FOXBORO - If performance can serve as a guide, Zach Sudfeld's worst worry over the next two weeks might be whether he loses his long, flowing locks of hair.
"Hopefully not, but we'll see. Whatever I've got to go through it's the rookie deal, I guess," said the Patriots' rookie tight end, who has made as good a case as any to stick on the 53-man regular-season roster.
If he does make the roster, Sudfeld will probably be the target of stealthy veterans who'll be champing at the bit to separate his long locks from his head, part of the rookie initiation that everyone on the team endures at the start of their pro careers. But it might be worth it for the undrafted free agent from Nevada, who has exceeded all expectations since he was signed on May 3.
Oft-injured as a college underclassman and productive only in a second senior year made possible by a medical redshirt, Sudfeld has made three catches for 54 yards in this preseason - none more spectacular than the diving 22-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter of Friday's 25-21 win over Tampa Bay in which he beat double coverage into the end zone, dove for Ryan Mallett's pass, caught it, lost it and kept his focus to reel it back in before hitting the turf.
Asked by a reporter Tuesday if that was the best catch he has made as a pro, Sudfeld laughed.
"I think that was one of my only ones as a pro," said the 6-foot-7, 260-pound native of Santa Cruz, Calif. "It was a great experience for me the other night, but at the end of the day, at this point, we're playing the Lions and it doesn't really matter what we did last week. I have a lot to improve on for this week."
Sudfeld's sudden emergence certainly comes at a good time for a team that had tailored its offense to include offensive-minded tight ends as a cornerstone of its attack. With Rob Gronkowski still rehabbing offseason back surgery and Aaron Hernandez incarcerated, the explosive potential of the position group might have been reduced to that of a soaking-wet firecracker.
Sudfeld shouldn't be seen as the second coming of Gronkowski, as he reminded reporters on Tuesday, but at least there is potential.
"I've been pretty busy in the facility just trying to focus on getting better," said Sudfeld, who chooses not to pay attention to the comparisons being made with Gronkowski. "There are so many things that I have to improve on, really. I'm just a rookie and I have a lot of work to do to get to where I want to be. It's a long road ahead, but I look forward to doing it and it's been good so far."
While his strong practice performances dating back to the non-pads minicamp and OTAs have been followed by good preseason games, Sudfeld said he has no reason to be overly comfortable.
"I don't know if I would say more comfortable because you're always just trying to continue to improve," he said. "It's been good, but there are so many things, when I watch the film, that I have to get better at and improve myself. So there's no time really to sit back and rest on what you've done in previous games."
It does appear that the Patriots, and Tom Brady in particular, have developed enough confidence in Sudfeld to bring him up a few notches on the depth chart.
"I hope so," he said. "But a lot of that is developed on the practice field, so I try to come out here every day and compete, and like I said, keep getting better."
Sudfeld caught 46 passes as a senior at Nevada, and two others prior to that. He missed most of the 2011 season with a leg injury and was injured as a redshirt freshman, so it's no wonder that he was passed over in the draft.
Rather than harbor resentment, however, he chooses simply to look ahead.
"It's really one of those things, I can't do anything about the past," he said. "All I can do is just embrace the future and try to make the most of the present. I'm really trying to do that and doing my best every day.
"The truth is, you're just out here and working so hard, you're trying to just keep your head down and keep working," he said.