Get To Know Patriots’ 2020 UDFAs: J’Mar Smith, Will Hastings And More

At least one undrafted rookie has made the New England Patriots’ 53-man roster in each of the last 16 seasons. Will one of these players extend that streak this summer?

As the dusk settles following the 2020 NFL Draft, we took a closer look at the UDFAs the Patriots scooped up during the post-draft free-for-all. New England had yet to announce any undrafted signings, but the majority of these have been confirmed by either the player or his college program.

J’Mar Smith, QB, Louisiana Tech
The Patriots surprisingly waited until after the draft to fill the third spot on their QB depth chart. They did so by signing Smith, a dual-threat signal-caller who received little buzz during the pre-draft process.

New England likely was attracted to the 64.3 percent completion rate Smith posted during his redshirt senior season at Louisiana Tech. He threw for 2,977 yards in 2019 (8.1 per attempt), tossing 18 touchdown passes with five interceptions and earning Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year honors.

The 6-foot-1, 218-pound Smith also is a rushing threat, tallying 90 or more carries in each of his three seasons as a starter.

Louisiana Tech went 10-1 in Smith’s 11 starts — the lone loss coming to Texas in the season opener — but lost two games while the QB was suspended for an unspecified team rules violation.

The San Diego Padres drafted Smith as a catcher in the 24th round of the 2015 Major League Baseball Draft. His father, Kenny, is a former NFL defensive lineman who spent time with the Patriots from 2007 to 2009 but never appeared in a game for New England. 

Smith will begin camp as the clear third man on the depth chart behind Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer.

Will Hastings, WR, Auburn
Hastings might be more familiar with Stidham than any other wideout on the Patriots’ roster. He was Stidham’s slot receiver when the quarterback transferred to Auburn in 2017, and the two developed a strong connection.

Hastings caught just 26 passes that season but averaged 20.2 yards per reception, scoring four touchdowns. He missed the entire 2018 season after tearing — and then re-tearing — his ACL, then posted a modest stat line upon his return in 2019, finishing with 19 catches for 222 yards and one score in 10 games.

What else? How about the fact that Hastings initially joined the Auburn football team as a walk-on kicker who specialized in onside kicks before eventually carving out a role as a pass-catcher.

Hastings was also insanely productive in high school, catching 113 passes for 2,040 yards and 23 touchdowns as a senior at Pulaski Academy in Arkansas, which garnered national attention a few years back for its strategy of never punting, only utilizing onside kicks and incorporating rugby-style downfield laterals. Pretty wild stuff.

More recently, Hastings, who checks in at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, ran a blazing 6.55-second three-cone drill and 4.03-second short shuttle at Auburn’s pro day, acing an important test for Patriots slot receivers.

J.J. Taylor, RB, Arizona
Taylor’s top athletic comp on Mockdraftable? Dion Lewis.

He’s shorter than Lewis (a diminutive 5-foot-5, 185 pounds) and more of a downhill runner — as evidenced by this truck-stick he delivered to fellow Patriots UDFA Myles Bryant — but there are flashes of the former Patriots back in Taylor’s film.

Taylor was far less productive as a ball-carrier in his final collegiate season (721 yards, 4.9 per carry) than he was in 2018 (1,434 yards, 5.6 per carry), but he posted career-best receiving numbers, catching 32 balls for 289 yards. The Wildcats aligned him in the slot from time to time.

He also was Arizona’s primary kick returner in 2018 and 2019 (24.1 yards per runback) and has some punt-return experience.

“Overall,” The Athletic’s Dane Brugler wrote in his 2020 draft guide, “Taylor has the shifty feet, soft hands and go-go-go play attitude that makes him a fun watch, but it will take the right situation for him to earn a roster spot as a change-of-pace option.”

De’Jon “Scoota” Harris, LB, Arkansas
The Patriots gave Harris a massive contract for an undrafted rookie, a source told NESN.com’s Doug Kyed, guaranteeing him $150,000 with a $25,000 signing bonus. The largest UDFA deals had handed out in recent memory were those signed by linebacker Harvey Langi and tight end/fullback Andrew Beck, both of which included $115,000 guaranteed.

Harris was a three-year starter and senior captain at Arkansas, and his physical style of play elicited some entertaining descriptions in pre-draft scouting reports:

From Brugler: “Harris plays with a physical, indestructible play style, arriving at the ball carrier with violent intentions.”

From NFL Media’s Lance Zierlein: “Harris is most definitely a full-grown man when it comes to the physicality, frame and strength needed in the box.”

Harris tallied 100-plus tackles in each of the last three seasons and has similarities to former Patriots linebacker Elandon Roberts as an undersized (6 feet, 234 pounds) thumper. He also played quarterback in high school.

Bill Murray, DT, William & Mary
Bill Freakin’ Murray! In addition to boasting the best name in New England’s UDFA class, this Murray dominated against FCS competition, earning first-team All-American honors from HERO Sports last season after tallying six sacks and 11 1/2 tackles for loss from his defensive tackle spot.

Perhaps his most impressive contributions, though, came on special teams. Murray blocked four kicks in 2019 — the most of any player in either level of Division I — and a whopping 10 in his collegiate career, according to a William & Mary release announcing his signing. That release also called him “one of the best players in school history.”

Murray also earned high marks from the evaluators at Pro Football Focus:

Myles Bryant, CB, Washington
Bryant played safety in his final year with the Huskies but projects as a slot corner at the pro level. He certainly has the quickness to play that position, testing in the 81st percentile in the short shuttle (4.02 seconds) and the 70th percentile in the three-cone drill (6.81 seconds). He’ll be one of the smallest players on the Patriots’ roster, though, measuring in at 5-foot-8, 183 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Asked in a pre-draft interview with Draft Wire to name the best players he faced in college, Bryant mentioned both Taylor and Patriots receiver N’Keal Harry.

Isaiah Zuber, WR, Mississippi State
Zuber graduated from Kansas State in 2019, then transferred to Mississippi State to play out his final year of eligibility. He posted modest stats for the Bulldogs, catching 14 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns in 10 games.

Zuber, who’s listed at 6 feet, 190 pounds, was far more productive in his final two seasons at K-State, posting 51-510-4 and 52-619-5 lines in 2017 and 2018, respectively. He also returned kicks and punts for both programs.

Rashod Berry, TE, Ohio State
After drafting two tight ends in the third round in Devin Asiasi and Dalton Keene, the Patriots added another in Berry, who had a very Patriot-like senior season in 2019.

Though he never provided much receiving production for the Buckeyes (17 catches, 198 yards, four touchdowns in 48 career games), Berry played both ways in two games last season, filling in at defensive end during eventual No. 2 overall pick Chase Young’s NCAA suspension.

Berry entered college as a highly regarded D-end recruit before switching to tight end as a redshirt sophomore. He was the first Ohio State player since 2012 to see action on offense and defense in the same game.

Listed at 6-foot-4, 255 pounds, Berry was not invited to the combine and had his pro day canceled by COVID-19, but reports tout him as one of OSU’s most athletic players.

Sean Riley, WR, Syracuse
Saying Riley has extensive return experience would be an understatement. His 115 kick returns over his four seasons at Syracuse ranked first in program history and third in ACC history. He’s also Syracuse’s all-time leader in all-purpose yards per play (14.6), serving as the Orange’s primary kick returner for four years and primary punt returner and starting slot receiver for two.

Riley’s senior-year receiving numbers weren’t particularly impressive (36-275-1), but he was much more productive as a junior in 2018 (64-756-3) while catching passes from quarterback Eric Dungey, who spent most of last season on the Browns’ practice squad.

Like Berry, Riley was a non-combine invite who didn’t have a pro day. He claimed in an interview with Syracuse.com to have run a 3.99-second short shuttle and 6.41-second three-cone drill during a private pre-draft workout — incredibly fast times that should be viewed through a skeptical lens.

Two undrafted rookie receivers made the Patriots’ initial 53-man roster last season, with one (Gunner Olszewski) earning a spot thanks to his skills in the return game. New England’s kick returns lacked pop last season, with Brandon Bolden providing reliable ball security but little upside.

Kyahva Tezino, LB, San Diego State
Much like Harris, Tezino is a smallish (6 feet, 235), hard-hitting, downhill linebacker with some athletic limitations. He racked up 226 tackles, 25 tackles for loss and 12 sacks over his final two collegiate seasons, including a 127-14.5-8.5 line in 2018.

Tezino was a senior captain and clearly was well-respected by his teammates, earning team MVP honors in 2018 and 2019. The 22-year-old also was voted the team’s “most inspirational player” last season.

Courtney Wallace, DT, Louisiana Tech
The 6-foot-2, 305-pound Wallace played his college ball with Smith. He tallied 41 tackles, 8 1/2 tackles for loss and two sacks last season.

Nick Coe, DE, Auburn
Coe was a starting edge rusher for the Tigers in 2018, and a disruptive one at that, tallying seven sacks and 12 1/2 tackles for loss. He slipped back into a rotational role last season, however, and his productivity plummeted, finishing without a sack and with just three TFLs while also picking up a one-game suspension for disciplinary issues. He’s a project, but his size (6-5, 280) and length (33 3/4-inch arms) are intriguing assets.

Before college, Coe won multiple national championships as a high school wrestler in North Carolina.

Jeff Thomas, WR, Miami
Thomas is extremely talented but comes with some serious off-the-field baggage. The 5-foot-9, 170-pound slot receiver/return man was suspended multiple times for team rules violations at Miami and was dismissed from the program in 2018 before being reinstated by new head coach Manny Diaz.

From the Miami Herald:

“Thomas, a 5-8 7/8, 170-pound speedster who left the Hurricanes after his junior season, is the Cane who teased fans with his significant athletic gifts but disappointed them with bad choices that led to difficult situations. …

“According to a source, Thomas had clashed with former wide receivers coach Ron Dugans, angrily left the team without attending meetings or practices, and then supposedly signed a Big Ten tender of financial aid with the intention of playing for the University of Illinois, Illini coach Lovie Smith said at the time.”

Thomas’ troubles didn’t end under Diaz. He was suspended for two games last season for another unspecified team rules violation.

If the Patriots can rein him in, Thomas could be a dangerous weapon both on offense and in the return game. He averaged 22.0 yards per catch as a true freshman in 2017 (17 for 374 and two touchdowns) and 16.1 as a sophomore (35-563-3) while also impressing on punt and kick returns (averages of 24.6 and 26.0 in 2018, respectively). He ran a 4.45-second 40 at the combine.

Thomas’ numbers dipped in 2019, however (31-379-3), and his character concerns make him a surprising Patriots pickup.

Trevon Hill, DE, Miami
The Patriots also picked up one of Thomas’ former Miami teammates Sunday. Hill tallied 4 1/2 sacks and 9 1/2 tackles for loss in his lone season with the Hurricanes.

Hill began his college career at Virginia Tech but was kicked off the team early in his redshirt junior season following an in-game argument with a coach. He transferred to Miami for the 2019 season and quickly took on a leadership role, according to Diaz.

“Trevon is another guy who is dynamic off the edge, a tough, high-motor player, and a really good guy to have in your locker room,’’ the Hurricanes coach said, via the Miami Herald. “He’s a guy that really has an understanding of making the guys around him feel like they’re important. Trevon is a guy that a bunch of teams would be excited to have. …

“He’s very mature. Without being (at Virginia Tech) I can’t say exactly what happened at the old school. But he became a guy that during the course of the year was a captain of our football team. And with a new guy, that’s not easy to do.”

Hill ran a 4.89-second 40 with a 113-inch broad jump and 28-inch vert at 6-foot-2, 238 pounds. Evaluators peg him as a stand-up outside linebacker at the NFL level.

Brian Lewerke, QB, Michigan State
New England doubled up on undrafted QBs this year, adding both Lewerke and J’Mar Smith after declining to draft one. Click here for more on the Spartans signal-caller.

Jake Burt, TE, Boston College
New England’s fourth new tight end is a local product. Burt grew up in Lynnfield, Mass., and played his high school ball at St. John’s Prep in Danvers before enrolling at BC.

After backing up Tommy Sweeney (now with the Buffalo Bills) in 2018, Burt caught 15 passes for 212 yards and one touchdown as a graduate student last season. He suffered a broken collarbone in a Nov. 23 loss to Notre Dame, ending his college career.

BC listed Burt at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds. He wasn’t invited to the combine and had his pro day canceled.

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Thumbnail photo via Scott Wachter/USA TODAY Sports Images

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