Every season the New England Patriots seemingly strike gold in the undrafted free agent (UDFA) class. Last year wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins was a starter and had the most exciting play of the season with his 17-yard touchdown reception, with no time left on the clock, to defeat New Orleans 30-27 in Week 6. Defensive tackle Joe Vellano also came into camp last year as an UDFA and started eight games.
In 2012 running back Brandon Bolden made the team, following the steps of 2008 UDFA from Ole Miss, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, A.K.A. the Law Firm. Green-Ellis rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2010 and later cashed in during free agency signing with Cincinnati. Kicker Adam Vinatieri was likely the most successful Patriots UDFA (although he pre-dated Belichick’s head coaching days). Long snapper Lonie Paxton—of the snow angels fame in the Snow Bowl—was also an UDFA.
In the salary cap era, any UDFA signing is a win for teams. Filling out the roster with contributors who do not break the bank are the hallmark of winning teams. For a team in competition for a trip to the Super Bowl each season, any roster spot filled by a UDFA is a grade of a straight “A.” Here is a look at some of the UDFA’s in training camp at key positions in need of depth on offense (running back and tight end), who could be the next player earning a high score in New England’s roster building efforts:
Justin Jones, TE (East Carolina):
Jones is a project. A big project. At six-foot-eight, 274 pounds he makes an alluring option as a red zone target. Measured with a 37-inch vertical leap, he has the size and strength to be an NFL tight end. Unfortunately, his missing a season, poor blocking fundamentals and lack of speed to create separation caused him to tumble from the draft. With Rob Gronkowski slowly returning to form, the opportunity is there for the big man to plant his feet and hold his ground to earn a roster spot..
Asa Watson, TE (North Carolina State):
Watson stands out as the younger brother of former Patriots first-round draft pick Ben Watson. Watson fills the role of an H-back or ”move” tight end (or “joker” as referred to in the Patriots offense) that Aaron Hernandez once filled. Not a big tight end like Jones, at six-foot-three, 240 pounds, Watson had a decent 40-yard dash (4.69) and at his pro day, he excelled in the three-cone drill, which is an important measurable in the New England front office. Watson, however, is extremely raw. He missed a season with a heart condition at North Carolina State and will have competition from D.J. Williams for the spot behind Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui.
Roy Finch, RB (Oklahoma):
Finch is the type of player who already has a role model in New England: former UDFA signed in free agency Danny Woodhead. Finch is even shorter than Woodhead, but the Oklahoma alum is explosive in the open field and can contribute some much needed energy in the return game immediately. Kickoff returns have been a huge problem for the Patriots and getting wide receiver Julian Edelman out of punt return duties is a must. Finch is only five-foot-six (or seven, depending on the source), but the thoughts of another quick, jitterbug back, who makes defenders grab air, is exciting for the Patriots.
Stephen Houston, RB (Indiana):
Houston has the skill set, speed and size to make an impact in training camp and wrestle away a spot at running back. At six-foot, 225 pounds, Houston has outstanding measurables. Linked to the Patriots in the pre-draft process, Houston was a expected signing who can add depth behind Stevan Ridley and compete with Brandon Bolden for the backup spot. Houston has explosiveness and should fit the Patriots’ one-cut zone blocking scheme that has helped make the running game work so well the past few seasons. Houston needs to improve his blocking (like many young backs) but can also contribute in the passing game with good hands and route running skills.
Follow Hal Bent at @halbent01
Like this? CLICK HERE to see if Darrelle Revis is looking like his old-self.