02 Jun

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Which Texas free agent has the best shot to make an NFL roster?

UT's Andrew Beck is one of several New England Patriots tight ends trying to fill the void left by the retirement of Rob Gronkowski, and the team has made a financial declaration that it believes he can contribute (photo courtesy of texassports.com).

By Steve Lansdale

Undrafted free agents are, by definition, long shots to make NFL rosters. Every UFA who signs with a National Football League team has some measure of potential or promise, or a contract never would have been offered. But each also has some perceived shortcomings or flaws, or teams would have deemed those players worthy of spending draft choices to acquire them.

Like so many other schools, the University of Texas has a slew of players trying to earn roster spots around the NFL. Defensive end Charles Omenihu and cornerback Kris Boyd were drafted, by the Houston Texans and Minnesota Vikings, respectively. After the draft concluded, seven more Longhorns signed with NFL team:

• Offensive tackle Calvin Anderson (New England Patriots
• Tight end Andrew Beck (New England Patriots)
• Cornerback Davante Davis (Seattle Seahawks)
• Wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey (New Orleans Saints)
• Linebacker Gary Johnson (Kansas City Chiefs)
• Defensive lineman Chris Nelson (Pittsburgh Steelers)
• Offensive lineman Patrick Vahe (Baltimore Ravens)

For the sake of argument, assume that Omenihu and Boyd make the roster of their new teams.

Of the others, who has the best chance?

The real answer is that there’s a very real chance that multiple undrafted free agents from UT could be employed once the season starts, and honestly, it’s too early to tell. But read the tea leaves and it’s safe to suggest that one player who has as good a chance as any is Beck.

The former Texas tight end is in a strange situation as he tries to get his footing as a professional player. By inking a deal with the Patriots, he steps into camp with the team that just lost the player some consider the best ever to play the position when Rob Gronkowski announced his retirement in March. The void left for the Patriots’ next tight end is only somewhat smaller than that facing the team’s next quarterback, if Tom Brady ever starts aging like the rest of us.

When Gronkowski walked away from the game, some speculated that it was a temporary hiatus, geared at allowing him to miss the drudgery of training camp and the early-season games before returning to a hero’s welcome as the Patriots enter yet another playoff run. Maybe that will happen, and maybe it won’t. When he announced he was done playing, Gronkowski was a sure Hall of Famer who had endured some significant injuries during his career, but he was still a far-from-old 29 years old.

Beck joined a tight ends meeting room that included such renowned stars as Stephen Anderson, who caught 36 passes over two seasons with the Houston Texans before catching none last year in New England, Ryan Izzo (a seventh-round draft pick in 2018), Matt LaCosse, who has 27 receptions in three seasons with the New York Giants and Denver Broncos, and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who has 116 receptions over six seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

There’s talent there, but the New England front office scanned that group and responded by calling veteran Ben Watson out of retirement. Watson signed with the team and subsequently announced that he will have to sit out for the first four games of the 2019 season as a result of a test he failed for a substance banned by the NFL. Watson personally announced his suspension via social media, explaining that he had been taking testosterone supplement that had been prescribed “to assist in healing my body and mind.”

Finally, consider that according to multiple published reports, the Patriots paid Beck more than any other undrafted free agent in camp. This is a team that regularly ships off high-profile players and replaces them with low-cost unknowns, only to end up breezing through the playoffs again competing for yet another Super Bowl appearance.

Whether Gronkowski returns at some point remains to be seen. If he plans to do so — and especially if the Patriots know he plans to do so — Beck's case might be strengthened further by the fact that the team would want low-cost fill-ins before Gronkowski returns.

During his time at UT, Beck put up pedestrian receiving numbers, catching 39 passes for 435 yards and four touchdowns in four seasons. He was much more than a receiving threat for the Longhorns, of course; Beck also is a solid blocker and a valuable special teams player.

There is no assurance that Beck, or just about any player not named Brady, will make the roster. A lot can happen during the mini-camp and training camp practices and preseason games that will determine which players at each position make the roster.

But for a player whose résumé didn’t make any team in the NFL deem him worthy of a draft choice, Beck appears to have picked in ideal landing spot in New England, which gives him a solid chance of playing in the NFL.