New England Patriots running back Jonas Gray is one of those heartwarming stories the NFL preseason births annually at a time when fans have already turned off the televisions with the household names lulling around on the sidelines.
Gray is technically headed into his third NFL season after an unlikely beginning in 2012 as an undrafted free agent.
As a senior at Notre Dame, the 5'10", 225-pound back broke out as a prospect who was sure to be drafted after he produced 791 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on just 114 carries while shackled in a committee approach.
A torn ACL in his final game at Notre Dame Stadium derailed his career trajectory.
Friday, things came full circle as Gray erupted late in the Patriots' 42-35 win over Philadelphia, picking up 98 yards on just 12 carries. The highlight of his breakout night was a pretty cutback that resulted in a rather lengthy touchdown for a back his size, but, as Zuri Berry of Boston.com notes, a penalty wiped out his moment:
It is not often a back of Gray's size comes around and is fully equipped with nimble feet. Doug Kyed of NESN.com colorfully illustrates this point best:
Gray has shined in the preseason before, but never at full strength or with a team willing to give him a legit shot at the final roster.
New England might just have to make room.
Yes, Shane Vereen, Brandon Bolden and Stevan Ridley are in front of Gray on the depth chart, but those three share one thing in common—contracts that expire after the 2014 season.
Gray has hit a point where he is impossible to ignore, so New England might be adverse to letting him slip away, even if things are complicated thanks to the presence of 2014 fourth-round pick James White.
Remember, Gray is a player who spent last year stashed on the practice squad in Baltimore and was tasked with emulating other power backs in practice so the starters could get adequate preparation for the week's opponent.
One name Gray was asked to emulate? Adrian Peterson. He said at the time that it was a rather simple task, given he has been doing it for a large portion of his career, as captured by Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun:
Sometimes, that part of it is hard to translate in practice. I do all the little small things he does in terms of him using a stiff arm a ton and him jumping through the hole and making hard, tough cuts. I try to simulate those things and just making sure I'm doing what he does best.
There may or may not be space for a developmental back such as Gray in Foxborough, but he did enough Friday to give more than a few teams around the league pause if he slips into free agency once again.
In an NFL that mostly relies on committees for production, there is very much a space on plenty of rosters for a one-cut power back who can get the tough yards to move the chains or cross into the end zone.
The kicker? That knee injury was a bit of unfortunate timing, but remember that Gray has little to no wear and tear on his body at the pro level, and he is just 24 years old.
If Gray can parlay Friday's performance into two more effective outings, he will be employed as a member of a 53-man roster somewhere in the NFL, completing his unique journey in the process.
Note: Preseason stats courtesy of NFL.com.