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It may be freezing outside but there’s no draft with these Patriots

12.28.10 at 3:41 pm ET
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FOXBORO — They have arguably been the story of the Patriots roster this season. Yes, Tom Brady is having an MVP-caliber season. Yes, rookies Devin McCourty, Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski, Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham have all played significant roles in the team’s success leading to a 13-2 record and the No. 1 seed in the upcoming AFC playoffs.

But without the 21 undrafted free agents on the club’s roster, the Patriots would not have had the depth to deal with injury after injury to the rest of the roster. And even some of those undrafted players were injured themselves, leaving other players passed over by the annual April talent exercise to step in and fill the void.

Patriots personnel director Nick Caserio – with the input of coach Bill Belichick and senior football advisor Floyd Reese and a slew of scouts – is responsible for helping to put the roster together using any and all means.

“I think really any player that’€™s on your roster, you’€™re looking for production in some capacity,” Caserio said Tuesday. “A lot of it is contingent upon who’€™s available and who’€™s healthy to play that week. I think every team during the course of the year has to manage the roster. I don’€™t think we’€™re any different than any other team.”

What is different is that few teams have managed a rash of injuries any better in recent memory than these 2010 Patriots. The 21 undrafted players are the most of any team in the NFL.

Of the 21 players not drafted on the current Patriots roster, no fewer than 12 have found themselves not only playing but starting and playing significant roles, with significant defined by playing more than half of their potential snaps in a game.

The defensive side of the ball has been particularly hard hit this year, with the losses of DB Leigh Bodden early, and continuing with safeties Bret Lockett and Brandon McGowan, all three undrafted and all three landing on season-ending injured reserve.

Add to that another undrafted starter in defensive lineman Mike Wright, who’s been out battling a concussion since Oct. 31, and the losses of Myron Pryor and Ron Brace at various points, and you have a remarkable strain on the depth of the defensive roster.

No worries. Kyle Love steps in and fills a void against the Bills and records his first career sack in a 34-3 laugher on Sunday.

Brandon Spikes is suspended for the final four games of the season because of a violation of the league’s substance policy. No worries, thanks to the undrafted pair of Dane Fletcher and Tracy White. It was Fletcher you might recall who had a sack and a couple of key pressures on Packers QB Matt Flynn as the Patriots held on, 31-27.

Linebacker Gary Guyton returned a Carson Palmer interception 59 yards for a TD on opening day and had the rumble on the fumble in the snow for another TD against the Bears. Speaking of rumble, who could ever forget the kickoff return of Dan Connolly against the Packers, leading to a key TD right before halftime. Both Guyton and Connolly were both passed over in April.

“[For] the players that we bring into our program, the expectation is the same,” Caserio said. “Those players have come in. They’€™ve worked hard, they’€™ve had opportunities, and they’€™ve made the most of their opportunities since they’€™ve been here. That’€™s no different than a player that gets here that’€™s only here a week or two, relative to a player that’€™s been in the program for the entire season.”

“Each one’€™s kind of very unique on its own, based on all those circumstances I just mentioned,” Belichick said. “We’€™ve had some guys that have done a good job and we’€™ve had other guys that haven’€™t worked out as well. I’€™d say that’€™s kind of the way it usually is. Maybe [we’€™ve had] a few more this year that have contributed than in the past. I think that’€™s a process that comes up for every team, every year and, again, preparation meets opportunity. And [if] players are able to take advantage of the opportunity, they can be productive in a system that they weren’€™t in in the beginning of the year. I think that’€™s been the case with a couple of our guys.”

Offensively, Wes Welker is closing in on another 1,000-yard season, 12 month after having his left knee shredded on the nasty turf in Houston. After being left for dead by the Jets after Week 1, Danny Woodhead has become a cult hero and combined with another undrafted gem, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, to provide a potent 1-2 punch in the Patriots backfield when Kevin Faulk went down and Laurence Maroney was traded to Denver.

With Logan Mankins holding out for the first two months and before Stephen Neal’s season ended in early December, two-fifths of the Patriots starting offensive line were undrafted with Neal and Connolly protecting Tom Brady.

Even the special teams have benefited from the stealth workings of Belichick, Caserio and Reese.

“It’€™s probably something I would have to go back and study and look at,” Caserio said. “I think the way it works every year, just with the draft, you draft X amount of players whether it’€™s eight or 12 or whatever it might be. And then there’€™s another eight to 10 players or however many players it takes to fill out your 80-man roster.

“The numbers are going to vary on a year-to-year basis. I’€™d have to study it, quite frankly, to tell you a little bit more what the averages are. We don’€™t spend too much time looking at that during the season. I think that’€™s more of an offseason exercise.”

When Stephen Gostkowski went down with a torn quad against the Browns and long-snapper Jake Ingram struggled so badly the team released him, in came Shayne Graham and Matt Katula. Yep, both undrafted.

“In the end, it’€™s about the players going out there and performing and a lot of it, too, is that the coaches do a good job of preparing those guys for the game,” Caserio said. “We just go through each week and try to prepare for that particular week. It’€™s contingent upon the players doing what they can to keep themselves ready, because really, you never know when your number is going to be called. Those players have gone in and they’€™ve given us some snaps and they’€™ve helped us win some games. Any time you have players that can help your club win games, then that’€™s a good thing.”

The unsung 21:

Defense: CB Kyle Arrington, CB Leigh Bodden, S Sergio Brown, CB Tony Carter, LB Dane Fletcher, LB Gary Guyton, S Bret Lockett, DL Kyle Love, LB Tracy White, DL Mike Wright, S Brandon McGowan

Offense: OL Dan Connolly, RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, QB Brian Hoyer, OL Mark LeVoir, OL Stephen Neal, WR Wes Welker, OL Ryan Wendell, RB Danny Woodhead

Special Teams: K Shayne Graham, LS Matt Katula

With the exception of Welker, all 21 may again be passed by when it comes to the Pro Bowl announcements Tuesday night. But they all would gladly sacrifice that honor for a much better prize – the chance of playing for a Super Bowl ring come February at Cowboys Stadium.

Read More: Bill Belichick, Dan Connolly, Floyd Reese, Gary Guyton

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