Got Five on it: Top Five Winners in Undrafted Free Agency
As the seventh round of the NFL draft nears a close, NFL phone lines light up like trees on Christmas (or menorahs on Hanukkah, to my friends of the Jewish faith).
War room phone bills begin to resemble that of an adolescent girl’s.
After all, like an all-expenses paid shopping spree, or Wynona Rider shopping trip, the merchandise is free (free of draft pick expense, that is).
Although shopping for passed-over draft prospects may feel like perusing last seasons’ sales rack or catching the late train of the seventh floor crew, there are future starters and role players galore to be found.
Many sixth and seventh-round prospects go undrafted as a result of not matching team need.
Even first-round talents will go unselected as a result of injury or character concerns.
Whatever the reason, there are some undrafted athletes who are just too valuable to be passed over entirely.
Teams that are risk-averse to character concern or injury history can rest assured knowing that the risk of an undrafted free agent is minimal. With no draft pick involved, the only guaranteed cost to a franchise is a marginal signing bonus.
Risking the $10,000 it takes to get an UDFA to sign the dotted line is about as big a risk to an owner as allowing a roommate to “borrow” toilet paper (I never did get that back, by the way).
The closing of the seventh round is also a time that humbled college superstars begin their journey of redemption.
Their agents begin to play part-time matchmaker, weighing the benefits of team quality against the ease of cracking the regular season roster.
For many athletes, being undrafted is a better outcome than being seventh round selection.
After all, undrafted free agents are free to sign with any team they wish.
They can be sentimental and sign with their childhood team, or act as a part-time rental and follow the money.
They can join a Super Bowl contender in pursuit of a ring, or bottom feeder in hopes of a full-time fling.
In the process of filling unaddressed needs and snatching up draft-worthy talent, some NFL teams always seem to come out on top. These were the teams that sprayed on that (insert generic French name) cologne, styled their receding hair, and attended the undrafted free agent middle school dance.
The following is a list of the five teams that fared the best in undrafted free agency, including the prospects they signed and an analysis on their headline pickups.
New York Jets
Brannan Southerland: FB, Georgia
Zach Potter: DE, Nebraska
Emanuel Cook: S, South Carolina
Chris Pizzoti: QB, Harvard
Andrew Davie: TE, Arkansas
Matt Kroul: DL, Iowa
Robert Myers: TE, Utah State
T.J. Conley: P, Idaho
Jamaal Westerman: DE, Rutgers
J'Nathan Bullock: TE, Cleveland State
Jamaal Westerman: DE, Rutgers
Kyle Link: OT, McNeese St
Tavita Thompson: OT, Oregon St
Britt Davis: WR, Northern Illinois
Ryan McKee: OL, Southern Mississippi
The Jets made headlines for their first round Sanchez trade, but it was their undrafted free-agent class that put the icing on the proverbial cake.
Although signing a high quantity of players, the Jets also landed some quality prospects.
Georgia fullback Brannan Southerland was one of the top full backs available in the 2009 draft class. Although not a top rushing threat, Southerland’s size (6’0", 240 lbs) and tenacity will make him a capable blocking fullback in the NFL. Southerland’s undrafted status was a result of injury concerns and the devaluation of fullbacks.
Zach Potter provided the Jets with yet another steal. At 6’7" and 275 pounds, Potter possesses a unique size that is sure to block punts, kicks, and passing lanes. In two years as a starting defensive end for Nebraska, Potter earned honorable mention All-Big 12 selections in 2007 and 2008, while posting 16 TFL and 5.5 sacks as a senior. Potter should provide a high-potential, yet raw athlete for the Jets.
Emanuel Cook is a strong safety of mid-round talent but major character concerns. After earning freshman All-SEC honors in 2006, and second-team All-SEC honors in 2007 and 2008, Cook declared early for the draft.
Unfortunately for Cook, his background in college, which included academic ineligibility and criminal gun charges, declared with him. Although tremendous in run support, Cook’s ineffectiveness in coverage and off-field concerns made him an undrafted pickup. Regardless, this is a high-value pickup for New York.
It was a great undrafted free agent class overall for the New York Jets.
San Diego Chargers
Darry Beckwith: LB, LSU
CJ Spillman: FS, Marshall
Kory Sperry: TE, CSU
Ryan McDonald: OL, Illinois
Charly Martin: WR, West Texas A&M
Sam Allen: OT, Grand Valley St.
Dan Guy IV: OT, Baylor
James Holt: LB, Kansas
Curtis Brinkley: RB, Syracuse
Wopamo Osaisai: CB, Stanford
Rashaad Jackson: DT, Clemson
Jermiah Wurzbacher: TE, NDSU
Rodrigues Smith: WR, Auburn
The Charger’s had an eventful undrafted free agency, landing several noteworthy players.
They signed Colorado State TE Kory Sperry, a jump-ball receiving threat in the mold of their very own Antonio Gates. This former Division 1 basketball recruit was the three-time recipient of first-team All-MWC honors. Sperry could have easily gone as high as the fifth round due to his unprecedented abilities as a red zone receiver.
In addition, the Charger’s landed LSU linebacker Darry Beckwith. After excelling in the SEC, Beckwith was widely recognized as one of the draft’s most talented linebackers and a potential third-round selection. Beckwith was the recipient of second-team All-SEC honors in 2007 and 2008.
Like many LSU linebackers (see Ali Highsmith), Beckwith fell due to his small size (6 ft, 240 lbs), making scouts question his ability to take on blockers and see plays in the backfield. Look for Beckwith to make an immediate contribution to the Charger’s special teams unit. With time to develop and add bulk to his frame, don’t be surprised to find Beckwith in the mix at interior linebacker.
Free safety C.J. Spillman, a player who was widely viewed as fourth-round talent, should provide the Chargers much needed depth at the safety positions. Spillman, who earned second-team All-Conference USA honors following a 131-tackle campaign his junior year, has the potential and versatility to play both FS and SS.
These are three quality players with the immediate ability to serve as depth, and future potential to start. Given that all three of these signings are at positions of needed depth, the Chargers had a tremendous undrafted free agency.
Jason Watkins: OT, Florida
Tim Jamison: DE, Michigan
Arian Foster: RB, Tennessee
Jeremiah Johnson: RB, Oregon
Toddrick Verdell: LB, FSU
Josh Leonard: DT, Hawaii
Doug Dedrick: OT, Iowa St.
Michael Jones: WR, Arizona State
Houston signed two draft-worthy running backs in Jeremiah Johnson and Arian Foster, who should compete to provide the young Texan running back core (Steve Slaton) much needed depth.
After a career spent backing up Jonathan Stewart, Johnson exploded onto the scene in 2008 with 1,201 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. Foster, on the other hand, experienced a more prolonged career, amassing 2,964 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns as a Tennessee running back. Although talented enough to be mid-round selections, these two rushers fell due to an excess of quality running backs in the draft and free agent market.
The Texans additionally signed one of the top three undrafted offensive linemen in offensive tackle Jason Watkins. Watkins was a two-year starter for the Florida Gators, where he played left and right offensive tackle against top SEC competition. This earned him an honorable mention All-SEC selection in 2008.
His 6’6", 318-pund frame should provide an imposing force for the Texan offensive line. Having played only two seasons of high school football, this raw prospect has the potential to be a franchise starter in the NFL.
Lastly, the addition of draft-worthy pass rusher Tim Jamison provides the Texans with much needed depth at the defensive end position. A disappointing senior campaign, which plagued all Michigan Wolverines, was the culprit in dropping the promising Jamison out of the draft. In 2008, Jamison managed 5.5 sacks and a second consecutive All-Big Ten honorable mention selection. Given Houston's limited depth at the defensive end position, don’t be surprised to see Jamison make the Texan roster or practice squad.
Grabbing four talented and draft-worthy prospects at positions of much needed depth, the Texans had a phenomenal undrafted free agency.
Gerald Cadogan: OT, Penn St.
Hunter Cantwell: QB, Louisville
Anthony Heygood: LB, Purdue
Keith Grey: OL, UConn
Brit Miller: LB, Illinois
CJ Davis: OL, Pitt
Kevin Brock: TE, Rutgers
Jason Cherry: WR, UL-Lafayette
Justin Kershaw: DT, MSU
Anthony Scirrotto: SS, Penn St.
Patrick Brown: OT, UCF
Nick Sundberg: LS, Cal
Jamall Lee: RB, Canada - Bishops
Larry Beavers: WR, Wesley
Morrty Ivy: LB, West Virginia
Lonnie Harvey: DT, Morgan State
Carolina signed players quickly and often. In addition, their signings packed a high-valued punch.
They landed my top-ranked UDFA offensive lineman in Gerald Cadogan, the versatile Penn State blocker who can play both tackle and guard at the next level. Cadogan was a two-year starter at left tackle, filling in for former No. 5 overall pick Levi Bown.
In 2008, Cadogan was the recipient of a first-team All-Big Ten and Academic All-American selection. Given that most analysts had Cadogan as the top offensive tackle available entering the sixth round of the draft, his undrafted signing is an absolute steal.
Carolina also landed the inexperienced yet high-potential Hunter Cantwell. Although a victim to playing behind Brian Brohm most of his collegiate career at Louisville, Cantwell has the size (6’4, 235 lbs) and physical tools to be a good quarterback in the NFL. It is this high level of potential that had many scouts grade Cantwell as the top undrafted quarterback prospect. Carolina lands a perfect developmental player to stash on the roster.
Anthony Heygood provides the Panthers with yet another good signing. The Purdue linebacker was seen as a late-round talent who fell as a result of the draft’s depth at outside linebacker and the absence of value placed on the 4-3 OLB position. He provides a solid depth addition to the Carolina defensive and special teams unit.
By landing the top-rated offensive lineman, one of the best quarterback prospects, and a high valued linebacker, the Carolina Panthers experienced a significant upgrade in undrafted free agency.
San Francisco 49ers
Kory Sheets: RB, Purdue
Alex Boone: OT, Ohio State
Diyral Briggs: OLB/DE, Bowling Green
Worrell Williams: LB, Cal (*Minicamp Tryout)
Pannel Egboh: DE, Stanford
Jahi Word-Daniels: CB, Georgia Tech
Carlos Thomas: CB, South Carolina
Brandon Long: DE/OLB, Michigan State (Failed Physical)
Terrail Lambert: CB, Notre Dame
Matt Huners: OG, South Florida
Dobson Collins: WR, Gardner-Webb
Kyle Howard: OT, Wyoming
Kirby Freeman: QB, Baylor (*CUT)
Khaliff Mitchell: DT, East Carolina
The 49ers had a phenomenal undrafted free agent class, with several high-talent and high-profile signings.
The most notable of the 49er free agents was Kory Sheets. Sheets was one of those first day talents that go undrafted as a result of their off-field behaviors. This included calling out his quarterback (Curtis Painter) and coaching staff in meetings with the media. Needless to say, the Purdue coaching staff didn’t exactly write him NFL recommendation letters.
Despite the character concerns, Sheets was ultra-productive as a Boilermaker. Over his four-year career, he amassed 3,341 rushing yards and 48 touchdowns, becoming Purdue’s all time leader in rushing and total touchdowns. This included a breakout 2008 senior campaign of 1,131 rushing yards and 16 scores. Sheets fills the hole at speed running back which was vacated by the departure of Maurice Hicks last offseason.
The 49ers added yet another high-talented character risk with the signing of Alex Boone. The only thing more wasted than Boone’s abilities is his inebriated state of mind. After joining Ohio State as the schools top-rated recruit, and No. 1 prospect in the state of Ohio, Boone was a four-year starter at offensive tackle. He was named second-team All-Big Ten as a junior and first-team All-Big Ten as a senior.
Despite performing reasonably well in his collegiate career, Boone has yet to reach the potential that his size (6’7, 328 lbs) and athleticism suggests. This is a large result of his self-admitted alcoholism, which has lead to a 2006 DUI arrest and 2009 game of taser tag (the police won). If coach Singletary can instill discipline in the former Buckeye, the 49ers may have found their right tackle of the future.
Diyral Briggs was another noteworthy, needed addition. Briggs was a pass-rushing terror in his collegiate career, posting 9.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles-for-loss in his senior campaign. Such a performance landed Briggs a first-team All-MAC selection. He compares favorably to fellow All-MAC outside linebacker and San Diego Charger first-round draft pick Larry English who posted eight sacks and 16 tackles-for-loss in 2008.
If Diryal can produce half of what English does, the 49ers landed a steal in undrafted free agency. After foregoing quality pass rushers in the draft, the 49ers land themselves a legitimate pass rushing threat of mid-round talent.
In fulfilling three primary needs with premium undrafted free agents, the 49ers experienced a post-draft offseason facelift.
In addition to the highlighted players, local products of Cal linebacker Worrell Williams (Honorable-Mention All-Pac 10) and Stanford defensive end Pannel Egboh (six sacks and 13.5 TFL in 2007), are draft-worthy prospects that the 49ers signed in an act of theft.
This talented, deep, and need fulfilling undrafted free agent class, only improves the 49ers' already stellar draft.
Honorable Mention: Seattle Seahawks, Tennessee Titans
Devin Moore: RB, Wyoming
Michael X. Bennett: DE, Texas A&M
Andre Ramsey: OT , Ball State
Tony Fein: LB, Mississippi
Dave Philistin: LB, Maryland
Tyler Roehl: RB, North Dakota State
Sean Griffin: LS, Michigan
Tez Doolittle: DT, Auburn
The Seahawks’ undrafted free agent class was highlighted by the electrifying small-school and small-statured (5’9", 187 lbs) running back Devin Moore. After rushing for more than 1,300 yards as a senior at Wyoming, Moore was a first-team All-Mountain West selection. Moore has the talent of a fourth-round prospect, resembling a poor man’s Darren Sproles.
Like Sproles, the small Wyoming running back will initially earn his roster spot on special teams. This is a solid pick-up to replace the departed Maurice Morris
Michael Bennett, the defensive end from Texas A&M is another significant addition. Although just a one-year starter at Texas A&M, Bennety showed promise in limited opportunities, earning him an honorable mention All-Big 12 selection in 2008.
DE Mitch King: DE, Iowa
Dudley Guice: WR, NW State
Ryan Scmidt: OL, South Florida
Rodney Ferguson: RB, New Mexico
Although not incredibly active in the UDFA process, the Titan’s receive an honorable mention selection for landing Iowa defensive end Mitch King, one of the top three undrafted free agents. King ,who was a four-year starter and named Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, could have gone as high as the third round without any contention.
To make the signing even better, it was at a position of needed depth due to the constant departures (Laboy, Odom, Haynesworth) and aging (Kearse, Vanden Bosch) of their defensive line unit.
Look for Mitch King to be one of the more impactful defensive rookies during his 2009 campaign.