The seven rounds of the NFL draft have developed into prime-time television, but it’s undrafted free agency that can truly build short- and long-term depth for both rebuilding and retooling franchises.
After 256 selections during draft weekend, teams hustled to sign the players who were still on their draft board to free-agent contracts, recruiting them from other interested teams and selling them that their team is the best place to continue their NFL dreams.
Using SBNation.com’s undrafted free-agent tracker, I’ve picked out the best free-agent signing for each team. My criteria included my personal evaluation, scheme fit and a player's chances of making the roster and contributing down the road.
The seven rounds of the NFL draft have developed into prime-time television, but it’s undrafted free agency that can truly build short- and long-term depth for both rebuilding and retooling franchises.
With last year’s draft picks Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor already on the roster, along with former free-agent signing Jonathan Dwyer at the position, a rookie runner like Northern Arizona’s Zach Bauman is far from a lock to make the Cardinals roster.
However, based on his career at Northern Arizona and electric quickness during the Shrine Game practices, he proved to me (and likely NFL teams as well) that he can produce big plays on inside and outside runs. He has a similar style to expected starter Ellington, and having Bauman to spell him without losing that style of running back is a unique opportunity for the Cardinals.
The Falcons have three reliable receiver threats in Julio Jones, Roddy White and Harry Douglas. But after those three, they lack any receivers who are locks to contribute in the passing game for 2014 or in the future. Free-agent signing Devin Hester is the expected fourth receiver, but he never developed into a consistent piece of a passing game in his time with the Bears.
Enter Toledo’s Bernard Reedy, who’s known for decisive routes and quick-twitch open-field ability, as the team’s developing slot receiver opposite of Douglas. Reedy also was one of the 2014 draft’s best returners, so he can push or injury-replace Hester for the future.
He’ll need to beat out six other undrafted free agent receivers (along with last year’s holdovers Drew Davis, Dominique Croom and Darius Johnson), but I believe Reedy has a very good chance to not only make the team but contribute as a rookie.
The Ravens had a glaring need at right tackle, with former fifth-rounder Ricky Wagner and former undrafted signing David Mims battling for the position. However, they chose to ignore the position during the 2014 draft. They did, however, sign North Carolina’s James Hurst, who was a four-year starter at left tackle for the Tar Heels.
While his immediate value is as current left tackle Eugene Monroe’s backup, I wouldn’t be surprised if he pushes for the starting right tackle spot in training camp. The Ravens were in desperate need for offensive line depth, and Hurst was the best lineman they brought in based on my evaluations.
The Bills let three-time All-Pro safety Jairus Byrd walk in free agency, letting him sign with the Saints, and opted not to replace him in the 2014 draft. While they have four recent draft picks battling for the two starting safety spots, don’t be surprised if Vanderbilt’s Kenny Ladler makes a push toward competing for a starting job during his rookie season.
He’s certainly not a lock to make the roster, and he’ll be battling with three other undrafted free-agent safeties. Also in his favor is that the team carried five safeties last year, and based on my evaluations, he’s the best safety after the four incumbents.
Ladler is best as a center fielder, and he’ll be competing with Da’Norris Searcy and Duke Williams in training camp, both of whom haven’t proved enough to be locks as starters.
The Panthers have a selection of young NFL-experienced receivers, free-agent signings and now three undrafted free agents. While Kelvin Benjamin (their 2014 first-round pick), Jason Avant (signing from the Eagles) and Jerricho Cotchery (signing from the Steelers) are locks to make the team, the next two or three spots are wide open.
One of my favorites to win a roster spot is Missouri’s Marcus Lucas, who went undrafted despite producing as a senior and having 6’4” size. He can offer much of the same things that Benjamin can provide, including being a big target and safety valve for Cam Newton, something the team hasn’t had during his career thus far.
The team drafted two linebackers last year in Khaseem Greene and Jon Bostic, but they haven't proved to be reliable starters yet and start out 2014 as backups. While the team has no reason to give up on the young defenders yet, giving them further competition to push them to reach their potential is essential.
Christian Jones of Florida State was one of the leaders of a national title-winning defense but somehow failed to be drafted. However, with 6’3”, 240-pound size and experience on the inside and outside during his college career, he could challenge for a key rotational role at middle or strong-side linebacker.
Orson Charles has been moved around the offense in training camp in years past, getting work at fullback, H-back and tight end. However, this offseason, he won’t have the luxury of being considered a project. Stanford’s Ryan Hewitt has experience at all three positions and, despite being undrafted, was likely highly coveted after the draft thanks to his NFL-readiness and versatility.
Hewitt enters camp as the team’s third-best tight end and best fullback option, in my opinion. He’ll need to prove that to offensive coordinator Hue Jackson if he hopes to make the roster. But if his college performance and versatility are indicators of his future in the NFL, he’ll have a long pro career.
The Browns selected Terrance West of Towson in the third round on Day 2 of the draft, and he’s expected to be the starter at some point in 2014, battling with free-agent signing Ben Tate in training camp. However, he’s not the only runner they brought in, as they signed Alabama State’s Isaiah Crowell shortly after the draft.
He was named to the SEC’s All-Freshman team while at Georgia but was dismissed from the program after being arrested on three weapons charges. He kept out of trouble and out of the headlines while at Alabama State, but it’s clear that teams were still unsure about his character after the tremendously impressive running back talent slipped out of the draft. If he can mature and prepare like a professional, he could battle with West as the team’s best running back by season’s end.
The Cowboys have become more of a two-tight end offense, getting the position more involved in the passing game. They drafted a tight end in the past two drafts, with James Hanna manning one starting spot (along with Jason Witten) and Gavin Escobar being a backup to Witten.
While it’s unclear if they desire to carry four tight ends, stocking up a position they seem to be relying on with sufficient pass-catchers seems like a wise decision. Enter Baylor’s Jordan Najvar, who had a fantastic Shrine Game week and offers soft hands and consistency as a route-runner. And if the team decides to keep four tight ends, he’s just an injury away from catching passes from Tony Romo.
With Peyton Manning in charge of the offense, the Broncos don’t have a quarterback need...yet. But since he's 38 years old, the team needs to start looking for his future replacement, with the ideal option of developing a passer in-house.
While the team drafted Brock Osweiler and Zac Dysert in the last two drafts, they opted to sign former North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner in 2014. He had plenty of hype building in the months leading up to his senior season, but he let down evaluators and ended his career with an injury.
While he’s a long shot to make the team, he does have legitimate arm talent to compete. The worst-case scenario is that he gives Osweiler and Dysert more competition to get the most out of them.
The Lions had success last year in undrafted free agency when they found now-starting right tackle LaAdrian Waddle after the draft. But they let Gosder Cherilus go in free agency and have since lacked depth at the tackle position behind Waddle and left tackle starter Riley Reiff.
Cornelius Lucas had a high grade from me in the preseason, but he struggled as a senior, not using his awesome length and flashes of athleticism to dominate defenders as consistently as expected. However, the 6’8” blocker has plenty of tools to work with, and if the Lions offensive staff can begin to develop him this offseason, he’ll provide much-needed depth and a potential starting option into the future.
Alabama’s Adrian Hubbard made the surprising early-entry decision this year and, like many other players who choose to forgo their college eligibility early, now probably realizes that his decision was a mistake. Despite great size and looking the part of a developmental defender, he’s somewhat position-less. He doesn’t have the ideal bend and flexibility to work on the edge and plays too high and stiff to efficiently navigate as a linebacker.
If he can make the Packers roster, which isn’t a lock based on his performance on film and during the Senior Bowl, he’ll likely be groomed behind Julius Peppers and Nick Perry to fill the hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker role for the Packers.
The Texans focused on their defense in the draft, using five of their nine draft picks on the defensive side of the ball. They also were aggressive about adding defenders after the draft, bringing in nine more players to compete for roster spots. The most intriguing one for me is Max Bullough, the former Michigan State interior enforcer.
He enters an inside linebacker competition that, after Brian Cushing, boasts replaceable players like Jeff Tarpinian, Paul Hazel, Justin Tuggle and Mike Mohamed as the contenders for a starting job. While Bullough fell for a reason—he has some weight concerns and lacks top-end lateral control—his instincts and vision as an interior linebacker would fit perfectly in the Texans defense next to Cushing, either in Bullough's rookie season or in the future.
In need of offensive line depth, the Colts drafted two linemen and signed three more after the draft. Based on the team’s lackluster depth from last year’s holdovers, there’s a strong chance that four of the five rookies make the roster.
While last year’s fourth-rounder Khaled Holmes is expected to keep the starting job, maintaining depth behind Holmes strong is a wise decision for a young, developing offensive line unit. Jonotthan Harrison is a former team captain who started 25 games at center for the Florida Gators the past two years. His experience as a starter in the SEC and past play at guard as a sophomore give him the edge to keep a roster spot and battle with Thomas Austin for the backup role.
Jacksonville has Marcedes Lewis entrenched as the starting tight end, but they could have chosen more depth behind him in the draft. They boast former Eagles camp-cut in 2013 Clay Harbor and Brandon Barden, who was on the practice squad last year, but neither of them is an exciting option for the short or long term.
A 6’6”, physical tight end option, Marcel Jensen brings a big-bodied option to the Jaguars offense that Harbor and Barden can’t provide, which gives him a substantial advantage to be a unique addition to the offense. He’ll be battling with fellow undrafted free-agent tight ends Reggie Jordan and D.J. Tialavea, but after garnering a fifth-round grade from me in the draft process, I’m confident he can make the final roster cut.
Before the draft, the Chiefs had just four safeties on the roster. After not drafting one in seven rounds, they signed just one, BYU’s Daniel Sorensen, to an undrafted free-agent contract. While he went undrafted thanks to having good, not great, athleticism and a bit of a concern over where he can fit in the NFL, the Chiefs obviously have enough confidence in him to make the team.
He can make an immediate impact as a rookie on special teams, but as the only listed strong safety behind starter Eric Berry, Sorensen may get more than a few snaps per game as a rookie. It’s not unheard of for a team to sign an undrafted free agent and expect him to contribute right away, and it looks as though Kansas City is looking to do that with him.
Including fifth-round pick Jordan Tripp, the Dolphins added six linebackers in this year’s draft process. It’s been a frustrating position for the team in recent years, and Miami clearly wanted to stockpile talent to promote competition in training camp to find the best six or seven linebackers for the roster.
My favorite of the group and the most likely to make the roster (after Tripp) is East Carolina’s Derrell Johnson. After playing inside and strong-side linebacker in college, he enters the Dolphins locker room with versatility, a powerful finish as a tackler on the inside and experience in nickel linebacker coverages.
He’ll be battling with Koa Misi and Jonathan Freeny, who have multiple years of experience, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Johnson impresses so much in training camp that buzz builds about him challenging for a starting job at some point in the season.
As of now, A.C. Leonard enters the Vikings offense as the fifth tight end thanks to previous draft picks and signings before he was brought onto the roster. However, with his unique, Aaron Hernandez-like talent, he could leave training camp as the best option behind starter Kyle Rudolph.
He had character issues that caused him to fall out of the draft, as he was asked to leave the Florida Gators program after having a misdemeanor battery charge in 2012. But his SEC-level talent didn’t fade, and he showcased tremendous versatility, body control as a pass-catcher and a surprising level of route development at Tennessee State.
The Patriots have lost some of their tight end luster in recent years, relying on often-injured Rob Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui as Tom Brady’s leading targets at the position. They chose not to draft one in 2014, instead signing Justin Jones of East Carolina and Asa Watson of North Carolina State as their only additions to the position.
Jones is likely unknown by college football fans, as he wasn’t eligible to play in 2013 due to academic issues. But the 6’8”, 277-pound tight end is an awesome athlete with the length and physicality to be a plus-blocker and the fluidity and pass-catching ability to be a talented receiving option for the Patriots.
Lacking talented edge-rushing talent coming into the 2014 NFL draft, the Saints opted to draft just one outside linebacker, Ronald Powell in the fifth round. However, they also signed East-West Shrine Game standout Chidera Uzo-Diribe of Colorado, who has a legitimate chance of making the team and contributing situationally as a rookie.
He has an uphill battle to make the roster with six outside linebackers currently slotted above him on the depth chart, but he has arguably the best speed of any of them and could add value as a pure speed-rusher once he develops further in training camp. After impressing against NFL-level offensive tackles at the Shrine Game, he has the talent to be in the NFL.
After producing at a high level in his junior year at South Carolina, Kelcy Quarles, on paper, looked the part of an early-rounder. However, much of that production stemmed from defenses being concerned with Jadeveon Clowney and other edge players in the Gamecocks defense, and Quarles fell out of the draft likely in part thanks to scouts realizing that on film.
He has an uphill battle to make the Giants roster, especially with the team drafting Syracuse’s Jay Bromley in the third round, but Quarles has the required talent level and flashes of NFL-starter upside to be in the mix for a roster spot. If he makes the roster, he has the potential to reap the rewards of talented defensive ends, just like he did in college, to produce at the NFL level.
With Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson as the team’s bookend 5-techniques, the Jets are set at the position in terms of starters. However, after those two, they clearly lack sufficient depth. Texas Tech’s Kerry Hyder was considered a potential draft pick through most of his senior season and during the draft process, so it was a mild surprise that he fell out of the draft.
Playing multiple interior spots for the Red Raiders as a senior, he has some versatility and experience as a one- and two-gapping interior presence. The Jets are banking on Hyder to not only make the team but provide much-needed depth at a position that is essential for Rex Ryan’s defense.
Besides splashy free-agent signing James Jones, the Raiders don’t have any flashy receiving names who would strike fear in opposing defensive coordinators. However, Denarius Moore, Andre Holmes and Rod Streater had their moments last year playing with Matt McGloin and Terrelle Pryor at quarterback, and the team boasts big-bodied, high-upside receivers Juron Criner, Greg Little and Brice Butler to develop.
It’ll be a true battle to make the roster as a receiver on the Raiders, but Texas’ Mike Davis has a great chance to make the team and quickly rise in the receiver rankings. An explosive vertical threat with deep speed and flashes of NFL-starter talent, he was a shock to go undrafted and could quickly turn into an undrafted steal for the Raiders that will have the rest of the NFL kicking themselves.
Trey Burton was basically position-less at Florida, playing quarterback, running back, tight end and receiver after landing with the Gators as an athlete out of high school. However, when it comes to Chip Kelly, it’s both puzzling and exciting to see how he can maximize top-tier athletes like Burton.
At receiver, the Eagles depth chart is pretty stacked. They re-signed Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper, drafted two receivers on Day 2 of the draft and have many holdovers from last year’s training camp on the roster once again.
Burton is currently listed as a receiver, but he also could offer tight end/H-back value, where he could battle with Emil Igwenagu to be Brent Celek’s backup. Either way, it was a curious signing that should have the focus of NFL teams that are looking to catch the next innovation Chip Kelly may use Burton for.
The Steelers have a great history of developing top-tier pass-rushers, as their success in their front seven has become synonymous with the team's success. After adding Ryan Shazier and Jordan Zumwalt in the draft, the Steelers signed one of the most intriguing small-school prospects in Howard Jones of Shepherd.
Jones, who produced at a high level at the Division II level, is an explosive pass-rusher who has a top-level first step and changes directions as fluidly as any pass-rusher in the 2014 class. His level of competition and need for ample development pushed him out of the draft, but don’t be surprised if he’s developed for the 2015 season and battles for playing time then.
The Chargers had a serious need at cornerback and chose to draft Jason Verrett of TCU in the first round despite him being undersized and having injury concerns. They also chose to add Auburn’s Chris Davis after the draft as another talented cover corner, and while he isn’t a lock to make the roster, he has a very good chance thanks to his skill set.
Best suited at cornerback to play in the slot at the NFL level, Davis will immediately challenge for a spot in nickel and dime coverages. Also, after producing as a returner and having electric speed, he can battle with Eddie Royal, Keenan Allen and Danny Woodhead for return responsibilities as a rookie.
In the last few drafts, the 49ers have consistently found great values on Day 3 or after the draft, which has given them the depth that has made San Francisco such a successful franchise. Snatching up Shayne Skov of Stanford after the draft to battle for an inside linebacker roster spot was a prime example of the team's savviness.
He won’t beat out Chris Borland, the team’s third-round pick, but he’ll battle with Michael Wilhoite and Nick Moody for their spots as the listed backups. Skov lacks great athletic upside but makes up for it with plus instincts and a well-built frame that should allow him to work in traffic in the team’s 3-4 defense.
I personally gave Dion Bailey a third-round grade coming out of USC thanks to his downhill ability in the run game and development in coverage. Switching between linebacker and safety in his college career, he likely fell out of the draft because he wasn’t a smooth fit for most defenses.
However, the Seattle defense turned Kam Chancellor—a prospect in 2010 who had the same concerns—into a Pro Bowler and could work to develop Bailey into that same type of linebacker/safety enforcer in its defense for the future. He’ll have to beat out Jeron Johnson to grab a spot on the roster behind Chancellor, but based on my evaluation, that’s certainly possible.
After being a highly touted recruit out of high school and flashing during his college career at Florida, Marcus Roberson couldn’t stay healthy or play consistently well enough as a junior to warrant a draft pick, despite having ideal size and fluidity on film.
While I felt he was a Day 3 pick and no lock to be drafted, I think landing in St. Louis to battle for a roster spot and having the chance for Gregg Williams to mold him are ideal. He’ll have stiff competition to make the roster, but that’s the type of motivation that could get the most out of Roberson to maximize his potential. He could flame out of the league in a year or two, or he could use the humility he’s hopefully gained from going undrafted to quickly develop into an NFL starter.
After speculation that the team could draft a quarterback with a new head coach and general manager in the mix, the Bucs passed on drafting a quarterback in the 2014 class and actually voiced their support for Mike Glennon. The team did add a quarterback after the draft, however, bringing in Wyoming’s Brett Smith.
He is a very talented passer who has a style that sometimes mimics a slightly more controlled version of Johnny Manziel with less athletic upside and arm strength. He needs ample work before he can be counted on to play snaps in the NFL, but his upside could allow him to reach starter-level ability in time. He’ll be battling with Mike Kafka for a roster spot, but at worst, he’ll be groomed on the practice squad in his first year and then develop behind Glennon for the future.
The Titans are changing to a 3-4 defense, so finding the right personnel for new defensive coordinator Ray Horton appeared to be a key part of the draft plans. However, the team chose to draft only two front-seven defenders, neither of whom fills a pass-rushing role for the Titans.
They did sign James Gayle of Virginia Tech after the draft, who is currently projected as a strong-side outside linebacker. At 6’3” and almost 260 pounds, he has tremendous strength as a rusher, but it’ll be interesting to see how he can transition from being a 4-3 defensive end in college to standing up full time in the NFL.
The Redskins didn’t have any standout undrafted free-agent signings, but grabbing highly productive BYU receiver Cody Hoffman was a notable addition to their receiving corps. They have plenty of experienced options and drafted Ryan Grant of Tulane in the fifth round, so Hoffman has an uphill battle to make the roster.
Despite lacking great physicality as a receiver and not developing as an explosive route-runner despite his fantastic college stats, Hoffman possesses NFL size at 6'4" and vertical ability to have a chance to stick in the NFL. If he can make the roster, he could quickly become a favorite of Robert Griffin III, who loves to use his arm strength and vertical touch in the passing game whenever possible.