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Rookie free agents coming to town

The announcement of Mr. Irrelevant as the final selection of draft weekend doesn't necessarily close the door of opportunity for college football players looking to make the jump to the NFL. But for those who weren't lucky enough to get one of the 255 calls on draft weekend the now tumultuous path to playing football professionally turns to rookie free agent contracts and rookie camp tryouts.

While the Patriots won't officially release the names of their rookie free agents until later this week, six undrafted players have already gotten the call from the defending Super Bowl champions to join the team's eight draft choices this weekend on the practice fields of Gillette Stadium for rookie mini camp. LSU cornerback Randall Gay, LSU linebacker Eric Alexander, Bentley safety Ryan Ferguson, Iowa linebacker Grant Steen, Michigan tight end Andy Mignery and Harvard linebacker Dante Balestracci will all be in town come Friday to begin the uphill battle for survival that is life as an undrafted rookie.

The 6-2, 240-pound Balestracci, a standout at New Bedford (Mass.) High, was the first player in Ivy League history to be named to the conference's All-First Team for four straight years. He was the Ivy League Rookie of the Year in 2000 and ranks second all-time in tackles for Harvard. According to his agent, Kristen Kuliga, the local standout has not signed with the Patriots but has been given the chance to earn a deal by working out with the rest of the 2004 rookie class later this week.

"If it doesn't work out, then he'll look at trying to get into another team's camp," Kuliga told the New Bedford Standard Times. "He's willing to do whatever it take to get an opportunity to play in the NFL."

The two LSU products are just the latest examples of Tigers that have come north thanks, at least in part, to the comfortable and confident relationship that Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick has with LSU head man and former Belichick assistant Nick Saban. Gay is a 5-11, 186-pounder with 4.38 speed and experience at corner, nickel back and free safety. He played in 12 games with three starts (missing action with a broken arm for part of the year) for the national champions in 2003 registering 31 tackles, two sacks and 13 passes defensed. Alexander is a 6-2, 225-pound former safety who excelled on special teams for LSU before starting all 14 games at strong side outside linebacker as a senior. He finished 2003 with 65 tackles, two fumble recoveries, one forced fumble, five sacks and five passes defensed.

Bentley's Ferguson, a 6-2, 212-pound Connecticut native, is another local product hoping to impress enough to earn a contract this weekend. The senior played in 11 games for the Falcons a year ago, tallying 53 tackles, two sacks, one interception, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.

"The Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles both showed interest prior to the draft," Ferguson told the Boston Herald. "I was hoping with some luck one of those teams would follow through and the Pats came through with their offer."

The 6-2, 242-pound Steen is a former walk-on at Iowa who ended up starting 36-of-49 games played over four seasons. As a senior he started 11-of-12 games at outside linebacker and finished the season with 58 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery earning All-Big Ten conference honorable mention.

Mignery is a 6-3, 250-pound tight end who started seven of 12 games played at Michigan in 2003. He finished the year with four receptions for 48 yards and two touchdowns. He was also named as the Wolverines top football student athlete and named to the academic All-Big Ten Conference team. Mignery went to Michigan as a quarterback in 1999 where he was a teammate of Tom Brady. He made the switch to tight end for the 2002 season.

Rookie mini camp kicks off this Friday at Gillette Stadium and runs through Sunday.

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