Patriots Mailbag: Which Undrafted Rookie Has Best Chance To Stick?

Plus: Expectations for two Patriots free agent additions

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We’ll get our first up-close look at the 2022 New England Patriots when organized team activities kick off next Monday.

Those spring practices will begin to answer the many questions surrounding this Patriots roster and coaching staff. But for now, mailbag questions will have to suffice.

On that note:

@ginja47ninja
How much of an impact do you think Ty Montgomery and jabrill peppers will have this season.
Montgomery brings intriguing offensive versatility as someone who’s played both wide receiver and running back, but he hasn’t been very productive at either of those positions of late, failing to crack 200 total yards from scrimmage in any of the last three seasons. With the Patriots also boasting solid depth in the backfield and at wideout, my guess is Montgomery contributes mainly on special teams while providing depth at both spots — if he makes the roster.

Montgomery declined to reveal which position or positions he’s playing when speaking with reporters Thursday, referring to himself simply as “Employee No. 14.” Vinnie Sunseri did say he’s working with the running backs, but it’s unclear whether he’s also spending time in the receiver room.

As for Peppers, he should make the team after getting $1.35 million guaranteed, and I anticipate the Patriots will find creative ways to utilize his multifaceted skill set as a safety/linebacker hybrid. Perhaps we’ll even see some four-safety packages with Devin McCourty, Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger and Peppers all on the field together.

Phillips and Dugger are similarly versatile players, however, and both are coming off strong 2021 seasons. Peppers — who likely came with a strong recommendation from his former New York Giants head coach, Joe Judge — will need to earn his playing time in one of the Patriots’ deepest position groups.

@rywuff5
What’s the projected role for Jalen Mills going forward this year; outside corner or moving to safety like his last year in Philly?

That’s an interesting question that I haven’t seen discussed much this offseason.

Mills was one of the Patriots’ starting outside cornerbacks last season, and he was solid, though his presence likely contributed to their shift to more zone coverages. When he signed, though, it looked like his ideal role would be as a Swiss Army knife-type player capable of playing several different spots in the secondary.

That’s what Mills was in his final year with the Philadelphia Eagles, logging more than 180 snaps each at wide corner, slot corner, free safey and box safety, per Pro Football Focus. Maybe he would have done the same in his first Patriots campaign had the Stephon Gilmore situation been resolved. Maybe he will this season — though, as mentioned, New England already is overflowing with versatile safety types.

Right now, it’s unclear how the Patriots plan to assemble their defensive backfield. I’d pencil Mills into one of the starting perimeter cornerback spots for the time being, with the newly unretired Malcolm Butler and veteran journeyman Terrance Mitchell looking like the top contenders for the other. Fourth-round pick Jack Jones could work his way into that conversation, too, though some evaluators view him more as a slot option, at least until he can add some bulk to his 5-foot-11, 171-pound frame.

@CheyenneSulli14
Will Marcus jones play slot this year ?

Speaking of undersized Patriots rookie cornerbacks named Jones, 5-8, 174-pound Marcus Jones primarily played on the outside at Houston, often matching up against the opponent’s No. 1 receiver (even when that receiver had six or seven inches on him). But at that size, he’s probably a slot in the NFL.

Jones also has safety experience, though, and I could see him being a faster, more athletic version of Myles Bryant with better man coverage skills. (Bryant and top slot corner Jonathan Jones both have played slot and safety in recent years.)

Those coverage skills are legit, too, and should allow Jones to make an early impact, assuming he heals quickly enough from the offseason shoulder surgeries that could sideline him for OTAs. Especially since the Patriots likely won’t ask him to cover guys who are 6-2 or 6-3.

Jones also be favored to take over for Gunner Olszewski as the Patriots’ top punt and kick returner, having tied the NCAA record with nine return touchdowns in college, and he even showed some skills as a wide receiver last season. Really interesting player.

@Bradyrupp
To keep the streak alive, which current Pats UDFA do you think has the best shot at making the initial 53?
First off, I’m not sure if that streak technically is still alive. The Patriots didn’t have an undrafted rookie on their initial 53-man roster in 2020 but added running back J.J. Taylor to it before Week 1. Then, last year, they kept kicker Quinn Nordin on their initial 53, but that was more of a roster management move. He was moved to injured reserve a week later, with Nick Folk handling kicking duties all season.

That’s all semantics, though, and it’s certainly true that New England has a long and successful history of finding undrafted gems.

Who could be the next? I have my eye on Brenden Schooler, an uber-athletic prospect who played safety and wide receiver at Texas and Oregon. I doubt the 6-foot-2, 203-pound Schooler will become a regular contributor at either of those positions, but he has the look of a potential special teams stalwart, and the Patriots have holes to fill on their kick/punt coverage units after losing Brandon Bolden, Brandon King, Olszewski, Jakob Johnson and Chase Winovich this offseason.

Center Kody Russey also is a quick, strong and highly experienced player (60 collegiate starts) who could provide some necessary depth behind starter David Andrews. Defensive lineman LaBryan Ray comes in with an Alabama pedigree, though injuries limited his impact, and punter Jake Julien would be a cheaper alternative to Jake Bailey if he proves capable in camp.

The Patriots already have cut three members of their UDFA class, waiving quarterback/receiver D’Eriq King, defensive back Devin Hafford and offensive lineman Liam Shanahan.

@MattVautour424
Top five players named Cox in NFL history?
I appreciate your literal interpretation of #CoxTalks, Matt.

Gotta have former Patriots linebacker Bryan Cox on there, of course. Fletcher Cox, too, the Philadelphia Eagles’ six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle. Fred Cox kicked in every game for the Minnesota Vikings from 1963 to 1977, so I’ll give him a nod. Same with Morgan Cox, who’s been the NFL’s most decorated long snapper over the last decade.

For No. 5, I’ll go with Billy Cox, who apparently played tight end, running back, defensive end, defensive back and punter for Washington in the 1950s. Sounds like a player Bill Belichick would have appreciated.

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