When Malcolm Butler jumped into the path of Russell Wilson’s pass in the waning moments of Super Bowl XLIX, the cornerback simultaneously jumped into the consciousness of NFL fans everywhere.
Who was this guy? Where was he at the start of the season? Heck, where was he at the start of the game?
Even the most passionate Patriot proponent would have been hard-pressed to tell you much about No. 21’s journey when Brian Flores famously bellowed, “Malcolm, go!”
Everyone in the New England organization knew. Everyone from low-level scouts all the way up to Bill Belichick knew the long road Butler traveled from tiny West Alabama via tinier Hinds Community College.
Although he didn’t wow anyone at his Pro Day, Butler caught Belichick’s eye on his game tape. Butler went undrafted but earned a tryout at minicamp, where after one day, Belichick saw enough to get his name on a contract.
Butler sizzled through the summer, seized a roster spot, and sealed his place in Foxborough folklore with his famous goal-line thievery.
It’s undoubtedly the most famous rags-to-riches story in Patriots history, but it wasn’t the first time an undrafted rookie has made good during Belichick’s tenure. And it likely won’t be the last.
At least one undrafted newbie has made New England’s original 53-man roster for 15 straight seasons.
The Patriots wrapped up their annual three-day minicamp this weekend where no less than 10 fresh-faced candidates took their first steps toward extending the string to 16.
So how do guys that often slip through the Combine cracks and off every other team’s draft board wind up making an impact in New England?
Belichick and his staff have become masters at identifying how a player’s skills will translate not only to the professional game but to New England’s constantly evolving schemes.
Director of player personnel Nick Caserio and director of college scouting Monti Ossenfort and their charges put in countless hours of film work and roadwork on prospective players.
“Monti and his staff, who have been working on the draft since the day after the 2018 draft — well, actually before that, but let’s call it the day after the 2018 draft — compiled an enormous amount of information both from a football standpoint, character, medical, and so forth on several thousand players, which gets whittled down to let’s call it 100 or so in the final analysis,’’ said Belichick.
“But you don’t know what the number’s going to be until you go through the entire process, and it’s a very lengthy and tedious one that Monti and his staff have, I think, done a great job on.
“Those guys certainly deserve a lot of the credit for the success that we’ve had, the players that we’ve been able to acquire, and the enormous amount of work that they’ve produced, really, on a daily basis, but it adds up over weeks, months, and years at a time.’’
Scot McCloughan said the all-hands-on-deck approach the Patriots take is one of the secrets to their success.
“One thing that Belichick does that is very cool is that he gets his coaches involved — and I know they lost a lot of coaches this year — but he gets his coaches involved, and those coaches and scouts are brilliant at identifying guys that will fit their system and culture,’’ said McCloughan, the former general manager of the 49ers and Redskins and one of the front office architects who helped build the recent dominant teams in Seattle.
McCloughan said a lot of teams target guys that will fit into one specific role. For example, if a team runs a 4-3 defense, it’ll only go after players who have excelled in that look at the collegiate level.
The Patriots keep a more open-minded approach.
“What Belichick says is, ‘No, we’re not going to do that. If we really like a player, we’re going adjust,’ ’’ said McCloughan. “And they are great at identifying and adapting and it’s really cool to see.’’
It’s that ability to see a player’s body of work and project future success — often in multiple roles — that has put the Patriots ahead of the curve when it comes to roster management.
“When you hit it right, you get a player that’s going to work hard, make plays, and provide leadership for your team for the foreseeable future — and they get it right a lot,’’ said McCloughan, who signed Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin, one of the great undrafted success stories in league history.
The characteristic the Patriots value first and foremost is intelligence. When a scout checks that box, that player’s evaluation process can really kick into high gear.
“I think it’s true for all positions,” said longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia in response to a question about David Andrews, himself an undrafted free agent who has turned into a captain. “The No. 1 thing, the No. 1 trait we look for in any player we bring in here is, they’ve got to be smart. They can’t be dumb guys.
“And I’m not talking about IQ or anything. They have to be football smart and they have to be able to understand, comprehend, and then take it to the field. If you don’t have that as a No. 1 trait, then it’s hard to play here.’’
Patience plays into it as well. New England’s staff is adept at integrating players into the system at appropriate rates. Not everyone is going to walk in and make an immediate impact. As long as steady progress is being made, players will get chances to make an impact.
Developing undrafted free agents is also vital in the salary cap era, when not everyone on your roster can make top dollar. Having some low-salaried players allows teams the flexibility to extend guys while also going after some higher-priced contributors.
“It’s gigantic,’’ said McCloughan. “You can sign a guy for $2,000, $5,000, $10,000 or up to $50-, $60-, $70,000 but those guys are now on four-year contracts, they’re cheap, and you get time to develop them.’’