The Patriots have always done a nice job finding gems in the unlikeliest of places, with many unheralded contributors over the years finding their way to Foxborough as undrafted or rookie free agents. New England could have another handful make the roster this season -- Jermail Porter, Brian Hoyer and Antonio Appleby are among those who were impressive enough during rookie minicamp to be asked back for the organized team activities.
But who’s revealed themselves to be the best diamonds in the rough since Bill Belichick arrived in 2000? The prerequisites for being a part of this group are easy -- you must have gone undrafted, and have signed your first professional contract with the Patriots sometime after Jan. 27, 2000. With that in mind, here’s our choice of the Top 5 undrafted/rookie free agents signings of the Belichick Era:
Lonie Paxton. Signed as a rookie free agent on April 19, 2000 out of Sacramento State, the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Paxton spent nine seasons in a New England uniform, and was a consistent presence as a long snapper for some of the biggest field goals in franchise history. He was the long snapper for Adam Vinatieri’s tying and game-winning field goals in the Snow Bowl, and also served as the long snapper for Vinatieri’s game-winner in Super Bowl XXXVI. Reporters who covered the Patriots since 2000 can’t recall a single botched snap from Paxton.
But perhaps his single greatest legacy is his ability to raise the bar financially for many of his long-snapping brethren -- the 31-year-old got a five-year, $5.5 million deal that included a $1 million signing bonus when he signed this past offseason as a free agent with the Broncos. The deal made him the second-highest paid long snapper in the history of the NFL.
“Lonie is a great snapper, and I think that speaks to the fact that he got a really nice contract from Denver to go do it,” said Nathan Hodel, one of two players the Patriots figure will compete to replace Paxton this preseason. “At the end of the day, that’s a nice way to measure how much somebody wants you -- by how many dollars they put in your pocket.”
Randall Gay. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound cornerback was signed by New England as an undrafted free agent out of LSU on April 29, 2004, and immediately became the most popular guy in the locker room because of his good humor. But as a rookie, he was also known just as much for his game. After injuries to Ty Law and Tyrone Poole early in the 2004 season, “Blue” was immediately thrust into the lineup as a rookie, and started nine consecutive contests down the stretch that year. In addition, he started all three playoff games at left corner -- he was the only first year player to start all three postseason games that season -- and spent a good chunk of Super Bowl XXXIX lined up opposite Terrell Owens.
However, the good times wouldn’t last for Gay. Injuries dogged him for much of the next two seasons, and he never returned to the same level of play he enjoyed as a rookie. He did return to semi-regular action in 2007, and finished with a career-high three interceptions while playing mostly nickel back. And when New Orleans came calling at the end of the 2007 season with a four-year deal for $17.8 million -- which included $3.75 million signing bonus and $6.9 million in guaranteed money -- the 27-year-old was understandably out the door in a heartbeat, signing with his hometown Saints.
Stephen Neal. Neal was a collegiate wrestling champion at Cal State-Bakersfield -- he wrestled and beat former WWE star Brock Lesnar in college -- who thought he could give pro football a try. He was steered in the direction of the Patriots by Neil Cornrich, a friend of Belichick who decided to take Neal on as a client. Neal signed with New England on July 23, 2001. To say he was a little rough around the edges at first would be a mild understatement.
“When I tell you he didn’t know where the field was, he didn’t know where the field was,” Belichick said of Neal, who did play high school football. “He didn’t know how to put his pads on. He didn’t know where to line up. He didn’t even know where to go in the huddle. When I say starting from scratch, we’re starting from below scratch.”
Neal was then dropped by the Patriots roughly a month later, and then signed and released by the Eagles. New England picked him up again, and the 6-foot-4, 305-pound Neal has stuck with the Patriots ever since then, a durable and dependable presence at right guard. He re-signed with the Patriot following the 2005 season, and remarkably, the 32-year-old is now one of the most senior players on the roster -- only five current players have been with New England longer than Neal. (The Neal Experiment has worked so well for the Patriots, they’ve decided to go back to the well one more time -- Porter is a college wrestling champion who was signed by New England as an undrafted free agent this spring. He’s current trying to make the team as an offensive lineman.)
Mike Wright. An undrafted free agent who was signed out of Cincinnati on April 29, 2005, Wright -- a defensive lineman -- faced the rather sizable challenge of trying to crack New England’s front three, one of the most talented defensive units in the game. While the 6-foot-4, 295-pound Wright hasn’t been able to land a permanent starting job, he’s made his bones as a quality backup at all three spots along the front of the Patriots’ 3-4 scheme. He’s used his versatility to gain playing time, lending credence to one of the maxims of the New England front office: the more you can do, the more you can do to help us.
“He’s helped us on all three downs in all three spots: nose, end and first, second and third downs. He has had some good versatility for us,” Belichick said of the 27-year-old Wright, who will enter his fifth season with the Patriots this year. “Mike’s worked hard. He is a strong guy, a very physical player. He plays with a lot of power, so it’s good when he brings that element of his game to our front. He creates some penetration and helps get some negative plays.”
On March 14, 2008, the Patriots rewarded Wright with a one-year tender of $1.417 million.
Pierre Woods. Signed as an undrafted free agent on May 8, 2006, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Michigan product proved his worth as a special teamer his first two seasons before moving into the regular defensive rotation last year because of an injury to outside linebacker Adalius Thomas.
In his first two seasons, he was a consistent special teams performer, leading the Patriots in special teams tackles in 2007 and working on spot duty on defense. Last year, his steady improvement was enough to get him into the starting lineup after Thomas’ injury -- Woods drew his first start in November against the Jets -- and started most of the games down the stretch. And while he didn’t perform at a Pro Bowl level, he was a dependable presence off the edge, a key prerequisite for success in the New England defense.
“Pierre is one of our hardest workers and one of our most diligent players,” Belichick said of Woods, a passionate fan of the Cleveland Indians. “He works hard at his job and tries to do everything right, just the way you want it.”
The 27-year-old Woods has a tremendous opportunity in front of him -- with the trade of Vrabel to Kansas City and New England’s inability to land a quality outside linebacker either in free agency or through the draft, Woods is one of a handful of outside linebackers (a group that includes Shawn Crable, Vince Redd and Tully Banta-Cain) who could see a considerable increase in playing time in 2009.