Report Card Grades for New England Patriots Undrafted Free Agent Signings
The New England Patriots ended the 2014 NFL draft with 75 roster members, meaning that there was plenty of room for undrafted free agent signings. Sure enough, the Pats have reached the 90-man limit with 15 signings, and now have the roster they will take into minicamp.
Undrafted free agents rarely catch the attention of casual fans, but they play an integral part in roster construction. The Patriots have thrived off finding cheap bargains like Kyle Arrington, Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly to play important roles on both sides of the ball and on special teams.
Though TV coverage makes the draft appear interminable, seven rounds is actually rather short for teams that need to fill out 53-man rosters. For a look at which Patriots' undrafted free agents could be steals after slipping through the cracks, let's evaluate and provide a grade for each signing. Note that these grades are based upon both skill and need, and no tryout prospects were included, since they do not have a formal contract.
*All combine stats and measurables via NFL.com.
Tyler Beck, TE, Bowling Green
Beck had a fairly nondescript collegiate career, with just 25 career catches for 348 yards and three touchdowns. The Bowling Green product may be more of an H-back, similar to the role Michael Hoomanawanui filled during the 2012 season.
The Patriots did not draft a tight end, and the depth is perilously thin behind Rob Gronkowski. However, Beck is not the receiving tight end that the Patriots need, and with fullback James Develin around, the Pats have a proven blocker in the backfield.
New England signed a couple other tight ends with better chances to make the roster, but Beck seems unlikely to make a dent past spring practices.
Roy Finch, RB, Oklahoma
The diminutive Roy Finch comes with clear limitations, and there's a very real chance he may not be able to hold up under NFL-caliber punishment. Nonetheless, he was an explosive player at Oklahoma when not residing in Bob Stoops' doghouse, with the versatility to catch passes as well.
The Pats do need some running back depth, as they will need someone to take preseason reps from the quartet of Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden and fourth-rounder James White. Finch is a lottery ticket who could potentially turn into a kick returner as well.
Versatility, particularly on special teams, is a must for most rookie free agents. Finch is unlikely to make the roster, but he is not a bad investment for this summer.
James Morris, ILB, Iowa
James Morris had a highly productive career at Iowa, compiling 399 tackles over four seasons. A high-motor leader who played for Bill Belichick disciple Kirk Ferentz, Morris has a leg up on most undrafted rookies in this year's class.
Morris does not provide much special teams value, but given the lack of depth in the linebacking corps, it's conceivable he could play an early-down presence in base packages. Morris is an instinctive downhill tackler, a skill set the Pats need following Brandon Spikes' offseason departure.
The Patriots traditionally have a few undrafted free agents earn a roster spot every season. Of all the signings this year, Morris looks to have the best chance.
Travis Hawkins, CB, Delaware
A former Maryland Terrapin, Hawkins transferred to Delaware for his sophomore season, and ended up starting 19 games during his Blue Hens career. Hawkins accrued 102 tackles, 12 pass deflections and four interceptions during his career.
However, his greatest value to the Pats might come on special teams. Hawkins has some experience returning kicks, and New England needs a new primary kick returner following LeGarrette Blount's offseason departure.
Hawkins is unlikely to win the role, as he will need to beat out Josh Boyce and a plethora of other rookies. Still, he has value that could keep him around through the preseason
Justin Jones, TE, East Carolina
If today's tight ends are physically freakish mismatches, then East Carolina's Justin Jones could be the prototype. The 6'8" Jones caught 12 touchdowns despite having just 52 total receptions during his collegiate career, a whopping ratio that screams red-zone threat.
Jones is not a particularly polished blocker, meaning that he is more of a receiving "F" tight end. D.J. Williams is the only current tight end that fulfills that designation, so with a good preseason, Jones could very well earn a roster spot.
At the very least, his size will be an entertaining presence during the preseason. Jones could be a practice squad candidate if he demonstrates enough receiving skill to warrant further development.
Deylan Buntyn, DT, N.C. State
Deylan Buntyn adds some defensive tackle depth during minicamp, as the Pats need a larger two-gapper while Vince Wilfork recovers from his Achilles' injury. However, Buntyn is a long shot to even stick around long enough for training camp.
With first-round pick Dominique Easley, defensive tackle looks like a lesser need at this point. Yes, the Patriots still need to eventually find a two-gapping anchor to succeed Wilfork, but they have enough diversity and depth at the position to survive in 2014.
Buntyn does not represent a long-term option, and with a relatively anonymous college career, he stands little chance of cracking the roster.
Asa Watson, TE, N.C. State
Asa Watson could look familiar to some Patriots followers, as the N.C. State product is the younger brother of former New England tight end Ben Watson. A speedy and agile tight end, Watson possesses nice physical traits that could warrant a further look.
His chances of actually cracking the roster are low, as Watson is an extremely unpolished prospect. During his collegiate career, Watson compiled just 27 catches. For someone with his natural athleticism, that is far too low of a number.
Still, Watson could develop into a move tight end, a clear position of need. For that, he could end up on the practice squad if he can grasp the Patriots offense with some competency this summer.
Tyler Ott, LS, Harvard
Harvard's Tyler Ott provides more camp competition at long snapper, joining 2013 incumbent Danny Aiken and offseason signing Charley Hughlett. Aiken has had a fairly consistent tenure in Foxboro, and at 25 years old, he is not in need of a younger replacement.
Ott adds competition, which is never necessarily a bad thing. But he is highly unlikely to make the roster, and three long snappers seems a bit excessive.
Cameron Gordon, LB, Michigan
Along with James Morris, Michigan's Cameron Gordon could potentially make the 53-man roster to add linebacker depth. Unlike Morris, Gordon (6'3", 237 lbs) profiles as more of a coverage linebacker whose main defensive presence would come in sub packages.
According to NEPatriotsDraft.com's Mike Loyko, the Pats gave Gordon a large signing bonus, a promising sign for his roster hopes. While that certainly does not guarantee a long-term future, Gordon does have the fluid movement skills the Patriots have sought out from their front-seven prospects in recent seasons.
Although some may question New England's decision not to add more linebacker depth in the draft, they have now signed a pair of quality rookie free agents at the position. With a good camp, Gordon could emerge as a top reserve in the event of an injury.
Jeremy Deering, S, Rutgers
After last year's Rutgers-to-Foxboro mass migration, safety Jeremy Deering is the only Scarlet Knight the Patriots have acquired this year. A receiver for three years, Deering made the switch to defense his senior year, though he did not have a significant presence.
Deering's primary asset is in the kick return game, where he returned 41 kickoffs for 26.8 yards per return. His 4.3 40-yard dash speed should also aid him as a gunner on kick coverage teams.
Deering is highly unlikely to help on defense, but if he emerges as a core special teams contributor, then his signing will be good value.
Deontae Skinner, LB, Mississippi State
The Patriots have employed numerous SEC linebackers throughout the years, and Mississippi State's Deontae Skinner continues that trend. Skinner had a nice career in Starkville, compiling 202 tackles over four years and emerging as a defensive leader.
Skinner had just one sack in four seasons, so he is clearly not much of a pass-rusher. There's some overlap with James Morris, as Skinner (6'2", 250 lbs) is a heavier thumper whose strength is against the run. Thus, Pats observers will have a good point of comparison when evaluating Skinner this preseason.
Any depth at linebacker is welcome, so Skinner should stick around for a while, even if his roster chances are not particularly high.
Stephen Houston, RB, Indiana
Indiana running back Stephen Houston is an intriguing prospect who could warrant a look at a position that needs some depth. The Pats top four looks set, but next year's impending free agency purge could allow a rookie standout to receive an opportunity in 2015.
NEPatriotsDraft.com's Mike Loyko noted that the Patriots showed some pre-draft interest in Houston, who compiled 29 touchdowns and 6.1 yards per touch over four seasons as a Hoosier. An explosive back who tested well at his pro day, Houston has big-play ability and decisiveness that could fit well in the Pats' one-cut zone-blocking scheme.
While unlikely to make the final roster, Houston might be a nice prospect to stash away on the practice squad, so he is certainly a worthwhile signing.
Ja-Mes Logan, WR, Ole Miss
Some wanted the Patriots to add a vertical outside-the-numbers receiver in the draft. While New England passed on receiver, Ja-Mes Logan (6'3", 183 lbs) could fit that mold.
Logan had an uptick in production his final two collegiate seasons, and finished with 136 catches for 1,734 yards and six touchdowns at Oxford. His wiry frame is not particularly desirable against big outside corners, however, so bulking up would greatly improve his chances of sticking in the NFL.
The Pats are well-stocked at receiver, so Logan does not move the needle much going forward.
Seali'i Epenesa, DT, UCLA
At 6'1" and 310 pounds, Seali'i Epenesa is a run-stuffing nose tackle who adds defensive tackle depth during camp. Epenesa finished his UCLA career with 45 total tackles over four years, as he ascended to the starting lineup his final two seasons.
Like Deylan Buntyn, Epenesa's addition is more about spring practice depth than an actual roster possibility. Epenesa does have size, but as a low-level athlete, he does not necessarily fit the fluid athletic mold the Patriots seek on the front seven.
Epenesa is not a bad choice to take some reps during minicamp, but he does not have realistic roster aspirations.
Shamiel Gary, S, Oklahoma
Unlike Jeremy Deering, whose contributions would arrive almost exclusively on special teams, Shamiel Gary could provide legitimate defensive depth for one of the weakest positions on the roster.
Gary, who initially enrolled at Wyoming before transferring to Stillwater ahead of his junior season, compiled 119 total tackles, 15 pass deflections and two interceptions as a Cowboy. Gary (6'0", 210 lbs) ran a 4.50 40-yard dash time at his pro day, illustrating a nice combination of size and speed that teams look for in today's strong safeties.
The Pats need depth at safety, and while Gary is still a relative longshot, he could conceivably be a surprise inclusion in the final roster or practice squad.
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