ST. PAUL, Minn. — There’s a left-footed punter from Louisiana Tech and a Super Bowl hero who once worked at Popeyes. There’s a center from Georgia who is related to Dan Reeves (by marriage), and the son of a Texas high school football coach who ended up dating Ms. Universe. There’s a linebacker from Kent State with a strong case for the Hall of Fame and a receiver who starred at lacrosse in college.
With Bill Belichick making his eighth appearance in the Super Bowl as a head coach on Sunday, each successive trip has prompted ways to further quantify and illuminate his genius as a coach and executive. The most glaring yet underappreciated example of that on this Patriots roster comes from its underdog soul, as 18 players on the Patriots’ 53-man roster came into the league as undrafted.
Belichick is the only current NFL coach with complete roster control, and this aspect epitomizes the power of that autonomy. When New England takes the field against the Eagles in the Super Bowl, 34 percent of the Patriots’ roster will be undrafted.
“There’s an equality to the players drafted and undrafted in the eyes of the evaluators,” said former Patriots executive Mike Lombardi, who now works at The Ringer. “There’s no agenda. When you remove the agenda of player procurement, you end up with what are best players. You admit mistakes like they have; you don’t worry about it.”
The 18 undrafted players is considered an anomalously high number in the NFL, as the Eagles have nine undrafted players on their 53-man Super Bowl roster. The 18 undrafted players are higher than any of New England’s past four Super Bowl champions, the furthest back the team could research on Monday.
What does the Patriots’ roster of the overlooked and undersized, misfits and misevaluations say about the organization? What does New England’s ultimately meritocracy say about the way players are evaluated without the bias? It comes down to the ultimate compliment to Belichick the executive, as he can move quickly from mistakes, gamble on hunches and avoid the political clashes that populate the league. Belichick has a quick trigger on high draft picks like Dominique Easley (first round), Aaron Dobson (second round) and Jake Bequette (third round), jettisoning from the roster as soon as it becomes clear they don’t fit. He’s also not attached to productive players who may be distractions (Chandler Jones) or not fit in the team’s fiscal plans (Jamie Collins).
“Remember, there’s no one in the front office saying we need to keep this draft picks and do this or that,” Lombardi said.
That doesn’t exactly sound revelatory, right? The best players reach the field, earn roster spots and the inferior ones are cut. Well, it’s just not that simple in the modern NFL. When the front offices and coaching staffs are separate, the roster inherently becomes a clash of egos, opinions and financial maneuvering.
There are biases everywhere, from the general manager who makes the picks to the scouts who recommend them to the owners who pay them money up front. The Patriots have the least amount of this clutter, as egos can’t clash when there’s only one decision maker.
“Bill doesn’t have to worry about that GM,” said assistant coach Ivan Fears. “He is the GM.”
Lombardi is quick to remind everyone how difficult Belichick’s jobs are. He’s noted for watching college film on the treadmill during the NFL season, reading every morsel of scouting information from his staff and being hands on with every facet of the draft. Coaches like former Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer told Yahoo Sports on Monday that it’s not unusual for Belichick to call them about their opinions on undrafted free agents.
“I would say that no one works harder than Bill; he’s so well versed in every single area,” Lombardi said. “He works as hard as any general manager, and he’s also the head coach. He works as hard as any head coach, and he’s also the general manager.”
What’s created is an environment where a player like Danny Amendola can churn through the Cowboys, Eagles and Rams organizations after being undrafted before becoming a frontline player in New England. Before he dated supermodels, Amendola was trying to hang on in the league. Now he’s taking pay cuts to stay in New England, appreciative of the culture that showcased him.
“I think the biggest thing is that everyone is just on equal footing,” said Joe Judge, the Patriots’ special teams coach. “When you walk in, everyone has a chance. It’s about production and who does it dependably and consistently.”
Some of the undrafted players have little to do with Belichick, as a veteran pick-up like James Harrison – undrafted out of Kent State in 2002 – took little keen evaluation skill from a draft perspective.
But undrafted players have been a constant under Belichick in New England, as this marked the 14th consecutive season an undrafted free agent made the Patriots’ roster. Six undrafted players from the 2013 class made that season’s opening day roster, including punter Ryan Allen who has become a special teams mainstay. This season, the Patriots opened the season with four new undrafted players – tight end Jacob Hollister, lineman Cole Croston, defensive tackle Adam Butler and edge rusher Harvey Langi. Butler has been a rotation player for the Patriots this season and will play significant snaps in the Super Bowl.
“I remember my agent telling me to come to New England, they give undrafted guys a fair chance,” said backup quarterback Brian Hoyer, who began his career in New England in 2009 before winding back this season. “The best player is going to make the team. The best player is going to play. For me, knowing I had an equal opportunity, all I had to do was go out and prove it.”
Malcolm Butler (undrafted in 2014) proved it with his goal-line interception to save the Super Bowl against Seattle three years ago. Center David Andrews went from undrafted to co-captain. Chris Hogan starred in lacrosse at Penn State before giving football a shot, and he got released by four teams before landing in New England.
All three are mainstays of this Patriots Super Bowl team, reminders that more than one-third of the Patriots’ roster were available to anyone and everyone at one time. Proof that evaluating without agenda and front office ego can produce spectacular results.
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