Jake Burt thought he was living out his dream last year when he signed with the Patriots’ practice squad.
Turns out, another dream was waiting for the tight end north of the border.
Burt, a Lynnfield native who played at St. John’s Prep and Boston College, and spent a year with the Patriots, was the No. 1 overall draft pick by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Canadian Football League draft last week.
It may not be the NFL, but Burt is thrilled to be a featured weapon in the Tiger-Cats offense and can’t believe he went first overall in the draft.
“It’s been completely surreal,” said Burt, 24, by phone last week. “I know I have potential to become a superstar — not only in Hamilton but of that league. I just can’t wait to go out and show what I can really do for a team.”
The CFL is often viewed as a last resort for players who don’t make it in the NFL, but Burt truly is excited for the opportunity. His contract locks him in with the Tiger-Cats for two years, and instead of bouncing across the NFL as a practice squad grunt, Burt can get real game experience. He can play 14 games plus playoffs this fall, and hopefully build a brand in Canada.
Plus, Burt has family all over Canada — Newfoundland, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia. His father was a member of the national water polo team, and Burt was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, before his family relocated to Lynnfield when he was 4.
“The NFL option is still there, but I feel like my value is more than that grinder position,” Burt said. “Now I’m in a good situation. I know I’m going to be in Hamilton, first overall pick. I know how bad they want me, there’s a plan for me, which is just unbelievable. If I could fly out right now and play, I would.”
Burt thought there was a chance that his football journey would keep him in New England. He signed with the Patriots as an undrafted rookie in May 2020, and he made the practice squad out of training camp. He said he had a positive meeting with Bill Belichick at the end of camp and felt good about his future.
“Coach Belichick told me in my exit meeting from camp he was surprised how athletic I was, and he just loved the way how I got open, which was great to hear because coming out of college all I heard was, ‘He’s a blocker,’ ” Burt said. “To hear that from him was only confirming what I already knew, and it just brought so much more confidence to that part of my game.”
Burt said he won practice squad player of the week a couple of times, and got “good vibes” from Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. After two months, Burt thought he had a path to the 53-man roster.
But as quickly as things started coming together, they fell apart.
On Oct. 28, Burt hit injured reserve with a lung infection (not COVID-19, he said). Antibiotics cleared it up in a couple of days, but he wasn’t allowed to return to practice for three weeks. He finally came off IR Nov. 18, and said that in his first practice, he took a shoulder to the face from defensive tackle Byron Cowart on a “wham” block, and suffered a concussion.
Burt went back on IR Nov. 28 and remained there for the rest of the season, though he said he was ready to return by the end. The Patriots didn’t renew his contract on Jan. 11, making Burt a free agent.
“It felt like my play was trending well, then all of a sudden there’s nothing I’m bringing to the table,” Burt said. “It was actually not fun at all for me, just kind of feeling helpless. Once you get hurt, there’s nothing you can do.”
Still, Burt is appreciative of the year he spent in Foxborough.
“Everything I learned under Coach Belichick and Coach McDaniels has just helped me prosper,” Burt said. “I can’t wait to take everything I learned there and take it to Hamilton and keep improving on my craft.”
Burt drew tepid interest in NFL free agency and decided that Canada was the best place to continue his career. He was the last player to enter the CFL draft pool on April 13, and said he quickly heard from every team and did interviews day and night.
In addition to his skill set, he had two factors working in his favor. One, he is a Canadian citizen, and CFL teams are required to have 21 “nationals” on their 45-man game-day roster. Two, he was one of the few prospects to actually play football in 2020, as Canadian universities canceled their seasons (as did the CFL).
Burt was drafted No. 1 overall despite playing tight end, a position that is rarely used in the CFL. Since offenses have only three downs, the CFL favors downfield passing and speed over strength. Burt is the first tight end to go No. 1 overall since Ottawa took Gerald Wilcox in 1989.
But Burt, who played at 245 pounds in New England, said he will get a chance to show the world that he’s an athletic pass-catcher, not just a blocker. A nationally ranked volleyball player in high school, he ran a 4.48 in the 40 last year and played some quarterback at St. John’s Prep. He said he will get down to 235 pounds this fall and be a big, hybrid weapon for the Tiger-Cats.
“I think we’re going to kind of put a new twist on the tight end position in the CFL,” Burt said. “It fits my game so well, just being able to run by people, use my body in space. It’s a bigger field, so I’ll get more space to run.
“I just can’t wait to be put in a position where I can go show the world this athleticism and this speed that I’ve been sitting on for a little bit now.”