NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
Being one of the best 53 players on an NFL team is a baseline goal for both veterans and rookies, alike. It’s not about what a player accomplished elsewhere, or what round a player was drafted in; it’s about what a player can accomplish in the present and the future.
And whether you’re a prized acquisition or a long shot, that song remains the same.
Just ask New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
Belichick and the Patriots brass trimmed New England’s roster down to 51 players before the 6 p.m. deadline on Saturday, Aug. 31. Among the notable moves, five-time Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson was placed on injured reserve, 2011 second-round defensive end Jermaine Cunningham was waived/injured and 2010 fifth-round punter Zoltan Mesko was released.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins, tight end Zach Sudfeld, offensive linemen Braxston Cave and Chris Barker, defensive tackles Joe Vellano and A.J. Francis, as well as punter Ryan Allen.
All of whom made the tentative cut as undrafted rookies.
The seven greenhorns have outlasted incumbents to join the 17 overall undrafted players on New England’s “final” roster.
Here’s how they beat the odds.
Kenbrell Thompkins’ NFL journey has been one of triumphs and tribulations. Growing up in the difficult Miami, Fla., neighborhood of Liberty City, Thompkins was surrounded by trouble at an early age and was arrested seven times before his 19th birthday. Yet when his younger brother was offered a football scholarship to play at the University of Miami, Thompkins made a conscious effort to turn his life around, eventually enrolling at El Camino College after a stint at Palomar Community College.
Following two seasons, 111 receptions, 1,766 yards and 14 touchdowns with the Warriors, Thompkins ventured to the University of Cincinnati, where he posted 78 receptions, 1,077 yards and four touchdowns in two seasons with the Bearcats. Although given his checkered past and good-but-not-great production at the Division I level, Thompkins did not hear his name called in April’s NFL draft, while 28 other wide receivers did.
When the Patriots called after the draft, Thompkins was sure to make the most of it. Once training camp opened up, so did the 25-year-old wideout. The 6’0”, 195-pounder was able separate from the pack with his footwork, release off the line, arm movement through cuts, balance and aggressiveness for the football. He established chemistry with quarterback Tom Brady in the preseason opener versus the Philadelphia Eagles – catching four passes on the Pats’ initial drive – and carried that over through the end of the exhibition games. No. 85 even warranted the “veteran treatment” in Week 3 and Week 4 of the schedule, manning the sidelines while second- and fourth-round receivers Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce stayed on the field. Thompkins has emerged as a viable “X” target for the Patriots, and appears to be the immediate starter across from Danny Amendola.
It’s never been about ability with tight end Zach Sudfeld; it’s been about health. Following his redshirt season as a University of Nevada walk-on in 2007, shoulder, wrist and knee injuries forced the Modesto, Calif., native to miss the entire 2008 Wolf Pack season. He got healthy for 2009 and carved a role on special teams. And a year later, Sudfeld notched four starts and a catch. Then, during his redshirt senior season in 2011, Sudfeld started the first game of the campaign against the University of Oregon but did not finish it. The 6’7”, 260-pounder got his leg rolled up in a block and was carted off the field with complete fracture.
It could have easily ended his career, given the four previous surgeries he had undergone during his tenure in Reno, Nev. But instead, Sudfeld went under the knife twice more, was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, and fought back to finish his collegiate career on a high note. Sudfeld snagged 45 passes for 598 yards and eight scores in 2012 on his way to becoming a Mackey Award semifinalist. He played the flex tight end spot in Nevada’s Pistol attack and had 24 of his blocks net touchdowns, as The NFL Draft Report’s Dave-Te’ Thomas explained to NESN.com’s Doug Kyed. He was a dynamic talent last fall, although his durability woes kept the athletic prospect from getting drafted.
The Patriots latched onto him as a priority free agent, however, and he’s been a revelation ever since. Sudfeld’s downfield prowess, ability to play in-line, H-back and the “Move” spot worked into his favor. He acclimated into the first-team offense this preseason and caught eight balls for 101 yards, a TD and a two-point conversion. The 24-year-old’s early performances allowed the Patriots to cut vets Daniel Fells and Jake Ballard. And there’s reason to believe he’ll be a factor with or without Rob Gronkowski in the lineup.
Center Braxston Cave started 35 of 48 career games at the University of Notre Dame. Up the his redshirt senior season, the 6’3″, 305-pound blocker played his way onto the Rimington Trophy, Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy watch lists. He still went undrafted before finding a home with the Cleveland Browns.
The 24-year-old Cave played 57 snaps this preseason for the Browns, ranking as the team’s second-best run-blocker, cites Pro Football Focus. But with the roster crunch, Cleveland opted to waive the rookie offensive lineman and the Patriots were in seating to claim him.
The addition of Cave reinforces New England’s center position, where Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly have been the prominent handlers over the last few years.
Offensive guard Chris Barker started all 40 games of his college career at Nevada, where he was a teammate of Sudfeld. The 6’2″, 305-pounder worked his way onto the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award watch lists during his redshirt senior season of 2012. But despite being a mainstay on the Wolf Pack offensive line, Barker went undrafted and was signed by the Miami Dolphins afterwards.
The 23-year-old put a lot of tape out there this preseason. He played the fourth-most snaps of any Miami O-lineman, but was waived during the final cut.
New England claimed Barker on Sunday, which now put the fluid offensive line depth at 10 men. On Monday, cornerback Marquice Cole was re-signed and undrafted interior lineman Josh Kline was waived.
Joe Vellano followed in his father’s footsteps on his way to All-American recognition at the University of Maryland. He wasn’t built in the mold of a prototypical defensive tackle, and was listed as 6’2”, 285 pounds by the Terrapins’ official website. But that didn’t keep Vellano from becoming a three-year collegiate starter.
Vellano amassed 94 total tackles and 2.5 sacks when Maryland operated out of a 4-3 defensive front in 2011. When Maryland switched to a 3-4 front in 2012, Vellano didn’t skip a beat, as he brought down ball-carriers for six sacks and 14 tackles for loss. That said, limited athleticism, a 5.35 40-yard time at his pro day and a foot injury all played parts in the 24-year-old going undrafted.
Vellano inked a contract with the Patriots soon after the draft. And he’s made some nice stops since then. With a shallow pool of D-tackles in Foxborough, Mass., Vellano seized extended action in New England’s 4-3 alignment as the preseason progressed. By the time all four preseason tilts had concluded, Pro Football Focus had Vellano graded out as the team’s third-best run-stopper and sixth-best pass-rusher. Even with consideration given to the level of competition the defensive lineman went up against this August, Vellano still showed enough for the Patriots to retain him. He may never be a starter, but he can play the three- and five-technique when asked to. Nonetheless, the Patriots are not done adding to the position.
The organization has claimed A.J. Francis – Vellano’s college teammate – off waivers from the Dolphins. The 6’5″, 309-pounder collected 149 total tackles and 20.5 sacks during his four seasons with the Terrapins, where he excelled in Maryland’s 3-4 conversion. Still, a nine-sack senior season wasn’t enough for the 23-year-old Francis to be drafted.
The Dolphins agreed to terms with Francis following the draft, and he did enough to potentially warrant a place on the Miami practice squad after making six tackles this preseason. Although before he could get there, the Patriots nabbed him.
As it stands now, Francis and Vellano are New England’s third and fourth defensive tackles.
An Oregon State transfer, Louisiana Tech’s Ryan Allen quietly arose as best punter in the country over the last two seasons. Between 2011 and 2012 with the Bulldogs, the 6’2”, 215-pounder averaged 47 yards per punt. In turn, he won the Ray Guy Award – the Heisman for punters – twice, becoming the only two-time winner in history.
Yet as a specialist, the likelihood of the 23-year-old getting drafted by an NFL team was dim. He was not one of the two “booters” taken on April 27. But the Patriots were able to get ahold of him shortly thereafter. In hindsight, it was not a move of due diligence.
Allen duked it out with respected teammate and fan favorite Zoltan Mesko during camp and the preseason. He launched nine for a 45.9-yard average, including a 56-yard long, four inside the 20-yard line and one touchback. In comparison, the 27-year-old Mesko launched 14 for a 44.6-yard average, including a 57-yard long, two inside the 20-yard line and no touchbacks. And in the morning hours of Saturday, Mesko was released, which meant that the hang time, the big leg, the accuracy and the affordability of the undrafted rookie had won out.