Happy June! For our first summer edition of NFLTR Review, we go deep on the 2021 UDFA class, including:
- Why undrafted free agency isn’t just a throwaway for teams
- Watchlist of 35 rookies who could make a name for themselves
- The signals of a potential UDFA gem: athleticism, opportunity and guaranteed money
Undrafted Free Agent Spotlight
Approximately a third of the 1,600 active NFL players each season come from the ranks of the undrafted. While that stands to reason given only 256 players are drafted every year, undrafted free agents do more than just fill roster spots. Many become legitimate contributors, even stars.
We don’t know who they are yet, but out of the hundreds of rookie free agents signed this year, more than just a handful will play key roles over the next few seasons and become more than just a long list of relatively anonymous names.
If we could reliably tell who these players would be, they obviously wouldn’t be undrafted free agents. But here’s a look at some names to watch who could potentially make waves now that they’re in the NFL.
OLB Charles Snowden
It’s easy to tell Snowden was a former basketball player, as he’s every bit of the 6-6 he’s listed at. He has to fill out more than the 240 pounds he’s at now but the length and athleticism make him an intriguing developmental player. As a rookie, he could still fill the same role Barkevious Mingo did as an uber-long outside linebacker who’s carved out a long career as a rotational pass rusher and special teamer. That has value if that’s all Snowden ever does, and there’s the potential for even more.
OT Drew Himmelman
The former Illinois State tackle is a massive 6-9 and 323 pounds and has a golden opportunity with Denver’s instability at right tackle. He’s a major project, as he is a converted high school hoops player and tight end. But he has a chance to stick as depth and eventually carve out a role.
DT Marvin Wilson
Around this time last year, Wilson was a fixture in the first round of early mock drafts. 2020 was a turbulent year for him, though, with injuries, covid and a run-in with the new coaching staff. His production suffered and Wilson fell all the way out of the draft. He still could make a mark as a nose tackle and special teamer (three blocked kicks in 2020) and there’s an opening in Cleveland on the interior defensive line.
G Sadarius Hutcherson
Hutcherson scored a 9.89 on Kent Lee Platte’s RAS metric which measures how athletic prospects are compared to their peers who have entered the NFL. That’s not a bad chip to have as an undrafted free agent trying to make a team. If there’s any place a rookie could carve out a niche on the reigning world champion’s roster, it’s on the offensive line where Tampa Bay could use more depth.
OLB Amen Ogbongbemiga
A force on special teams and the Chargers need more help in that phase of the game than any team in the league.
QB Shane Buechele
Buechele has some moxie to his game that could help him have some staying power in the NFL. He profiles similarly to Gardner Minshew or Case Keenum, as he’s not overwhelmingly gifted physically. He’s got good touch and a quick release, though, and he’s someone to pay attention to during the preseason.
WR Tyler Vaughns
A former ballet dancer in high school, that grace translates to the football field for Vaughns. He was never able to assert himself as more than a secondary receiver at USC but he was steadily productive all four years in college. He could be the type of guy to have a better professional career than collegiate one.
RB JaQuan Hardy
Hailing from tiny Tiffin University, Hardy is short himself at just 5-8. But at 211 pounds, he packs a lot into that frame and he runs with excellent power. He’ll obviously be making a huge jump in the level of competition and Dallas’ depth chart at running back is loaded. That could change with just a couple of injuries, though.
WRs T.J. Vasher and Brandon Smith
Dallas took several shots on receivers between Day 3 and its UDFA class, presumably looking ahead with Michael Gallup in a contract year. The common theme was generally size and athleticism and both Vasher and Smith have that in spades. Vasher has Gumby-esque proportions and looks like Mr. Fantastic with his catch radius at times. He just needs to fill out and get stronger. Smith topped 9 on his RAS score and plays like a power forward. There’s an opportunity for a receiver in Dallas down the line and both Vasher and Smith are candidates to watch.
S Tyler Coyle
Another athletic standout (9.83 RAS), Coyle has some similarities to former Panthers special teams ace Colin Jones, who filled in numerous times on defense in a pinch and held his own. The Cowboys could be getting a similar player, though Coyle is a bit bigger.
DB Trill Williams
Williams is already in high demand, as the Dolphins claimed him off waivers. New Orleans had cut him due to a failed physical but was reportedly planning to re-sign him. He was already getting early buzz to make the team given the Saints’ needs in the secondary and his name. Instead, the Dolphins get another versatile DB to try and develop.
QB Jamie Newman
The QB factory’s latest project, Newman has awesome physical upside. He’s got a strong arm, he’s big and he can scoot. There are also flashes of more nuanced aspects of playing the quarterback position but he was only really the starter for one year in a spread system at Wake Forest and opted out before ever playing a snap for Georgia despite transferring there. He needs development and he should get it in Philadelphia behind Jalen Hurts and Joe Flacco.
RB Javian Hawkins
Mike Davis is an underrated running back but he’s not the type of player teams have traditionally handed their backfield over to with little to no competition. That’s pretty much what Atlanta did this offseason, though. There’s an opening for Hawkins as a speedy change of pace back on a wide-open depth chart behind Davis.
LB Dylan Moses
Moses was a highly-regarded linebacker prospect once but a knee injury and the after-effects are a serious concern. He’s on the NFI list for Jacksonville right now but if he gets healthy enough to play, he’s shown he has NFL talent.
Jaguars CB DJ Daniel
Daniel looked every bit as good as his Georgia teammates Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell who went in the top 33 picks during the draft. But an injury in 2020 caused him to fall behind. There’s always room for quality corners in the NFL and the Jaguars are no different if Daniel can get back to where he was.
WR Tim Jones
Fellow UDFA WR Josh Imatorbhebhe has more name recognition, both due to his actual name and Imatorbhebhe’s athletic and former recruiting profile. Jones might have the better chance at cracking a crowded Jaguars receiving room, though. Jacksonville gave him $180k guaranteed, fourth-most of anyone in this UDFA class. He’s got solid size and legit speed, which is what Urban Meyer craves on offense.
K Chris Naggar
New Jets HC Robert Saleh sent some noteworthy praise the rookie’s way and the Athletic’s Connor Hughes thinks Naggar should already be the favorite to win the kicking competition in camp against incumbent Sam Ficken. At SMU last year, Naggar was a duel punter and kicker. He averaged less than 40 yards a punt but was 17-21 on field goals, including a long of 48 and a pair of game-winners.
OL Tristen Hoge
The Jets are pretty wide open along the offensive line and Hoge could work his way into a spot where he’s blocking for Zach Wilson again. He has some power to his game and can also play center.
TE Kenny Yeboah
Yeboah drew comparisons to current Jets TE Chris Herndon as an athletic move tight end and now he’ll try to make an impact where Herndon has failed so far, though the veteran will get one more chance. New York gave Yeboah the highest guaranteed figure ever for an undrafted free agent, $200,000, so odds are he’ll have a good chance to make the team.
CB Isaiah Dunn
The Jets also threw a ton of guaranteed money at Dunn, $185,000 total, perhaps trying to make up for not really addressing cornerback in the draft. Dunn has decent size but incredible speed with a 4.36-second 40-yard dash. That’s a nice trump card to stand out on what’s shaping up to be a wide-open depth chart.
WR Jonathan Adams
Detroit added a few wide receivers after the draft. Sage Surratt was the biggest name among draftniks and Javon McKinley got the most guaranteed money. Adams is my bet for the best of the bunch, though. He’s a big, physical, contested-catch receiver with a lot of parallels to Kenny Golladay. He had the best catch of the year that didn’t count and went on to score three touchdowns anyway that game.
G David Moore
Moore is built like a literal brick house at 6-2 and 330 pounds and plays with a physical attitude that has some offensive line analysts in love with him. Carolina’s line is far from settled so there’s an opening for Moore to win a backup job and potentially much more down the line.
DT Darius Stills
Though undersized at just six foot and 278 pounds, Stills had draftable grades from most places. The Raiders are starved for pass rush help so if Stills flashes it’s a good bet they try hard to keep him.
OT Alaric Jackson
Iowa just churns out quality offensive linemen and Jackson was locked in at left tackle for Iowa for the past four years. He had some buzz as an early declare last season but ended up going back to school. The Rams’ bread and butter is developing later draft picks and undrafted free agents to make up for trades and Jackson could be a promising candidate.
S Ar’Darius Washington
Though he received mostly mid-round draft grades, a 4.61 40-yard dash at just 5-8 and 176 pounds nuked Washington’s draft stock. Small and slow is not what the NFL is looking for. Washington will have to prove his instincts outweigh that and the Ravens are always looking for secondary help.
OT Adrian Ealy
Baltimore is a big fan of linemen from Oklahoma and Ealy has a shot to stick as the Ravens try to replace another former Sooner tackle, Orlando Brown Jr.
CB Bryce Thompson
The Saints lost out on Trill Williams but Thompson is another defensive back they signed after the draft who could make some waves. He had great ball production in college at Tennessee with eight interceptions and 19 pass defenses. His brash play style fits what they look for at the position but Thompson will have to clean up his act off the field, as that’s the biggest reason he went undrafted.
RB Stevie Scott
There are a few ways to stand out as an undrafted free agent and it often involves doing the dirty work more highly regarded and “talented” players can’t or won’t like special teams. For running backs, that means pass protection, and Scott is one of the best pass protectors in this class at the running back position. If he can unseat Dwayne Washington for the No. 3 role, Scott could put himself in position to be a cheaper alternative to Latavius Murray as the Saints’ big back.
WRs Cade Johnson and Connor Wedington
Former Florida State WR Tamorrion Terry was the biggest name in Seattle’s undrafted class but Johnson might be the best player. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler gave him a borderline third-round grade and he has a lot of similarities to former Seattle star Doug Baldwin as a shifty slot receiver. In fact, so does Wedington, and he’s a former Stanford receiver to boot. Johnson is the more polished player at this point but Wedington is the better athlete and can also return kicks. Both are names to watch in a competition for the final few spots on Seattle’s depth chart.
CBs Mark Gilbert and Shakur Brown
Brown is getting a lot of the early hype for a roster spot but I actually think Gilbert has a chance to be the gem of Pittsburgh’s undrafted class. Brown still could push for Pittsburgh’s open nickel corner job but at 5-9 and with limited speed (4.63 40 time) he probably is limited to just the slot. Gilbert is bigger (6-0), faster (4.45 40) and had an incredible season for Duke as a sophomore with a school-record 21 pass defenses and six interceptions. That was all the way back in 2017 and injuries have really derailed what looked like a promising career for Gilbert. He can still get it back on track, though.
OL Carson Green
The biggest knock on Green’s scouting report is that speed rushers can give him issues. He’s probably moving inside to guard in Houston, though, where that will be less of an issue. There are jobs for the taking in Houston on the offensive line and Green can definitely land one.
RB Jaret Patterson
Patterson was the lone undrafted free agent signed by Washington and he’s already making an impression in minicamp. He’s short and slow but he runs with the verve of a much bigger back. He already has caught HC Ron Rivera’s attention in minicamp and just has to beat out Lamar Miller, Jonathan Williams and Peyton Barber for a roster spot.
This Week In Football
- As of publishing, there’s still no real action on a potential Julio Jones trade. But the Falcons receiver was the main topic over the holiday weekend. Here’s a recap of what happened and where things stand:
- The 49ers started picking up a fair amount of buzz as a landing spot but if the Falcons are really seeking a first-round pick for Jones, that makes it hard for San Francisco.
- After being viewed as a long shot at one point last week, the Titans now have been mentioned by a number of different outlets as making the most sense as the team that ultimately will land Jones.
- The Seahawks entered the chat, while the Rams dipped out, as did the Ravens. There also seems to be a general thought that if the Falcons are staunchly against eating some of Jones’ salary, which makes sense given that’s half the point of trading him, it’ll be hard to get more than a second-round pick.
- Left out of our June preview last week was the situation involving Eagles TE Zach Ertz, who has been on the block pretty much since before the trade deadline last season. No one has been willing to pony up the Eagles’ asking price so far but now that the calendar has passed June 1, the Eagles would save more cap space by moving on from Ertz, which could get things moving. At least three teams have shown interest in Ertz and that’s enough that the Eagles likely won’t end up releasing the veteran tight end.
- In other Eagles tight end new, Ertz is on his way out partially because fellow TE Dallas Goedert has shown he’s more than ready for a bigger role. Goedert is entering the final year of his rookie deal and mentioned this week he and Philadelphia have had some discussions on a long-term deal. It’ll be interesting to see if they offer enough for Goedert to take the deal or if he bets on himself in a contract season.
- It raised some eyebrows earlier in the week when the Bills restructured WR Stefon Diggs‘ contract to create $7.8 million in additional cap space. That’s a not-insignificant number, especially at this time of year, and it was easy to connect the dots to a potential deal for Ertz. What might be more likely, however, is Buffalo preparing to absorb a massive extension for QB Josh Allen on their cap later this summer.
- The Cowboys declined LB Leighton Vander Esch‘s option, drafted Micah Parsons with their first pick and made other additions to an already crowded position. So it makes sense why other teams reached out to Dallas to see if it was willing to part with the talented but injury-plagued linebacker. It’s notable that Dallas wasn’t really willing to engage in trade talks involving Vander Esch, though, who still appears to be in the Cowboys’ plans to a degree that doesn’t involve guaranteeing him almost $10 million in 2022.
- After being released by Washington, RT Morgan Moses has begun touring his available options. He stopped by to visit the Jets last week and had a visit with the Bears this week. On either team, Moses would be a big upgrade over the current incumbent starting right tackle, whether it’s Germain Ifedi in Chicago or George Fant in New York. Moses might not be done making visits, though.
- The Bears have repeatedly said, both publicly and privately, that veteran QB Andy Dalton is going to start the season ahead of first-round QB Justin Fields. Bears HC Matt Nagy was with the Chiefs when they sat Patrick Mahomes for a year behind Alex Smith and appears to want to follow that same blueprint. Once the pads come on and the action picks up in training camp, it’ll be interesting to see how long that plan holds together.
- There are still capable players available every June who sign deals and end up helping teams in the fall. The Cardinals just landed one of them, adding former first-round CB Darqueze Dennard to their secondary. Dennard is a competent corner who can play both in the slot and outside. It’s a good get for an Arizona secondary that still needed reinforcements.
Check This Out
- It’s a big year for Kyler Murray and the Cardinals in 2021. Last year Arizona was a popular pick as a team on the rise and they looked poised to deliver with Murray’s sensational Haily Mary touchdown to beat the Bills. The rest of the year fell flat though, and ESPN’s Seth Wickersham looks at how, for now, that play is the defining moment for Murray and the Cardinals, good and bad.
- The NFL is a copycat league and fundamentally designed to make it hard to play defense. So it’s no wonder so many teams saw the success Brandon Staley had as the architect of the Rams defense last year and wanted a piece for themselves. USA Today’s Steven Ruiz has an excellent breakdown of why Staley’s defense was so revolutionary and effective, as well as why it has the staying power to eventually join other great historical defensive schemes. The Chargers obviously hired Staley to run his defense, which was heavily influenced by his time learning under Broncos HC Vic Fangio. The Rams hired Raheem Morris to run Staley’s system, the Packers hired away Joe Barry from the Rams, Fangio pupil Sean Desai is leading the Bears defense and both Browns DC Joe Woods and Panthers DC Phil Snow are at least philosophically closer to Staley’s style of defense than to other common NFL systems.
- Even before Trevor Lawrence won the national title as a freshman and put himself on the trajectory that made him the No. 1 overall pick and the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning, he was on a lot of folks’ radar as a high-profile high school recruit. Generational prospects like Lawrence are by definition rare, but already there appears to be another — and it’s a Manning. Arch Manning, the grandson of Archie, nephew of Peyton and Eli and son of Cooper, is a rising prep star and the most sought-after recruit in the nation at just 16 years old. The Athletic’s Jeff Duncan explains why great things are expected of young Arch.
- Not looking nearly as far into the future, quarterback analyst Derrik Klassen provides his results from charting Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler, one of the contenders to be the top quarterback in next year’s class. The early book on Rattler is he’s a promising physical talent in the mold of Jets QB Zach Wilson, with mobility, creativity and arm strength to flick the ball down the field. How much progress he makes mastering the subtleties of the position will be crucial for him in 2021.
- Change comes incrementally but sometimes there are real watershed moments. That’s what the recent ascent of Broncos director of football operations Kelly Kleine and Eagles VP of football operations Catherine Raîche to their current positions has felt like. The two women are now two of the most senior front office personnel in NFL history and are legitimate candidates as future general managers. It’s not just them. The number of women in the NFL has increased exponentially, from coaches to scouts to now front office executives. USA Today’s Jori Epstein highlights even more of the 135 women who now work in football operations across the league and the work they’re doing to not just break into a male-dominated industry, but to thrive.