; hes definitely earned it."

Earning it - perhaps a bit more than players drafted in the higher rounds is something each and every undrafted free agent must do throughout their careers.

Wes Welker was undrafted out of Texas Tech and had a subpar career before he was traded to New England from Miami in 2007. He's undoubtedly earned his place and then some in the NFL. Danny Woodhead was undrafted out of Chadron State College and has found success in the running game with the Pats. And versatile offensive lineman Nick McDonald, undrafted out of Grand Valley State University, has drawn praise from Bill Belichick in camp.

So, no, a coaching staff probably doesn't go into camp with the expectation that an undrafted free agent will bounce out a more established player, but if the right ones come in the competition will be fierce, and it's up to the coaching staff to realize it before it's really too late.

"They played well in training camp and you evaluate the player and say, 'This guy, really with a little more experience and a little more time he might be even better' -- the Matt Cassell's and the Steve Neal's of the world and all that. I think that's what they need to show to get to that next opportunity that they've got to keep getting better or they just fizzle out and somebody else will move along with kind of the same resume and nudge them out, get ahead of them."

And so the process repeats itself.