By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The New England Patriots let Malcolm Butler depart via free agency this offseason. But they may have a new Cinderella story ready to rise up the cornerback depth chart.
OK, that characterization may be setting the bar impossibly high for seventh-round draft pick Keion Crossen, as going from complete unknown to Super Bowl hero really is a once-in-a-lifetime type of story. Still, if there’s any new addition to the Patriots roster who might fit the Butler mold, it’s Crossen.
At 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, Crossen played his college football at Western Carolina — reminiscent, somewhat, of Butler’s alma mater of West Alabama. There, he recorded three total interceptions and made 165 tackles. He was good … but not good enough to even get a profile or a grade by NFL.com prior to the 2018 draft, and not good enough to get an invite to the combine. But Crossen was good enough to get a chance to work out at the Wake Forest pro day, where he turned heads with a 4.33-second 40 time, and it was enough to warrant interest from the Patriots.
And on Tuesday, in the first practice session of the offseason open to the media, Crossen had himself a rather impressive day, according to those on the scene.
Obviously, one practice in the middle of May — playing against Brian Hoyer and Danny Etling, no less — doesn’t mean anything. Crossen didn’t win a roster spot on Tuesday, didn’t earn any footing on the depth chart, and isn’t guaranteed to ever play in the NFL. But — but! — when it comes to the attributes of an underdog, Crossen clearly possesses some qualities that the Patriots seek in their young players. And even Crossen appreciates what some of those Patriots have gone through to get where they’ve gotten.
“I’m a motivated guy,” Crossen told USA Today prior to the draft. “I love reading Tom Brady’s draft profile. He had all these negative things said about him. He was too small, he didn’t have a strong arm. There’s always something. Us smaller-school guys always work just a little bit harder. I didn’t have the same resources that the bigger programs can provide. You have to work with what you have. At Western for example, we didn’t have an indoor facility. Practicing in the snow wasn’t a big deal. Practicing in the rain wasn’t a big deal. I never let the outside factors determine who I am or what I can accomplish. I only control what I can control — things like my work ethic, my attitude, my passion for the game and my study habits. I make sure that I’m a coachable player. I make sure I respect my coaches and my teammates. … I bring a lot of leadership skills with me. I enjoy doing work in the community. I take place in bible study. These are the things that showcase my character, it’s who I am beyond an athlete. I have no off the field problems. I’m a level headed and humble guy. I am very passionate about football.”
Whether it’s been Brady, or Butler, or someone like Julian Edelman, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has been an expert at finding the “diamond in the rough” types of talent. Crossen explain in that same pre-draft interview what makes him a diamond in the rough.
“I’m really that small-school guy that’s always been underrated. It’s been that way since I was in high school,” he explained. “A lot of teams missed out on me mainly because of my weight. I only weighed like 140 pounds at the time. I’m just that guy who has a special amount of work ethic. A person who works hard can be less talented, but his work ethic will put him over the top. I’m also a guy that’s willing to learn and willing to expand my knowledge. I just know football, period. Being athletic can only serve as your foundation. Your character and football IQ is what puts you over the top. Those are the attributes that I have.”
And after getting the call from the Patriots in the final half-hour of the draft, Crossen said he likens his game to … none other than Malcolm Butler.
“I play a little bit of Malcolm Butler,” Crossen said. “That’s one guy that I can say I kind of model my game after. He’s a good player and it showed in [Super Bowl XLIX], but that’s kind of who I model my game after.”
He also sounded like a perfect Patriot, even before officially inking a contract.
“I’m a humble player, if you will,” Crossen said. “I’m a physical player. I think my game speaks for itself. I don’t do anything outside of my job. That’s what I’m looking forward to doing with the Patriots, just doing my job, whatever that may be. I’m just ready to learn and get ready to work for the Patriots.”
What Crossen has now is a chance to make the team and embark on an NFL career. It’s far too soon to know how successful he’ll be in that endeavor, but if Tuesday’s showing was any indication, he is at the very least off to a good start.