When Super Bowl LI takes place on Feb. 5, it will be almost 11 months after the New England Patriots signed restricted free agent receiver Chris Hogan to a three-year, $12 million deal, paying him $5.5 million in 2016. That cap charge is somewhat modest, but still paid Hogan more this season than Julian Edelman, Steve Smith, Kenny Britt, Anquan Boldin, and loads of receivers on rookie deals.
Keep in mind, Hogan averaged 28.1 yards per game with the Buffalo Bills in 2015 and it was a career-high. It's fair to say nobody saw his true value besides the Pats.
In the AFC Championship Game on Sunday at Foxborough, Hogan caught nine passes for 180 yards and two touchdowns, as the Patriots advanced to yet another Super Bowl with a 36-17 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers. His big play ability has given Tom Brady a new threat with which to attack the Atlanta Falcons. Hogan also had four catches for 95 yards against the Houston Texans in the divisional round, so if his postseason play is any indication, more than a few people will be placing bets on him to be Super Bowl MVP.
Where did this 6-foot-2, 220 pound, little-known player come from?
A gifted-but-undersized athlete out of high school in Ramapo, N.J., Hogan declined the option to play football at schools like UConn and Rutgers, instead going to Penn State -- which would seem like a really obvious choice, if it weren't for the fact that he didn't play football at PSU. He played lacrosse. Said Hogan back in 2011 on why he chose the sport: "I had more influences on me playing lacrosse than I did have people telling me to play football … If I could go back four years, I would have absolutely played football."
Still, Hogan was an exceptional lacrosse player, a senior captain and, when his time ran out, he still had one year of NCAA eligibility remaining. He opted to use it to play football at Monmouth, mostly doing what he does best: being a freak athlete. He had three touchdowns on offense (on only 12 catches) and three interceptions on defense. He was mostly overlooked by NFL scouts and wasn't invited to the combine, but he still ran a 4.47 in the forty-yard dash and made 28 reps on the bench at Fordham's pro day (yes, he had to go to another school just to get a pro day).
Now Hogan was a becoming a bit of a legend, getting workouts with various teams, being "that guy from a small school who intrigues everyone" during the 2011 NFL Draft. Nobody selected Hogan that year due to his almost complete lack of experience beyond high school, but he signed as an undrafted free agent with the San Francisco 49ers.
New Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh didn't see enough in Hogan to keep him around, as he was limited with an ankle injury, and he was released during final cuts. Hogan was picked up by the New York Giants, but cut 11 days later. He was available for the next three months, finally signing with the Miami Dolphins' practice squad in late December and then a futures contract in January. During the 2012 "Hard Knocks" series on HBO, Hogan became a featured personality, mostly because of a catchy nickname given to him by Dolphins teammate Reggie Bush: "7-Eleven" (because like the convenience store, he's always open).
Hogan wasn't open enough to keep a job, though, as he was released once again, before signing with the Bills that November. By 2013, Hogan got his first regular-season playing time, catching 10 passes for 83 yards. Then in 2014, three years after entering the league, he was a bona fide NFL receiver, catching 41 passes for 426 yards and four touchdowns with Buffalo. He showed no dropoff in 2015 under new head coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, catching 36 for 450 yards and two touchdowns. But none of this should lead you to believe that Hogan was on a path to be a postseason superstar.
Which is one of the many reasons why none of us are Bill Belichick.
There will be a strong urge to compare Hogan to three players in particular: Wes Welker, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. They are all receivers who have played or currently play for New England (and they all happen to be smaller white guys). But Hogan is uniquely different from those players.
Welker is five inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter. Edelman and Amendola are also considerably smaller receivers. Terms like "scrappy," "gritty," and "high motor" don't apply to Hogan who, remember, is a freak of nature. If you're looking for someone to compare him to in the Belichick era, you may be searching for awhile. The fact that he is uniquely athletic and able to stretch the field may mean that his DNA is closer to that of Rob Gronkowski than that of any receiver, which is why he's become such a vital piece of the machine since Gronk went on injured reserve.
In a piece he wrote for The Players Tribune in August of 2015 while with the Bills, Hogan said, "Now that I'd finally made it, I planned to stick." At the time, he had just four touchdowns and one season as a role player on a mediocre team. But, for a player who had to play college lacrosse instead of football, was released by three teams in his first two seasons and had the first team to ever give him a legitimate chance opt to not match an offer for $12 million in the offseason, it's not hard to see why Hogan can stay so positive. He's already overcome so many odds to get to this point.
The next milestone in his sights? Super Bowl champion.