FOXBORO – Undrafted free agents have a pretty storied history with the Patriots. Or as storied as undrafted guys’ stories can be.
There are the guys the Patriots plucked directly from the college bargain bin that turned into big-time players for them – Stephen Neal, Kyle Arrington, Randall Gay, Ryan Wendell. And there are the guys who ping-ponged around the league before settling in with New England – Joe Andruzzi, Wes Welker and Danny Amendola.
No story matches that of Malcolm Butler’s.
Undrafted out of Division II West Alabama, made the team after an OTA tryout, caught eyes in training camp and virtually disappeared during the season only to resurface in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 49 and turn in one of the most memorable plays in NFL history,
It is legend.
It’s also a little bit of fuel for the 2016 undrafted free agent corners and defensive backs we met Thursday at Gillette Stadium.
“There were some teams I was talking to, but I think once I got a chance to talk with the coaches and talk with everyone in this organization I knew this would be a great spot for me,” said Auburn’s Jonathan Jones. “They preach here that you get what you earn here, so it’s kind of one of those places that as long you put the hard work in and dedication you’ll get the results.”
Jones is one of three defensive backs I spoke to Thursday that are trying to follow Butler’s lead.
They all have different backstories as well. Jones was a second-team All-SEC player who went undrafted simply because he’s short – 5-9, 183 pounds. He also ran a 4.33 and put up 225 pounds 19 times so there’s that.
Cre’Von LeBlanc went to Florida Atlantic, wasn’t invited to the Combine and is – like Jones – small. At 5-9, 194 pounds, he doesn’t have the elite speed of Jones (4.65), but he is a relentlessly physical player with outstanding short-area quickness.
Finally, V’Angelo Bentley of Illinois is another shortish corner (5-10, 190), who tackles like a fiend, returns punts and kickoffs and is a good on-field leader. He just isn’t that fast or big either.
They’re not worried about that, though. Not now. They got a place to work and in this place, guys like them can stick.
“Right now, it’s like Coach [Belichick] always says, ‘It doesn’t matter about how you get here, it matters what you do when you get here’, and right now I’m just enjoying every opportunity and chance that I can have,” said Bentley.
Asked about Butler, Bentley said, “All the guys serve as inspiration to me. I’m still getting used to the culture. I’m still getting used to Foxborough and it’s new to me so I look up to all those guys in the back end, in the front end, all of them. I’m just learning each and every day, trying to be the best player that I can be.”
The Patriots are throwing as many fast, hard bodies as they can at the cornerback position and seeing who sticks. It’s actually fascinating to see because – aside from Butler, fellow returning starter Logan Ryan and this year’s second-rounder Cyrus Jones – it’s a bunch of unheralded guys scrapping. There’s Justin Coleman (undrafted, 2015), Daryl Roberts (seventh-round, 2015) and veteran E.J. Biggers (seventh-round 2009).
Keep panning for gold and at some point, you’ll strike. It’s happened before.