Watching the performance of undrafted free agent running back Brandon Bolden on Sunday against the Bills, it got us thinking about undrafted players and their place in Patriots history. The stories of undrafted gems like Bolden are often studies in perseverance -- these are not first-rounders who start their professional lives with plenty of security. Instead, they often spend months on multiple practice squads before they end up getting their chance to play. Over the years, from Adam Vinatieri to Bolden, New England has relied on plenty of them in big moments. And so with that in mind, in no particular order (and with plenty of help from our friends on Twitter) here are our picks for the 10 best undrafted free agents in recent Patriots history.
Adam Vinatieri -- This one is a no-brainer. The best clutch kicker of his generation -- and one of the best in the history of the game -- the South Dakota State product couldn’t get a gig right out of college, so he went to Europe where he kicked for the Amsterdam Admirals. He ended up sending tapes around the NFL before catching the eye of Bill Parcells, who signed him in 1996. After a bumpy start (he missed four of his first seven field goal attempts after taking over for steady veteran Matt Bahr), the rest was history -- he was an integral part of three Super Bowl titles in New England, delivering two game-winning kicks. From UDFA to Hall of Famer.
Lonie Paxton -- The snapper, who was undrafted in 2000 before signing with the Patriots, played in New England for nine seasons and was a part of several clutch moments in franchise history, including Vinatieri’s two big kicks in the Snow Bowl as well as the game winner in Super Bowl XXXVI. In 2009, he signed a five-year deal worth $5.3 million -- which included a $1 million signing bonus -- with the Broncos, a tremendous contract for a long snapper but one that was a tribute to his abilities and consistency.
Wes Welker -- He wasn’t drafted by the Patriots -- he bounced from the Chargers to the Dolphins in his early years as a professional -- but it was New England that maximized his unique skill set. The undersized slot receiver out of Texas Tech didn’t even get an invite to the combine despite the fact that he had 259 catches for 3,019 yards and 21 touchdowns and 79 rushes for 456 yards and two touchdowns. The Chargers signed him and he made the roster out of camp, but was cut after the first game of the season in a roster shuffle. Welker enjoyed moderate success in two-plus seasons with the Dolphins, catching 96 passes and serving as a thorn in the Patriots’ side. To remedy the situation, New England acquired Welker prior to the start of the 2007 season, and he’s enjoyed one of the best five-plus years of any receiver in the history of the game.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis -- This running back out of Ole Miss went undrafted in 2008 and signed as a UDFA with New England that spring. He sat behind a plethora of running backs in his first two-plus seasons with the Patriots, but managed to pop up and perform when given the chance, including a 105-yard performance as a rookie against the Bills. But after injuries and personnel changes in the New England backfield, he managed to make the job his own in 2010 when he finished the season with 1,008 rushing yards, making him the first running back in Patriots’ history to break the 1,000-yard mark since Corey Dillon did it in 2004. In many ways, he was the perfect back for the New England offense: relatively durable and consistent, he never complained about not getting enough touches, and did an excellent job protecting the ball. He departed for Cincinnati following the 2011 season as a free agent, setting the stage for the emergence of Bolden and Ridley.
Stephen Neal -- The collegiate wrestling champion never played a lick of football while he was at Cal-State Bakersfield, but he showed some of the natural tendencies -- quick feet, good hands, an ability to use your weight for proper leverage -- you need to become a successful offensive lineman. It was slow growth for Neal, who was signed to the Patriots practice squad and then waived in 2001. The Eagles picked him up, but cut him off their p-squad a few months later. He returned to New England, and while he started the 2002 season with the team out of camp, he suffered a shoulder injury that ultimately shelved him for the rest of the year and 2003 as well. But he rebounded to become a steady, consistent performer for the next seven years, working as New England’s right guard and becoming a borderline Pro Bowler in the process.
Joe Andruzzi -- Undrafted in 1997 out of Southern Connecticut State, the guard was signed by the Packers and played the better part of three seasons in Green Bay. But like Welker, it was New England where he found his talents were best utilized -- he signed with the Patriots in 2000 and had a tremendous run of success for the next five years in New England, winning three Super Bowls in the process. Andruzzi, who finished up his career in Cleveland, ended up sticking around the area, and is active when it comes to charity work. In the wake of his own experiences with cancer, “The Joe Andruzzi Foundation” works to help raise money for families affected by cancer.
Ryan Wendell -- Like Neal and Andruzzi, Wendell is an interior lineman who took a few years before he became a starter. The 6-foot-2, 300-pounder was undrafted out of Fresno State in 2008, but was signed to New England’s practice squad as a rookie before being added to the 53-man roster in 2009. The versatile lineman -- he’s played both guard and center -- played in two games in 2009, but became a regular part of the offensive line rotation in 2010, starting the final two games of the season for an injured Dan Connolly. Now, with the release of veteran center Dan Koppen at the start of the year, the 26-year-old played every offensive snap for the Patriots in 2012, and has yet to be flagged for a penalty.
Kyle Love -- The Mississippi State product went undrafted in 2010, but has quickly become one of the most important members of the New England defense -- he’s a starter at defensive tackle next to Vince Wilfork in the Patriots’ 4-3 defense. Last year, he started 13 of the 16 games, finishing with 33 tackles (20 solo) and three sacks. This year, the 6-foot-1, 315-pounder started all four games up front for New England.
Kyle Arrington -- The defensive back out of Hofstra didn’t hear the call on draft day in 2008, but he bounced around as a rookie, spending time with the Eagles and Bucs before ultimately landing in New England in 2009. He joined the Patriots’ practice squad before being promoted to the 53-man roster in 2009, and landed the starters’ job early in 2010. He really emerged as a force in 2011, when he tied for the NFL lead in interceptions with seven. The 26-year-old is now an important part of New England’s pass defense, working as both a slot and an outside corner.
David Patten -- Undrafted out of Western Carolina in 1996, he went from the Arena Football League’s Albany Firebirds to the Giants and Browns before signing with the Patriots prior to the start of the 2001 season. And like Welker and Andruzzi, he found a niche in New England -- Patten spent four seasons with the Patriots, and won three Super Bowls, with his best year coming in 2002 when he caught 61 passes for 824 yards and five touchdowns. In all, he spent 13 seasons in the NFL with the Giants, Browns, Patriots, Redskins and Saints before retiring after the 2008 season
Honorable mention -- Running back Brandon Bolden (2012), linebacker Dane Fletcher (2010-present), cornerback Randall Gay (2004-2007 with Patriots, 2008-2010 with Saints), defensive lineman Mike Wright (2005-2011), offensive lineman Dan Connolly (2008-present).