Patriots dig deep in forming roster

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Of all the impressive numbers the New England Patriots produced in their didn't-see-this-coming season, one of the most notable is 22. That is the number of players on the team's roster, or injured reserve, who entered the NFL undrafted.

Maybe that explains why the Patriots have approached their work with a hard-to-miss chip on their collective shoulder pads. Quarterback Tom Brady has said he still reminds himself that he was the 199th selection in the 2000 draft, something that still motivates him. And this team has a bunch of those types of stories at various spots.

A big part of the Patriots' core is made up of players who had to scratch and claw their way onto a roster, a group that includes 1,000-yard running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, unheralded offensive lineman and "NFL-leading" kickoff returner Dan Connolly, new fan favorite Danny Woodhead, surprising starting cornerback Kyle Arrington and incomparable receiver Wes Welker.

That dynamic, coupled with how the team responded to the stunning trade of Randy Moss in early October, makes the 2010 Patriots unlike any other Super Bowl contender. And, for that matter, unlike any Patriots team Bill Belichick has coached in his 11-year tenure in New England.

The Patriots are NFL proof that draft status means little when it comes to building a talented roster. In ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer's view, it's a classic case of the Pats getting the most out of their talent, which is the "Bill Belichick way."

"What you need to be a great team is for players to play great in what you ask them to do," Dilfer said. "If you can build a roster maximizing everyone's strengths and disguising or avoiding their weaknesses -- getting the best out of a guy -- the team is better because of it. That's how I look at the Patriots."

Dilfer isn't alone. One NFL pro personnel director said he thinks that approach hits at the core of why Belichick is so successful -- he knows talent and how it projects to his scheme. The ability to properly assess players' strengths and weaknesses and put them in a position to succeed -- and out of situations in which they will be exposed -- is viewed as the foundation of Belichick's approach.

Now in his 10th NFL season and first with the Patriots, tight end Alge Crumpler has taken note. "He tends to get the best out of his players and I respect that the most," he said of Belichick.

Dilfer points to Welker as one example. The Patriots don't have him running deep corner routes in the vertical game, but instead Welker runs pass patterns that are tailored to take advantage of his quickness in the middle of the field. There are similar examples across the roster, as Dilfer also sees Belichick leaving enough flexibility within his system to fully tap a player's strengths, whether he is a first-round draft pick, a seventh-round selection or an undrafted signee.

Belichick has also proved that draft status doesn't affect decisions on playing time or, for that matter, roster spots. It's not always easy to acknowledge that a higher draft pick has slipped behind a player who was either a late-rounder or not selected at all, but part of Belichick's philosophy is that the best players will get the nod, regardless of résumé.

At running back, he traded 2006 first-round pick Laurence Maroney in favor of Green-Ellis. With Green-Ellis and Woodhead, the Patriots have two undrafted free agents in the backfield, and at least one of them has been on the field for 817 of the team's 1,012 offensive snaps this season.

Connolly, a former practice squad player, started 13 games on the offensive line and delivered one of the most memorable plays of the season with a 71-yard kickoff return against the Packers on Dec. 19. Welker remains his usual solid self, while Arrington took over for 2009 second-round pick Darius Butler in Week 3 and has started at corner since. Linebacker Gary Guyton has carved out his niche, and it's quite possible that rookie free agent Kyle Love will be starting on the defensive line Sunday.

The reliance on previously undrafted players, and youth, has made the 2010 season unique for Belichick. Having fielded one of the league's oldest teams in recent years, these Patriots have one of the youngest defenses in the NFL. Only in 2000, when rookies and first-year players comprised anywhere from one-third to one-half of the roster, as he inherited an unfavorable salary cap situation, have the Patriots been this young under Belichick.

The Patriots won five games that season. They won 14 this season and find themselves three wins away from the ultimate goal.

Not bad for a roster filled with late-round draft picks and 22 more who didn't hear their name called on draft day.

Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPN Boston. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.