Linebacker De’Jon Harris led Arkansas in tackles for three straight seasons, then went undrafted. The Patriots gave him the most guaranteed money of any of their undrafted rookie free agent signings, a good sign he could make the team in 2020. Michael Woods/Associated Press

No franchise has more history on the line entering the 2020 NFL season than the Patriots.

Their league-leading streaks of consecutive playoff berths, division titles and 10-win campaigns are all up in the air, now that the offseason winds of change have finished blowing through Foxboro.

But before the Pats can extend their regular-season excellence, they’ll have the chance to further another streak this summer.

Every season for the past 16 years, the Patriots have had an undrafted rookie free agent (UDFA) on their roster heading into Week 1. Only the Colts and Chargers own longer streaks. It’s a reflection of the franchise’s commitment to meritocratic roster-building, as well as the uncertainty involved in player evaluation.

Any time a UDFA cracks an NFL roster, it’s because he’s overachieved within opportune circumstances. More than ever, opportunity is knocking across the Pats’ preseason depth chart: at quarterback, wide receiver, tight end, backup offensive line, defensive line and linebacker.

Of the 15 UDFAs currently on the team, five stand out as the most likely to survive final cuts; all of whom play the aforementioned positions.

Here are the Herald’s picks to extend the Patriots’ undrafted rookie free agent streak to 17 straight years.

Arkansas LB De’Jon Harris

Follow the money.

Harris received the most guaranteed cash of any Patriots UDFA this offseason, indicating he was a top priority for the front office immediately after the draft. Harris brings a physical, downhill presence to the middle of any defense, exploding through ball carriers upon arrival. His power and instincts help make up for his diminutive size (5-11, 234) and lack of range, which in retrospect tied an anvil around his draft hopes.

In college, Harris led Arkansas in tackles for three straight seasons, including in 2018 when he topped all SEC defenders. He would be a logical replacement for Elandon Roberts – another shorter, thumping linebacker – and will face favorable competition from sixth-rounder Cassh Maluia, 2019 UDFA signee Terez Hall and fellow UDFA Kyahva Tezino in camp.

Miami WR Jeff Thomas

Miami wide receiver Jeff Thomas, right, catches a touchdown pass over Virginia Tech defensive back Armani Chatman (27) during the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Miami Gardens, Fla. Virginia Tech won 42-35. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky) AP

Two years ago, the Pats struck gold when they signed a rookie free agent whose draft stock had sunk due to off-field concerns. Nowadays, J.C. Jackson projects to start opposite reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore and consequently form one of the best starting cornerback duos in the league.

With Thomas, the Patriots may have another uncut gem they can polish into an NFL player.

At 5-9 and 170 pounds, Thomas packs an above-average blend of long speed and quickness unique to the Pats’ roster. He also boasts superb elusiveness in the open field, which he also showcased as a returner. However, Thomas was pushed out the door by one head coach at Miami and then suspended by the next, who had recruited him back the following year.

The Pats won’t put up with much from Thomas, aside from immediate improvement and production.

Syracuse WR Sean Riley

On the opposite end of the collegiate experience spectrum, Riley was a model of consistency for the Orange.

He played every game of his four-year career, snatching a team-high 64 passes for 756 yards and three touchdowns as a junior. He made the All-ACC third team as a returner and blocked two punts. Riley gets the nod here over Auburn receiver Will Hastings, another UDFA and Jarrett Stidham’s former slot target, who sustained two torn ACLs in recent years.

According to Riley, he clocked a 6.41 in the 3-cone drill during his pre-draft training, an outstanding feat for any player in any draft cycle. Even if Riley exaggerated his time by two or three tenths of a second, he would still rank among the quickest rookies in this year’s class. Save the Wes Welker comparisons (Riley stands at a comparable 5-8, 178 pounds), but bring on the sleeper selections for roster projections this summer.

Auburn DE Nick Coe

The underachiever label cuts both ways during the draft process. For Coe, he’s already felt the sting of going undrafted, with reports of a lackluster work ethic undermining his final collegiate season.

On the other hand, the versatile D-lineman still packs enough physical talent and potential to cut it in the NFL. Now’s his chance.

Like 2019 fifth-round selection Byron Cowart, Coe underwhelmed in college, while gaining precious experience playing several positions across the defensive front. Cowart eventually made the Pats’ roster last year thanks to his versatility, strength and long arms – all traits Coe possesses. The next step is getting a sufficient grasp on the team’s techniques, which could unlock the talent he teased at Auburn and may lay the groundwork for a decent pro career.

San Diego State LB Kyahva Tezino

Linebacker Kyahva Tezino (44) had 25 tackles for loss, including 12 sacks in his final two college seasons at San Diego State. Eugene Tanner/Associated Press

Talk about a stat-sheet stuffer.

Over his final two college seasons, Tezino amassed 226 tackles – including 25 for loss, 12 sacks – two picks and a pair of forced fumbles. He was routinely a step ahead of his Mountain West competition, beating running backs to open lanes and confusing opponents’ protections with blitz pressure. Like Harris, Tezino is limited athletically and can get swallowed up by blockers, whom he struggles to combat with his shorter arms.

Tezino has what the Pats prize most in their linebackers: toughness, smarts, and instincts. If he can get the job done on first and second down, Tezino may have a home in Foxboro.


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