Report Card Grades for the Buffalo Bills' Undrafted Free-Agent Signings
The Buffalo Bills’ effort to add young talent to their roster didn’t end with their seven selections in the 2014 NFL draft. They continued to add rookies to the depth chart by signing nine undrafted free agents, which were officially announced by the team Tuesday.
Despite being passed over 256 times in this year’s draft, plenty of undrafted free agents around the league will not only make rosters but also contribute significantly in their rookie seasons. The Bills have had their share of success with undrafted free-agent signings, including Nickell Robey, a diminutive defensive back out of USC who ended up excelling as the team’s slot cornerback this past season.
While last year’s crop included a number of players who were expected to be right in the mix for roster spots, including Robey, this year’s class isn’t quite as promising. As we will touch upon in the following slides, most of Buffalo’s undrafted free-agent signings this year were well off-the-radar as draft prospects and will most likely prove to be little more than camp bodies.
This might actually be a good indicator of the strength and depth of the Bills roster, as the team might have been spurned by some more talented undrafted free agents who thought they would have a better chance to make other rosters.
Last year’s roster was ripe with opportunities for undrafted free agents to work their way up the depth chart. Buffalo has built a much more solid roster this season by retaining most of its key free agents, adding some talented veterans to the mix and drafting well.
One would like to see more impact potential in the Bills’ crop of undrafted free agents, especially considering they only had room for single-digit signings. It’s also surprising that Buffalo has not signed any rookies at defensive end, where the team has an evident need for depth, and at punter, where the team should be in the market for more competition for Brian Moorman and Jacob Dombrowski.
That said, the Bills have had a clear emphasis with where they have signed undrafted free agents thus far. All nine of them have been on defense, including three safeties, three linebackers, one cornerback and two defensive tackles.
In the following slides, we take a look at each of the team’s signings in alphabetical order and forecast what they could bring to the team or why they might not be good fits for the regular-season roster. Analysis from members of the Bills’ scouting department, courtesy of BuffaloBills.com, is also included.
Derek Brim, S, Buffalo
The Bills roster could present an opportunity for an undrafted free-agent safety to earn a job, which made Buffalo an obvious place for Derek Brim, who played both his high school and college football in the city, to pursue his NFL dream.
Brim, who is listed at 6’0” and 199 pounds and ran a 4.60-second 40-yard dash at Buffalo’s pro day, according to NFLDraftScout.com, has less than ideal measurables for the safety position. He can overcome his limited size and speed, however, with his fluidity of movement and open-field tackling skills.
Coordinator of college scouting Doug Majeski told BuffaloBills.com: “He’s a converted wide receiver who had a really good senior season and got better as the year progressed. Solid tackler and had good movement in his workout at his pro day. He ran well with good jumping numbers.”
Brim’s pro-day numbers also included a 35” vertical jump and 10’6” broad jump.
In his only full season in the starting lineup, he recorded 58 tackles, including 4.5 for loss, and two forced fumbles in his senior year. His ball skills are unproven, as he did not record an interception in his college career, but he usually does his job on the back end.
Buffalo lost one of its best players this offseason when Pro Bowl free safety Jairus Byrd joined the New Orleans Saints as a free agent. Unless veteran cornerback Corey Graham ends up playing safety, the only addition at the position prior to undrafted free agency was Jajuan Harley, who went undrafted out of Middle Tennessee State in 2013 and has yet to be on an NFL regular-season roster.
While the Bills aren’t going to turn to an undrafted free agent to fill Byrd’s spot in the lineup, they could keep one in the fold for depth. As the only free safety candidate signed by the team thus far, Brim could have a shot at making the roster as Buffalo’s fifth safety if he can prove himself on special teams.
Deon Broomfield, S, Iowa State
Another safety with enough promise to challenge for a roster spot, Iowa State’s Deon Broomfield is a physical defensive back who is at his best as an in-the-box, run-stopping strong safety.
Listed at 6’0” and 206 pounds, he doesn’t have as much size as you’d ideally like from a strong safety, but he is a hard hitter who drives his opponents back when he tackles them. He isn’t nearly as skilled or comfortable in deep coverage, but he is a good athlete who posted a 4.53-second 40-yard dash at Iowa State’s pro day, according to NFLDraftScout.com.
Bills area scout Shawn Heinlen told BuffaloBills.com: “Broomfield is just a feisty guy that is not afraid to mix it up even though he’s not the biggest. He gets his hands on a number of balls. He’s a tough, productive football player.”
Clearly not one to pull all his eggs in one basket, Broomfield had already begun working as the defensive backs coach at Ohio Wesleyan University before getting the call from the Bills. While that’s an indicator that he might not have expected to be added by an NFL team, it also shows that he has football smarts and that he is preparing himself well for his future should he fail to make the Bills roster.
He’ll have a chance in Buffalo, but the problem for him is that the Bills already have one very good in-the-box run support safety in Da’Norris Searcy. Broomfield could be kept as depth behind him in that role, but he will have to establish himself on special teams to make the 53-man roster.
James Gaines, LB, Miami
From free agency to the draft and even into undrafted free agency, adding linebacker talent has been an emphasis for the Bills this offseason. The players added in the first two stages, however, decrease the likelihood that James Gaines will be able to fight his way onto the regular-season roster.
It’s no surprise that Gaines, who played with Brim at Buffalo’s Canisius High School, chose to return to Western New York to play with the Bills. A three-year starter for the Hurricanes, he brings significant production to the Bills from Miami, including 199 total tackles.
“Everybody at his school raved about his character and work ethic," Bills area scout C.J. Leak told BuffaloBills.com. "He played at middle and outside linebacker for them. What he lacks in size and speed he makes up for in quickness and shows the ability to slip backs. He has some special teams experience as well.”
Ultimately, it’s tough to see where he could factor in on the defense. The Bills have depth at the linebacker position, and his limited size (6'1", 232 lbs) and athleticism won’t do him any favors in trying to move his way up the ladder.
His tackling ability and instincts give him potential as a special teams player, but he’ll likely have to at least beat out seventh-round pick Randell Johnson and fellow undrafted free agent Darrin Kitchens in order to earn a roster spot in that capacity.
Damien Jacobs, DT, Florida
Signing defensive linemen in undrafted free agency made sense, as the Bills had not made any additions to that unit in veteran free agency or the draft, but that doesn’t do much to increase Damien Jacobs’ odds of making the roster.
He never emerged as a full-time starter in two seasons at Florida after transferring in from the junior college ranks, but he still managed to record 34 total tackles, including 6.5 tackles for loss, in his time with the Gators.
“He came in as more of a rotational guy for Florida, but had more of a starting role this year when Dominique Easley went down with a knee injury,” Bills area scout C.J. Leak told BuffaloBills.com. “Not a massive body, but a bigger sized kid with growth potential. He’s very competitive with good length and the ability to get upfield. More of a two-gapper to hold off blocks. The coaches down there loved the way he worked and his whole makeup in general.”
Jacobs was decently disruptive when he was on the field and shows he can hold his own at the line of scrimmage as a run-stopper, but his measurables might not translate well to the NFL. He is listed at 6’3” and 290 pounds and does not have significant explosiveness and burst.
He could provide legitimate competition to backup defensive tackles Corbin Bryant and Stefan Charles this preseason, but he’s a long shot to beat them for a roster spot.
Bryan Johnson, LB, West Texas A&M
While most, if not all, of the Bills’ undrafted free-agent signings are long shots to last in the NFL, West Texas A&M’s Bryan Johnson likely has the steepest hill to climb.
He was productive in two seasons at West Texas A&M after transferring in from the junior college ranks. He played in 28 games, starting 10, and recorded 89 total tackles, including 16.5 total tackles for loss and eight sacks.
The leap in competition from Division II to the NFL is a steep one, however, and Johnson won’t have much time for a learning curve as he'll already be 26 years old when the 2014 season begins.
On the other hand, he does bring some versatility to the Bills; he has experience playing both defensive end and outside linebacker and has enough size to play either position at 6’4” and 250 pounds.
Bills area scout Shawn Heinlen told BuffaloBills.com:
He’s a little bit older. Good size to him. He’s not the fastest guy, but he plays fast. This guy finds the ball and he attacks everything. He’s a tough throwback type linebacker. He wants to finds the ball carrier and go hit him. They brought him off the edge some in their hybrid defense, but he was mostly an outside backer for them. He’s probably more of a strong side backer.
If the Bills are viewing Johnson as a strong-side linebacker, that’s not an excellent proposition for his prospects of making the team. While they don’t have a clear backup at that position for Keith Rivers, they would more likely turn to Nigel Bradham, Ty Powell, seventh-round pick Randell Johnson or even one of the other two undrafted free-agent linebacker signings (Jimmy Gaines and Darrin Kitchens) before keeping Johnson as an older, small-school project.
Darrin Kitchens, LB, Florida
The odds are against Darrin Kitchens sustaining a significant role at linebacker on any NFL defense. His defensive playing time was inconsistent during his four-year Florida career, as he received just six starts, and at listed measurables of 6’2” and 230 pounds, he is undersized for the position.
That said, he is a very good athlete—he ran a 4.59-second 40-yard dash at Florida's pro day, according to NFLDraftScout.com—and he consistently plays at full speed. This makes him a rangy linebacker who can cover ground well in pursuit.
He was the recipient of both the Fergie Ferguson Leadership Award and Gene Elleson Community Service Award during his time at Florida. Bills area scout C.J. Leak described Kitchens as an “awesome kid” to BuffaloBills.com:
Hard working and very cerebral player. He puts the time in in the film room and studies his craft. Made a name for himself as a special teams guy. Good athlete that has straight line speed. He started some games after some injuries and took advantage of it. He has great toughness and likes to step up and bang in the box even though he’s not the biggest guy. He’ll probably line up outside, but has the frame to put on 10-15 pounds.
Ultimately, Kitchens’ chances of making this roster will live and die with his ability to contribute on special teams. He’s unlikely to be much of a factor in the competition at linebacker, but he was a special teams standout and could earn a linebacker depth spot over other players, such as Jimmy Gaines and seventh-round pick Randell Johnson, if he can outperform them on special teams coverage units.
Kenny Ladler, S, Vanderbilt
An instinctive playmaker with a nose for the ball, Vanderbilt safety Kenny Ladler should have the best chance of any of Buffalo’s undrafted rookies to end up making the 53-man roster.
He has fine size for a safety at 6’1” and 207 pounds, but his 4.70-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, according to NFL.com, is slow for the position and is likely what caused him to go undrafted.
In his on-field play, he shows plenty of translatable skills to the NFL. As Bills area scout Tom Roth told BuffaloBills.com, “the one thing that jumped out on film about him was he has a nose for the football.” Roth continued, “He’s got average speed, but very good explosiveness. A very good tackler who can play deep third or in the box.”
Ladler has great instincts and can react upon them quickly. Despite some sloppiness in his tackling form, He finished his Vanderbilt career with back-to-back seasons of at least 90 total tackles.
With nine career interceptions and seven forced fumbles, he has proved he can make plays on the ball. He isn’t well-suited for deep coverage responsibilities but would be a strong addition to the roster as a backup strong safety if he demonstrates skill on special teams.
Should the Bills keep a fifth safety on the roster behind Aaron Williams, Da’Norris Searcy, Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks, Ladler would be a good fit for that role.
Darius Robinson, CB, Clemson
The addition of Darius Robinson as an undrafted rookie fits the Bills’ desire to add cornerback depth, which was one of their objectives this offseason. The problem for the Clemson product, however, is that the Bills already satisfied that need by signing veteran free agent Corey Graham and drafting Duke cornerback Ross Cockrell in the fourth round.
Robinson performed solidly in his two years as a starting cornerback at Clemson, but at listed measurables of just 5’10” and 175 pounds, he is a small defensive back heading to a league where the receivers are only getting bigger. He is a decent athlete who ran a 4.54-second 40-yard dash at Clemson’s pro day, according to NFLDraftScout.com, but he doesn’t play with much physicality.
Bills area scout C.J. Leak, in his interview with BuffaloBills.com, described Robinson as “an intelligent guy who started a lot of games.”
Robinson showed some ball skills in his Clemson career with six interceptions, including three in his senior year, but he doesn’t project to be much of a playmaker at the next level.
He could provide competition to Ron Brooks for a roster spot, depending on how many cornerbacks Buffalo decides to keep for the regular season, but he’s more likely to find a home, come September, on the practice squad.
Colby Way, DT, Buffalo
Another local addition, Colby Way’s production during his four seasons at Buffalo might have been enough to earn the interior defensive lineman a roster spot.
He finished his Bulls career with 145 total tackles, 26 total tackles for loss and 15 sacks. He often showed that he could disrupt plays in the backfield, and he has experience lining up both inside and outside.
“His strong points were his awareness and his effort. He has the ability to take on blocks at the point and he has good instincts to find the ball,” Bills coordinator of college scouting Doug Majeski told BuffaloBills.com. “He’s a little bit of a tweener. His versatility because of his awareness and football intelligence gives him an opportunity to play a couple of different spots.”
The most accurate part of that description, unfortunately for Way, might be that he is a “tweener.” He isn’t a powerful player, and at listed measurables of 6’3” and 294 pounds, he’s undersized for a defensive tackle. That said, he doesn’t have much burst as an interior penetrator or the natural athleticism to kick outside as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme like the Bills will run in 2014.
A third-team All-Mid American Conference selection from the local university, Way’s accomplishments have made him worthy of the chance he is getting from the Bills. That said, his game is unlikely to translate to NFL success or to a roster spot.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.