Bill Belichick's secret sauce? New England Patriots continue to unearth UDFA gems at cornerback

A smile comes across Myles Bryant’s face when he’s asked what he’s doing regularly showing up around 5:30 a.m. at Gillette Stadium.

“Just whatever I feel I gotta get better at,” the New England Patriots cornerback said, before going into a number of areas that he can improve on. But it’s how he closes that line of questioning that gives you a glimpse into his mindset.

“Whatever it is, just get ahead of the curve and try to beat out other guys — not in this building, but around the league — to get an extra step.”

Though the sample size is small — Bryant has played just 117 snaps this year, including 109 on defense, per Next Gen Stats — the 2020 undrafted free agent from the University of Washington looks like he belongs, which begs the question:

Why has New England been so successful with undrafted free agents at that position?

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From Randall Gay (2004) to Malcolm Butler (2014) to Jonathan Jones (2016) to J.C. Jackson (2018), the Patriots have a history of finding hidden gems. In fact, you could make the argument they’ve done better in the market of UDFAs than in the actual draft itself, especially of late. Joejuan Williams, a 2019 second-round pick, has had a hard time carving out a role. Duke Dawson, another Round 2 selection (2018), made it just one season in New England. And Cyrus Jones, yet another second-rounder (2016), didn’t last in Foxborough, either.

“It really is (quite a collection),” Jones told me of UDFA corners playing significant roles with the Pats. “There are so many factors, from scouting to coaching and also the culture here.”

That culture, Bill Belichick explained to me, puts the emphasis on what the player does once inside the building.

“All that’s up to them,” the head coach said. “Whatever those guys accomplish, they earn. We just try to coach them. (Cornerbacks coach) Mike (Pellegrino), (safeties coach) Brian (Belichick) do a good job back there, but it’s up to the players. They got opportunities, and guys who earn roster spots, earn playing time, earn it. It’s not anything we can just give away. All those guys have done it.”

Jackson added his thoughts on why he was able to go from an undrafted player out of Maryland to a No. 1 corner on a potential playoff team — and a pending free agent who’s on the verge of a massive payday, be it here in New England or somewhere else.

“No matter where you came from, no matter what round you’re in, this team and Bill, he’s gonna give you an opportunity,” Jackson said. “That’s how I look at it. I feel like the underdogs, the guys you are talking about who went undrafted, like me, get an opportunity here and we’re going to make the most of it.”

That’s been Bryant’s charge. With Jones on injured reserve after shoulder surgery, the 23-year-old Bryant has been a regular during the last two games, wins for the Pats over the Jets and the Chargers. He had a sack versus New York and throttled Los Angeles wide receiver Keenan Allen with a big hit to force an incompletion. He certainly deserves credit for working hard at his craft. His favorite saying is borrowed from a rap by Suga Free, “If you stay ready, you don’t gotta get ready.” But as he’s done that, he’s looked at those undrafted success stories around him for motivation.

“I think it’s for sure cool to see those guys and ask them about their experiences,” Bryant said. “I look at a guy like (wide receiver) Jakobi Meyers. Last year, he wasn’t playing too much to start off the season, but by the end of the season, teams are double-teaming him trying to take him out of the game. Looking at a guy like Jakobi, his journey is pretty inspiring.”

And if Bryant continues on his current track, perhaps he’ll be the next Patriot to give hope to the next in this long line of UDFAs.

Follow Mike Giardi on Twitter.

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