Zach Sudfeld has given the Patriots a rather pleasant problem.
He signed as a rookie free agent out of Nevada shortly after the 2013 draft. Most players in that position are immediately ticketed for the practice squad. At the time, with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez at the top of the depth chart, it figured that the addition of Sudfeld was a bit of a throwaway selection -- strictly for depth purposes, or maybe just as a camp body.
But Sudfeld has played so well throughout the spring and summer -- and with the New England depth chart at tight end now in a massive state of flux -- it's now evident that it would now be impossible to risk getting Sudfeld through waivers. As a result, the Patriots will now likely be forced to do some juggling in an attempt to make room on their 53-man roster for the 6-foot-7, 260-pounder, who has been one of the biggest stories of Patriots camp to this point.
With Hernandez out of the picture for good and Gronkowski on the shelf indefinitely, Sudfeld has made the most of the opportunity, getting a ton of snaps with the starting offense while showing some soft hands as a receiver and good blocking technique. He has been one of New England’s most consistent offensive performers throughout the first two weeks of camp. In Friday’s preseason opener, Sudfeld started the game, and according to ESPN Boston, played 34 of a possible 72 offensive snaps and finished with one catch (on two targets) for 22 yards.
“Zach has come in and absorbed a lot of information,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “The offense that he played in in Nevada is quite a bit different than what we do -- I’m sure there are some similarities, but there are quite a few differences as well. He’s been able to acclimate to those changes. He catches the ball well.”
At least locally, he’s been one of the biggest surprises of camp, battling with the likes of Jake Ballard, Daniel Fells and Michael Hoomanawanui for a spot. But when you look at his football resume, Sudfeld has made a habit of surprising people.
“He’s always been a bit of an underdog,” said Nevada tight ends coach James Spady. “He’s just at a different level now.”
The 24-year-old California native -- who is, rather remarkably, 26 days older than Gronkowski -- was a latecomer to football in high school, and despite an impressive senior season, had to walk on at Nevada. While with the Wolf Pack, he endured so many injuries he had to pick up a sixth year as a collegian, and despite a senior season where he was a semifinalist for the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end, went undrafted last spring, eventually being scooped up by the Patriots as a free agent in May.
However, no one close to Sudfeld is surprised at his recent success.
“I’m not surprised at all. He’s the kind of kid, if he wanted to be a street sweeper, he would have been the world’s best street sweeper,” Spady said of Sudfeld, who spent a portion of his formative years working to help build orphanages in Eastern Europe.
“If addition to being a great player, he’s a class person. This is my 21st season coaching football, and bar none, he has been the best player and best person I have ever coached,” Spady added. “I’m going to sound like I’m pouring it on here, but I’ve got a 13-year-old son and a nine-year-old son, and I’ve asked Zach to kind of take those guys on and help them be something closer to what he is -- not only as a football player, but as a person.”
As a high schooler at tiny Modesto Christian in California, Sudfeld didn’t get called up to the varsity team until he was a sophomore, but high school coach Mike Parsons knew he had something special in Sudfeld that fall when he caught a game-winning touchdown pass against Mariposa in the final minute that sent his team to the postseason.
Tall and lean even then, he continued to evolve as a football player, and was part of a 12-1 team as a senior. Despite his successes, there wasn’t much of a call for 6-foot-7, 200-pound football players at the college level.
“Colleges wouldn’t give him a chance -- I was really frustrated,” said Parsons. “He was a 6-foot-7 kid -- I don’t know how many touchdowns he caught, but he was a three-year starter. But no one gave him a chance because he was too skinny and slow.”
Enter Nevada and coach Chris Ault, who offered him the chance to walk on.
“He was a good athlete, he just wasn’t very fast,” Ault said last fall. “He was a gangly basketball player, not very tough. But he’s a kid that just kept on coming and never quit. He’d work hard. We’d say, ‘Boy, you’re doing things wrong,’ and he’d just work at it. His work ethic was unbelievable, and it’s really what got him the scholarship. He was really an average football player, but [because of] the work ethic we felt down the road we could develop him.”
In many ways, Sudfeld was a project: He put on the necessary weight to succeed at the next level, but he struggled at times, and suffered through a laundry list of injuries -- shoulder and wrist issues hampered him through the first couple of years of his college career, and a nasty knee injury derailed his senior season. Already a fifth-year senior, he was granted a sixth year of eligibility. That paid off, as he finished 2012 with 45 catches for 598 yards and eight touchdowns.
But despite a 4.71 40-yard dash, a 7.00 3-cone time and a 9-foot-5 broad jump, that injury history, as well as scouting doubts as to whether he might have been a one-year flash, contributed to him not hearing his name being called on draft weekend. Spady says the character Sudfeld displayed while fighting through those injuries is exactly the sort of thing that every NFL team should be looking for.
“He’s gone through tremendous adversity on the football field,” Spady said. “He had a ton of injuries he had to deal with, but on each occasion, I watched him overcome. He’s never felt sorry for himself. You see him fight back against adversity, and as soon as he was given the OK, he was back on the field again. He showed resilience and character and strength, and the desire to excel.”
Even with a full house at tight end at the time, the Patriots liked Sudfeld enough to go hard after him as a free agent -- his $17,000 in guaranteed money was the second highest on the team among undrafted rookies. Turns out, it’s been money well spent: Sudfeld has stepped into the void and not only shown soft hands, but good technique as a blocker. It’s one of the more underrated aspects to his game, as he became one of the best blocking tight ends in college football last season.
Spady indicated that one of the reasons Nevada had such a high level of success with the pistol offense was because of Sudfeld’s evolution as a player.
“The evolution of his blocking ability was really something to watch,” Spady said. “The pistol offense, the way we ran it here at Nevada when he was here, he was at least partially responsible for the fact that we sort of reinvented it. It has evolved somewhat from what it used to be to what it is now, and one of the reasons was Zach’s increased blocking skills.
“Our tight ends really were grunts -- extensions of the offensive line, for the most part. Then, as we started to use more and more of the pistol, we had them playing in space and working in more of an important role in the passing game. Zach really embraced those techniques and those assignments.”
That’s good, because the tight ends have a myriad of responsibilities in the New England offense.
“I think it’s one of the most difficult positions in any offense. Any time you change formations, that player is really at the heart of the changes,” Belichick said when asked about Sudfeld and his professional development. “It’s normally the tight ends that are involved in a lot of the formation variations, which then involve them in a lot of different assignments. Basically, they’re involved in the passing game, the running game, pass protection, blitz adjustment. You might be able to get around a part of that, but not too many parts of it, or else the guy’s a receiver or he’s an offensive linemen.”
Regardless of where he ends up this season, no one is expecting Sudfeld to replicate the production of Gronkowski or Hernandez. At the same time, he’s already displayed excellent blocking skills and a massive, Gronk-like catch radius. As a potential red-zone target lined up wide against an averaged-sized cornerback, he’d make for an inviting target for quarterback Tom Brady.
If that happens, Sudfeld could become an awfully big headache for the rest of the league.
“There aren’t a lot of 6-foot-7 receivers,” Parsons said of his former high school star. “He gets out there on a 5-foot-10 cornerback, and it’s good night. He’s a big target back there for Brady, who will have a lot of ways to get him the ball.”