COMMENTARY | The New England Patriots have made a cottage industry out of developing their own stars from players who came to them by flying under the radar.
As the 2013 season nears, could the team have struck gold again with undrafted rookie tight end Zach Sudfeld?
The most obvious example of a rags-to-riches story on the Patriots is starting quarterback Tom Brady, who entered the NFL as a sixth-round draft pick in 2000. Wide receiver Wes Welker (undrafted), running back Stevan Ridley (third round) and defensive end Rob Ninkovich (fifth round) are more recent examples of unheralded players blossoming into impact contributors in New England.
With several weeks left in preseason, Sudfeld is showing signs he could be next in line in this growing tradition.
At 6 feet 7 inches and 260 pounds, he is a massive tight end in the mold of Pro-Bowl teammate Rob Gronkowski, who is expected to miss at least the start of this season because of injury. That circumstance is the primary reason why the rookie has gotten a chance to seemingly come out of nowhere and shine.
The Boston Herald's Karen Guregian wrote that six college surgeries while at the University of Nevada, and less-than-stellar draft workout numbers led to Sudfeld not getting picked. The 45 catches, 598 receiving yards and eight touchdowns he accumulated last season weren't enough for the 24-year-old to overcome his red flags.
With Gronkowski unable to take the field, Aaron Hernandez released, and a veteran group of solid but uninspiring tight ends, Sudfeld was brought in for positional depth by New England. He has taken that chance and made the most of his opportunities this preseason.
He gained the spotlight with the impressive performances he has given in practices, according to CSNNE.com's Tom E. Curran. In addition to tremendous pass-catching ability and a surprising quickness for someone his size, he has also proven to be a capable blocker. He still has a lot of work to do, but if what he's shown so far translates into game production, that could make him a special player.
But are expectations for the youngster growing too fast?
Because of his hulking size and early hype, Sudfeld has earned the nickname "Baby Gronk" from ESPN's Sal Paolantonio. Such attention, combined with the task of replacing a star like Gronkowski for an unknown period of time, is a tall order for any rookie, let alone one so unknown coming out of the draft.
Combining for three catches for 54 yards and a score in the first two preseason games, Sudfeld has had a nice showing, but such a small sampling is difficult to extrapolate answers of how that will translate to the regular season. It's rather unfair to anoint him as a star, let alone a consistent contributor, without giving him more time to learn, gain experience and prove himself.
The high expectations will only continue for Sudfeld. Unlike most undrafted rookies, he not only seems to already be a lock for the final 53-man roster, but he also has a great chance to start -- at least until Gronk returns.
ESPN.com's Mike Reiss believes the rookie will join veteran Jake Ballard as the two starting tight ends.
New England head coach Bill Belichick, who isn't prone to outbursts of compliments, has been vocal in his praise of the rookie tight end. He told WEEI's Christopher Price, "Zach has come in and absorbed a lot of information. The offense that he played in in Nevada is quite a bit different than what we do -- I'm sure there are some similarities, but there are quite a few differences as well. He's been able to acclimate to those changes. He catches the ball well."
Although the absence of Gronkowski has given Sudfeld his opportunity, his return could be the best thing for the youngster's continued development. Allowing him to step back a bit from the spotlight would be a big help to his transition to the pro game.
Despite the hoopla surround Sudfeld, he hasn't let his sudden success go to his head. Instead, as he explained to Guregian, he is grateful for each day he is able to keep playing. "I'm just happy to be on the Patriots team, regardless of how I got here," he said. "It's a great opportunity. I love football. I love being a football player."
The odds are against Sudfeld becoming a star because it's rare for an undrafted player to become an impact player. Fortunately, where you've come from doesn't matter as much with the Patriots as how you can help them win. If he keeps up his impressive development, he has a great chance to become an important part of the team's future.
In addition to the Yahoo! Contributor Network, Andrew Martin has written for Bleacher Report and a number of print publications and websites on the topics of history and sports. He also produces his own blog and has appeared on various sports talk shows and podcasts.
You can follow Andrew on Twitter @historianandrew.
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