The Patriots under Bill Belichick have developed a reputation for finding talent in a variety of places. One such avenue has been with undrafted rookies, many of whom have contributed greatly to the team's success throughout New England's long run of success.
Tops on that list is unquestionably Malcolm Butler, who scrapped his way onto the roster in the summer of 2014 before coming up with the game-saving interception in Super Bowl XLIX to give the Patriots their fourth title. Butler wasn't just a one-hit wonder, though, as he followed up his instant celebrity with a Pro Bowl season in his second year and now is one of the cornerstones of the team's defense.
Beyond Butler there have been many examples of undrafted rookies making their mark in New England. Cornerback Randall Gay, running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Brandon Bolden, center David Andrews and defensive lineman Mike Wright are just a few.
With OTAs underway in Foxborough the media has gotten its first look at the latest crop of under-the-radar newcomers and we're trying to decide which ones may have a chance to succeed. But before we make those determinations we thought it would be interesting to take a look back. (Technically Stephen Neal was an undrafted rookie but as a collegiate wrestler who didn't play football he's in a different category and doesn't qualify for our list).
This week's Samsonite Make Your Case question is: Which undrafted rookie free agent (other than Butler) was the Patriots best?
PFW's Andy Hart says...
Gay transitioned swiftly and successfully from Nick Saban's LSU program to a key role on Bill Belichick's defense as an undrafted rookie in 2004. The young cornerback immediately showed himself a slot option in his first training camp in Foxborough and by the end of the season was a starter on a team that won the Super Bowl.
Gay's rookie campaign included nine starts in 15 regular-season games played and three starts in the postseason. He notched two interceptions in the regular season and forced a fumble in the Super Bowl win over the Eagles. Gay went on to start 14 of 39 games played in New England, his production limited more by injuries than anything else.
He later signed a nice free agent deal with the Saints, where he started another 20 games before being forced to retire at the age of 28 due to concussions. In a league where cornerbacks are hard to come by, Gay was a solid, competitive cover man on a championship defense. The man nicknamed Blue didn't have the Super Bowl-clinching interception that Butler had, but Gay was a key factor throughout 2004 on the Patriots march to a second-straight title.
Gay should be proud of his career as one of the best undrafted rookies of Belichick's tenure, one in which meritocracy has reigned in New England.
PFW's Paul Perillo says...
There were plenty of flashier running backs than Benny but few were as reliable during his time in the Patriots backfield. Green-Ellis made the roster after a brief stint on the practice in 2008 and eventually chipped in with five rushing touchdowns playing in an offense without Tom Brady. He remained a backup the following year, but in 2010 he got his chance.
That season he led the team with 1,008 and 13 touchdowns while averaging almost 4.5 yards per carry for a team that finished 14-2. He tacked on 11 more touchdowns the following season, continuing his penchant for tough running in short-yardage and goal-line situations. And throughout his four seasons in the Patriots backfield the guy his teammates nicknamed Law Firm never fumbled a single time.
Benny left for Cincinnati via free agency but no Patriots back has topped the 13 touchdowns he posted in 2010 since. He was a no frills, straight-ahead performer who rarely did anything to get noticed, but he always did his job. And for an undrafted rookie, that's exactly the kind of performance coaches look for.
Now it's your turn to cast a vote in this week's Samsonite Make Your Case poll question.