Which Undrafted Free Agents Have the Best Shots at Making NFL Rosters?
There is one common thread for all undrafted rookies in NFL training camps this offseason. Each and every one of them will have to make a big impression in their team’s training camp and the preseason to fight their way onto the 53-man roster.
While many of these players have the talent to succeed in professional football, they all went undrafted for a reason. Each undrafted rookie who makes an NFL roster this season will prove to their teams that they can overcome those reasons and contribute to their team's success.
That said, not all undrafted rookies are created equal or signed into equivalent situations. While even the following 10 players will have to be at their best this offseason just to earn a roster spot, they are among the most talented undrafted free agents in the rookie class, and all of them are in positions where earning a roster spot is a very feasible possibility.
Da’Rick Rogers, WR, Buffalo Bills
Da’Rick Rogers may have been the most gifted talent to go unselected in the 2013 NFL draft class. Had it not been for off-field issues that forced him to transfer to Tennessee Tech from Tennessee prior to his final collegiate season, he likely would have been an early-round selection as one of the most physically-gifted wide receivers in the draft class.
It came as a surprise that no team took a chance on him in the draft, even with his character flaws, but the Buffalo Bills finally took that chance on him as an undrafted free agent. Buddy Nix, who was the Bills’ general manager at the time of the draft, told WGR’s The John Murphy Show that the Bills had a first- to second-round grade on Rogers.
If Rogers can keep himself on a straight path off the field, he has star potential on the field. He is a big, physical wideout who has great quickness for a receiver of his size. He has good downfield speed and is a strong route-runner.
Rogers needs to catch the ball more consistently, an issue due simply to lapses in concentration, as he has shown the hands to make tough grabs. He can use his size and speed to be a downfield receiving threat, but also has very good ability to make plays with the ball in his hands.
The Bills have made a strong effort to overhaul their receiving corps with youth this offseason, giving Rogers a window of opportunity to work his way up the depth chart quickly.
With two rookie draft picks also added at receiver in Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, Rogers will be competing for one or two roster spots with a talented group of receivers that includes Brad Smith, Marcus Easley and fellow undrafted rookie Brandon Kaufman.
Rogers has the most talent of that latter group and should be able to win a job as long as he exhibits model behavior off the field.
Kwame Geathers, NT, San Diego Chargers
The San Diego Chargers have very little depth on the defensive line behind their starting trio, specifically at nose tackle, where they have only undrafted free agents behind veteran Cam Thomas. Of those undrafted free agents, Kwame Geathers is in the best position to earn a spot on the final roster.
Geathers is a strong, powerful nose tackle who is stout against the run. He has ideal size for his position, having weighed in at 6'5" and 342 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine, and he has decent quickness for a big man.
It came as a surprise that Geathers went undrafted, but his production and playing time were limited at Georgia. Nonetheless, he could be in a very good situation in San Diego. If he can make the roster, he should have a significant opportunity to receive playing time by spelling Thomas.
Nose tackle depth is very important in the middle of a 3-4 defensive front. As an anchor of the defensive line, Geathers has the much-needed ability to occupy multiple blockers and plug gaps. If the Chargers need to put Geathers in the lineup, he will not get pushed around and should be able to free up his teammates to make plays.
Jonathan Stewart, OLB, St. Louis Rams
The St. Louis Rams used one of their two first-round draft picks to select Alec Ogletree, who will be the team’s new starter at weak-side linebacker. That said, the St. Louis Rams have very little depth in their linebacker corps and may have to rely on at least one undrafted free agent to provide that depth.
The Rams signed five undrafted free-agent linebackers, but Jonathan Stewart is the best bet among them to make the 53-man roster.
Although his teammate Sean Porter was a fourth-round pick, Stewart was arguably Texas A&M’s best linebacker last season. He would be a solid backup with the versatility to play all three linebacker positions.
Stewart is a very good tackler who routinely makes plays in space. He is not an attacking blitzer, but he is a good athlete who is effective dropping back into coverage.
Stewart will face competition for what will likely be two or three backup linebacker spots from returning veteran Josh Hull, 2012 undrafted free agent Sammy Brown and four other undrafted rookies, most notably Phillip Steward.
Among all of the team’s non-starting linebackers, Stewart is the most well-rounded player. He could be a very steady backup for Ogletree at weak-side linebacker, while he can see the field on all three downs and play both inside and outside.
The above video, courtesy of Draft Breakdown, shows some of Stewart's plays from A&M's game last season versus Florida. (Stewart is No. 11; turn on annotations in the video to highlight Stewart before each play.)
Robert Lester, SS, Carolina Panthers
Robert Lester’s draft stock free-fell over the course of his senior season at Alabama, as many of his flaws became exposed without Mark Barron playing safety alongside of him. Yet, although Lester went undrafted, he joined a situation with the Carolina Panthers where he will have an opportunity to compete for immediate playing time.
The Panthers are very weak at the safety position outside of Charles Godfrey, which leaves a big window of opportunity for Lester. He could even have an outside chance of winning the starting strong safety job, as he received some first-team repetitions in minicamp, according to ESPN’s Pat Yasinskas.
Lester was a starter and impact player for a Crimson Tide defense that won two consecutive national championships over the past two seasons. He has athletic shortcomings and is an inconsistent tackler, but he's a physical safety who can make plays on the football.
Outside of Godfrey, no safety on the Panthers roster is a lock to survive final cuts. Lester will compete with Mike Mitchell, D.J. Campbell, Haruki Nakamura and Colin Jones for playing time and a roster spot, and he should have a legitimate opportunity to land on the final roster.
Braxston Cave, C, Cleveland Browns
Few undrafted free agents signed into a better situation than former Notre Dame center Braxston Cave did with the Cleveland Browns. While the Browns have one of the NFL’s best centers in Alex Mack, Cave is the only clear choice on the roster to be Mack’s backup.
It is crucial for every NFL team to have a backup offensive lineman who can provide a steady presence in the middle of the offensive line if needed. While the Browns could rely on developing one of their guards to be the fill-in center, they could get that stability from Cave.
A three-year starter at Notre Dame, Cave is an experienced and technically sound player. He is a consistent snapper. He does not have spectacular measurables and rarely overpowers opponents, but he should be able to quickly learn the Browns’ system and step into action if needed.
Joe Madsen, C, Pittsburgh Steelers
Like Cave, former West Virginia center Joe Madsen went undrafted but joined a situation where he should be first in line to be the team’s backup center. The Pittsburgh Steelers also have one of the NFL’s top centers in Maurkice Pouncey but need a new backup center following the departure of Doug Legursky.
The Steelers have a serious lack of offensive line depth, which opens the door for at least one of their five undrafted free agents to make the roster as a reserve. Madsen’s odds look best, however, given his experience where depth is most needed at center.
Madsen has limited potential as an NFL center. He is a decent athlete but does not have great size or power. That said, he was a three-year starting center at WVU and has the snapping skill and lateral quickness to be an adequate backup.
He will face legitimate competition for a roster spot from the other four undrafted free agents. The toughest competition could come from former Notre Dame interior lineman Mike Golic Jr., who presents the versatility to play both center and guard. Madsen, however, is the only option to be backup center with significant collegiate experience at that position.
Ryan Otten, TE, Jacksonville Jaguars
Ryan Otten may be an undrafted rookie, but he is already the best tight end option the Jacksonville Jaguars have outside of starter Marcedes Lewis. If Otten can show in training camp and the preseason that he can be a valuable asset to the Jaguars as a receiving threat, he should be able to earn a roster spot.
New Jaguars offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch is likely to employ more multi-tight end sets than the Jaguars have used in previous years. The Jaguars’ only veteran options outside of Lewis, however, are an underwhelming group of Allen Reisner, Isaiah Stanback and Brett Brackett.
Otten surprisingly went undrafted, but he is a legitimate receiving playmaker over the middle. He is a tall tight end with good athleticism and very good hands. He does not have great bulk but is an adequate blocker.
Otten can provide the Jaguars offense flexibility, as he can line up both in-line and flexed off the line of scrimmage as a receiver. For a team with a limited depth of receiving options, Otten could see immediate playing time if he proves himself worthy of a roster spot.
Lerentee McCray, OLB/DE, Denver Broncos
Lerentee McCray was viewed as a much better fit for a 3-4 defense coming out of Florida but signed with a 4-3 team in the Denver Broncos. Of course, the same thing was said about Von Miller, who emerged as one of the NFL’s defensive superstars in his first two seasons with the Broncos.
McCray’s best fit at the next level would be as an edge-rushing outside linebacker, and that is likely what drew the Broncos to him as an undrafted free agent. He could provide depth as a developmental player behind Miller in the strong-side linebacker/situational pass-rusher role.
McCray is undersized for a defensive end, the position he played at Florida. That said, he has the athleticism, space-tackling ability and ability to drop into coverage to make the transition to linebacker at the next level.
McCray’s most likely competition for both a roster spot and playing time should come from Shaun Phillips. A converting 3-4 outside linebacker, Phillips is in line to be Miller’s primary backup and play the same role as a strong-side linebacker and situational pass-rusher.
But if McCray can show the skills that had him projected as a mid-round pick by many and stand out in training camp, he has a definite chance to make the Broncos’ roster.
He has an outside shot of beating out Phillips given his youth, but the Broncos could also decide to keep both players. The Broncos have limited pass-rushing depth, which McCray could provide, following Elvis Dumervil’s departure this offseason.
Ryan Griffin, QB, New Orleans Saints
Ryan Griffin did not get nearly as much attention as fellow undrafted quarterbacks Tyler Bray and Matt Scott, but he could end up being the most successful quarterback of the trio at the next level. Having signed locally with the New Orleans Saints, the Tulane product is in the best position of any undrafted quarterback to make a 53-man roster.
Chase Daniel, who has been a very steady backup for the Saints over the past four years, left for the Kansas City Chiefs this offseason. Griffin is a legitimate candidate to following in the footsteps of Daniel, who was also undrafted, and win the competition to be the team’s backup quarterback in 2013.
Griffin has the physical tools to succeed as an NFL quarterback. He has great size for the position, good arm strength and solid pocket footwork. He did not have a terrific collegiate career but has displayed the ability to hit difficult throws downfield.
Griffin will compete with journeymen-veterans Luke McCown and Seneca Wallace for either one or two backup quarterback jobs. While the Saints are likely to keep one of the two veterans for their experience, Griffin has developmental upside that neither of them have.
If Griffin can show significant upside in training camp, he could have the inside track at earning a roster spot as a backup quarterback.
Tony Jefferson, FS, Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals took a chance on Tyrann Mathieu in the third round of the draft in hopes that he can develop into the playmaker they lack at free safety. Another rookie who could make an immediate contribution at free safety, however, is undrafted signing Tony Jefferson.
The Cardinals cut both of last season’s starting safeties earlier this offseason, leaving them very weak at the safety position. Jefferson will not immediately compete for a starting spot, but he could provide much-needed depth at the position.
Rashad Johnson is expected to take over at strong safety, while Mathieu should compete with veteran free agent Yeremiah Bell for the starting free safety job. But with second-year defensive back Justin Bethel being converted back to cornerback, the competition for a roster spot behind those three safeties is wide open.
Jefferson likely fell out of the draft due to a lack of speed after running a very poor 4.75 40-yard dash at the combine. That said, he is a skilled safety who is good at making plays on the ball in the air. He is an active, aggressive playmaker in run support.
Jefferson will likely be competing for one or two roster spots with fellow undrafted rookies Javon Harris (Jefferson’s collegiate teammate at Oklahoma) and Josh Hill, and veteran free-agent signings Jonathon Amaya and Curtis Taylor. He is the most talented of those five players and should have the inside track on a roster spot if he shows up well in training camp.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.