DAVIE, Fla. — Josh Boyer called Brian Flores over one spring evening for confirmation that this young man named Malcolm Butler from tiny West Alabama looked better than his numbers indicated.
Both were New England Patriots position coaches at the time who were in a deep search for undiscovered talent. Butler went undrafted, and nobody took a swing on him as a priority free agent. Butler’s agent began looking at last-ditch NFL options. The Patriots had room for a few tryouts players to perform at their rookie minicamp. What Boyer, with help from Flores, saw on tape convinced them to give Butler one of those spots.
“He ran a 4.68 [in the 40-yard dash], but I kept watching him on tape like he runs a 4.4. Nobody really seemed interested in the kid. But he was tough and had good instincts. There was something there,” Boyer said. “When [Flores] watched it, he said the same thing. It worked out for him, and he deserves plenty of credit for that.
“That next year, I had agents repping D-III players and NAIA players calling me saying I have the next Malcolm Butler for you.”
Five years later, Butler has two Super Bowl rings, a $61 million dollar contract with the Tennessee Titans, and a legacy as one of the best undrafted free-agent signings.
Flores and Boyer have also moved up as the head coach and defensive pass game coordinator, respectively, of the Miami Dolphins. The Butler story, along with the other diamonds both coaches have uncovered, should be daily reminders of what opportunities exist for the Dolphins’ undrafted free agents.
While Boyer says the Butler story isn’t used as a recruiting pitch for UDFAs, agents and players are well aware of recent history.
“Once they get here, whether you’re drafted, undrafted, AAF, it doesn’t really matter. Everyone is going to have an opportunity to compete for a position, whether it’s offense, defense or in the kicking game,” Flores said. “The guys that come out of that competition will be the guys who are playing in the fall.”
Many coaches say something similar, but few have the evidence to back it up.
At the cornerback position alone, Boyer has helped find Butler, JC Jackson and Jonathan Jones as undrafted free agents for New England over the past five years. Jackson and Jones each started five games last season and both tied for second on the team with three interceptions.
“We have a history of truly saying if undrafted guys are better than drafted guys, then we are going to keep that guy and get rid of the other guys,” Boyer said. “I mean that’s the idea of America — maybe not always the actuality — but the idea is everybody truly gets a fair opportunity rather than just somebody is just given something.”
Some of the NFL’s best stories are of the successful undrafted players, including now-retired quarterbacks such as Warren Moon and Tony Romo or current defensive standouts such as Chris Harris Jr. and Butler.
The 2019 Dolphins signed a large crop of undrafted free agents — 18 immediately after the draft — and even a few tryout players. With a rebuilding roster, there seems to be more opportunities for players in that group to make the team.
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Flores said there were a couple of players the Dolphins signed that they thought would have been drafted. Players such as Colorado State receiver Preston Williams, linebacker Terrill Hanks and Mississippi State guard Deion “Shaq” Calhoun stand out.
New England did a great job of uncovering UDFA cornerbacks, so perhaps that position is one to watch more than all the others.
Cornerbacks Nik Needham and Tyler Horton said they studied Flores’ and Boyer’s UDFA history before signing with Miami. Both players said it made a significant impact on signing with the Dolphins. Northwestern’s Montre Hartage belongs in this group, too. Those three had question marks on them during the draft process — primarily dealing with their speed. But the Dolphins value toughness in their UDFAs, and it’s a trait that will often aid hungry players in fighting harder for their opportunities.
“I’d like to think they all have a little chip on their shoulder. Having been around a few myself, I think they’re all tough. They all compete on a day-to-day basis. There’s no complacency with those guys, because there can’t be any. They know their margin for error is slim,” Flores said. “I wish everyone felt that way, but that’s not the case for whatever reason.
“I don’t care what round you were picked in, undrafted, drafted, tryout — if you can help this team win, then you’re going to have a chance to do that. I think there’s a mentality there that from their standpoint, they may feel undervalued.”
Maybe one of them can become the next Butler, or at the very least make this roster. If history is any indication, Boyer and Flores will give them a great shot.