If you’ve watched the New England Patriots closely over the past month or so, you might have noticed an unfamiliar player patrolling the defensive backfield on passing downs.
He’s undersized (5-foot-8, 180 pounds), wears an undesirable jersey number (No. 41) and spent the first half of the season buried at the bottom of a loaded depth chart that features Stephon Gilmore, J.C. Jackson, Jason McCourty and Jonathan Jones.
He also might be the Patriots’ latest undrafted find.
That player is Myles Bryant, a multitalented rookie DB who’s begun to carve out a modest role for himself in the Patriots’ secondary.
In Sunday’s win over the Arizona Cardinals, Bryant played a career-high 13 defensive snaps and had a hand in two positive plays, splitting a tackle for loss with defensive tackle Adam Butler and teaming up with McCourty and Butler on the red-zone stop that set up New England’s pivotal goal-line stand.
The 22-year-old Washington product has logged just 48 career snaps (33 on defense, 15 on special teams) and has experienced a few hiccups along the way, but head coach Bill Belichick likes what he’s seen thus far.
“I think he has some versatility,” Belichick said Wednesday in a video conference. “We’ll see how it goes with him, but so far, he’s done a lot of good things. He hasn’t really been out there in the spotlight under intensive fire; it’s been more situational roles and things like that. But he’s done a good job with those.”
After standing out in training camp, Bryant began the season on the practice squad, then was promoted to the 53-man roster after Week 1. He had to wait nearly two months for his NFL debut, however, which finally came in Week 8. With Gilmore sidelined with a knee injury, Bryant played three defensive snaps in a road loss to the Buffalo Bills.
“I’m a big Kobe Bryant fan,” Bryant said Wednesday in his first virtual meeting with reporters since the summer, “and I saw a quote where he said a lot of guys worry about legacy, and when worrying about legacy, they do that all wrong. All you need to do is go to work each day and just really focus on your weaknesses and try to strengthen those.
“I used that time, and used that advice, to strengthen my weaknesses. When I looked up, it was Week 8 in Buffalo, and I was ready to play. So I think just that mindset — going in each day and getting better, and trying to stack days on top of each other and learn, that kind of put me where I needed to be.”
Bryant primarily played as a cornerback in camp, but with the Patriots well-stocked at that position, he’s taken on a variety of different roles since his Nov. 1 debut, playing everywhere from free safety to strong safety to linebacker to edge rusher in New England’s third-down package.
Learning multiple positions simultaneously can be difficult for young players. But Bryant — whom Jason and Devin McCourty nicknamed “I.T.” after Isaiah Thomas, the similarly diminutive former Boston Celtics star and fellow Washington Husky — had a leg up.
“I actually got lucky,” he explained, “since my (college) coaches actually shadowed here (with the Patriots for) a couple springs. So they took a couple concepts and installed it in their defense. We might have had different terms, but it’s pretty much the same concepts. That experience has worked tremendously well for me, just being a quote-unquote Swiss Army knife.”
The Patriots’ secondary is an extremely versatile group. Jones and Jason McCourty both split time between cornerback and safety. Adrian Phillips and Kyle Dugger are safety/linebacker hybrids. Devin McCourty plays free and strong safety. Gilmore and Jackson are outside corners who also can line up in the slot. Gilmore has neutralized elite tight ends in the past.
“(I’m) really just learning from all the guys I can,” Bryant said. “Jon Jones. Stephon Gilmore. Devin McCourty. JMac. J.C. All those guys play different positions. So really it’s me asking each one, ‘Hey, what do you do when you see this?’ or ‘What did you do to get to the position where you’re at right now?’ Just taking their advice and trying to absorb — be a sponge. Trying to get as much information as I can and just trying to hang on to it.”
After seeing his first NFL action against Buffalo, Bryant played 11 defensive snaps against the New York Jets in Week 9 and six against the Baltimore Ravens the following week. Gilmore’s return from injury against the Houston Texans temporarily sent Bryant back to the inactive list, but after one healthy scratch, he returned to the lineup against Arizona and saw his largest workload yet.
Outside of his recent in-game appearances, Bryant’s duties this season also have included imitating mobile quarterbacks and certain running backs on New England’s scout team.
“We’ve been pretty fortunate this year in the secondary from a health standpoint, and we have good depth back there,” Belichick said. “We’ve been pretty healthy. But (Bryant) had a good training camp, and we had him on the roster. We just haven’t had a lot of opportunity to play him. The guys in front of him have played well in their opportunities.
“But he’s learned a lot. He’s very attentive and asks a lot of good questions … and he has a good aptitude to apply them in the right situation and communicate it well on the field in practice and in his opportunities in the game. They’ve been limited, but they’ve carried over positively from the same thing he did in practice.”
Despite their long history of high-profile defensive back draft whiffs (Duke Dawson, Cyrus Jones, Jordan Richards, Ras-I Dowling, Tavon Wilson, Terrence Wheatley, etc.), the Patriots have been phenomenal at finding DB talent post-draft. Their list of UDFA hits over the years includes Jackson, Jones, Malcolm Butler, Kenny Moore, Cre’von LeBlanc and Randall Gay.
Bryant has yet to prove he belongs in that group, but he’s off to a promising start. He also could see his role expand this week if Jackson, who was limited in practice Wednesday with a hip injury, cannot play Sunday against the Los Angeles Chargers.
“He’s a smart player, good speed, very tough,” Gilmore said. “He learned all different positions, and I think he’s helping us out tremendously. He’s coming in when his name is called and making plays for us. He’s in the right position.
“I think he’s got a lot more to learn, but he’s getting better each and every week, and he’s going to help us out in the future.”