In Week 6, with less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of a tie game against the Ravens, linebacker Dane Fletcher was singled up over the middle on running back Ray Rice, who caught a pass and was immediately tackled after a gain of four yards. Fletcher's second-down tackle helped the Patriots force a punt and eventually earn a win in overtime.
A week later, in the fourth quarter in San Diego, safety Sergio Brown stuck Chargers tight end Antonio Gates two yards shy of the first-down marker on a third-and-10. Brown, who was added to the active roster the day before the game, made a tackle that forced the Chargers to attempt a long field goal that ultimately failed.
In two games, the Patriots got two big contributions from a pair of undrafted rookies, and that stretch has been somewhat emblematic of New England's season. The Patriots are certainly a team comprised of stars, but they're getting production from everyone across the board.
In that Patriots-against-the-world mentality, in which they're always viewing themselves as the underdogs, they've got some tangible backing in one surprising area.
Seventeen players on New England's 53-man roster (roughly one-third) went undrafted. No one wanted them on draft day, and now they're playing a major role on a team with the best record in football.
"We've really got a chip on our shoulder, and really have to prove ourselves in practice and all through training camp, and really show people that we deserve to be on the field," Brown said. "But once game time comes and we get on the field, we're just another kid out there playing. Hopefully, we've been in position to make the big plays, or even any plays. We pride ourselves off of that. It's something, it's a nice story since we're undrafted, and we're rookies and we get a chance to contribute to the team."
Brown, Fletcher and defensive lineman Kyle Love are the Patriots' three undrafted rookies, but there are 14 other undrafted guys who have found a role, too. Wide receiver Wes Welker is the most famous of the bunch, but that crew also includes running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, starting right cornerback Kyle Arrington, linebacker Gary Guyton, starting right guard Dan Connolly, defensive lineman Mike Wright, backup quarterback Brian Hoyer, special teams ace Tracy White, kicker Shayne Graham, long snapper Matt Katula, recently signed edge rusher Eric Moore and backup offensive linemen Ryan Wendell and Mark LeVoir.
Every NFL team needs its stars to build a solid foundation, but it's also important to develop a core of players at the next tier. First, it adds depth, and second, it helps the salary structure. It's a formula that is necessary to winning, both in the short and long term.
"I don’t know if coaches are looking like, 'Oh, we need an undrafted guy to level it out,'" Woodhead said. "I don’t think that’s what it's about. Honestly, I think what it is, is finding the best players who suit your team. If it's a mix, it's a mix. No matter what, we've got a bunch of guys who are just going to work hard and do whatever they can for the team."
The mentality of an undrafted free agent will forever stir those players. They've got to fight through rookie camp to earn an invitation to training camp, where they could get cut on any single day — after any practice or film session — and then they've got to earn that roster spot during cut-down day. With 80 guys in training camp, they've got to beat out 27 other players just to make the team, plus the revolving door of new signees and tryout players.
And it's not always about talent, either. After Woodhead earned the respect of the Jets' brass for two-plus seasons, he was cut in September in favor of fourth-round pick Joe McKnight, who by many accounts had a terrible summer. Apparently, that investment in the draft overshadowed Woodhead's impressive work ethic.
"I think you've just got to play football, to be completely honest," Woodhead said. "I mean, is there a difference between being drafted and not? Maybe, there might be, but that’s something you can't get caught up in. You've got to go out there and play football like you always have."
The battle doesn’t end after training camp. Many players survive that initial round of mass cuts but then receive their pink slip in Week 2 or 3. Maybe they were a better matchup for their team's Week 1 opponent, or they got too high on themselves after training camp. Or maybe they simply couldn’t adjust to the higher demands and faster pace of the regular season.
"Going into it, you know what you're up against," Fletcher said. "The people that didn’t know what they're up against — and there's definitely plenty of those guys who were free agents and didn’t know what they were up against — and they thought it was more of a right that they were on the team because they're bigger or something. I took it as it's a privilege to be on the field. Every play is a privilege. It's not a right. It's a privilege. Every opportunity you have, you take it."
And, as Brown put it, "You've got to have somebody to do the dirty work."
It's a constant battle for undrafted players, and the percentages dictate that few will establish themselves as big-time superstars. But the ones who carve out more and more of a role with each passing game and season will survive and eventually thrive in the league.
Welker is the prime example, and he's a godfather-type of figure for the undrafted guys in the Patriots' locker room. He is always proud to give advice to those players, and those words have an everlasting effect on the guys who take that guidance seriously. And as the Patriots have proven this season, those players will then help them win games.
"You've got to be hungry," Brown said. "You've got to be able to fight through everything, and you've got to be able to catch up on everything quickly. Being a guy fighting from the bottom up, you have no choice. That’s your life."