Which Undrafted Free Agents Are Turning Heads in OTAs?
What happens in spring workouts won’t matter much when the NFL season begins, but they are important opportunities for some players—especially undrafted rookies—to prove their worth to their NFL teams.
OTAs, the first set of full-team practices of the year, are a period of learning and adjustment for rookies. So it’s not easy for any first-year player, let alone one who was passed over in all seven rounds of the draft, to stand out right away.
Nonetheless, some undrafted rookies have started to make a name for themselves this offseason, increasing their odds—which are long for most of them—to make the roster.
One should proceed with caution when digesting OTA reports. Praise from one coach or media member following a non-contact practice session doesn’t suddenly mean that player is ready to make an impact in actual games.
It does indicate, however, that these players are taking their chances to make it seriously and aren’t going to go down without a fight.
Calvin Barnett, DT, Cleveland Browns
One of the more highly regarded prospects from a major college football program to go undrafted, Calvin Barnett is reportedly off to a good start in his effort to prove to NFL teams that they made a mistake by not drafting him.
The defensive tackle from Oklahoma State has been lining up at all three spots on the Cleveland Browns’ 3-4 defensive line during OTAs, according to Kevin Jones of ClevelandBrowns.com. Cleveland defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil has noticed Barnett's play thus far. He told Jones, "I really like Calvin Barnett, the kid we picked up post-draft as a free agent."
Longtime NFL writer Vic Carucci, senior editor of ClevelandBrowns.com, has also been impressed by Barnett.
"The undrafted rookie defensive lineman has had multiple practices that make you say, 'What’s that guy’s number?'" Carucci wrote.
The praise that Barnett has received from his coaches and team-employed writers might not necessarily be objective, but it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that the two-time All-Big 12 selection is performing well. While he doesn’t have great measurables by NFL standards, he has the strength, quickness and demonstrated skill to be a factor in Cleveland’s defensive line rotation.
Brendan Leister of DraftBrowns.com expects Barnett to beat out veteran backup defensive tackle Ishmaa'ily Kitchen for a roster spot.
Jeremy Butler, WR, Baltimore Ravens
In a recent article by Baltimore Ravens beat writer Matt Zenitz for the Carroll County Times that highlighted seven Ravens generating buzz in OTAs, the most unexpected name on the list was undrafted rookie wide receiver Jeremy Butler.
Butler, according to Zenitz, has “stood out at times with his play at receiver during rookie minicamp and during the two OTAs.”
On a team that currently has 12 wideouts on the roster, that’s saying something. But despite him going undrafted, it’s not as though Butler hasn’t stood out before. During his senior season at Tennessee-Martin, he caught 90 passes for 1,203 yards and 10 touchdowns and was named to the Associated Press third-team FCS All-America lineup.
As Zenitz noted, Butler “has a tough road ahead to make Baltimore’s roster.”
With free-agent addition Steve Smith joining returning veterans Torrey Smith, Marlon Brown and Jacoby Jones to give Baltimore a solid top four on the receiving depth chart, Butler will have to compete with Deonte Thompson and seventh-round picks from each of the past two drafts, Michael Campanaro and Aaron Mellette, for what could be only one spot on Baltimore’s regular-season roster.
Thompson, a speed threat who caught 10 passes last year, might have the most potential of that group, while the Ravens might be more inclined to keep Mellette and/or Campanaro since they invested draft picks in them.
Butler could have a legitimate shot to emerge as the fifth receiver nonetheless, but only if he continues to stand out this summer and proves he can be an asset on special teams. At 6’2” and 224 pounds, he would add size to Baltimore’s receiving corps.
Chandler Catanzaro, K, Arizona Cardinals
Veteran players don’t typically give much heed to undrafted rookies during offseason workouts, but kicker Chandler Catanzaro might have earned some points with his Cardinals teammates on the final day of Arizona’s OTAs.
According to Adam Green of ArizonaSports.com, “everyone got to go home early” on Thursday, the final day of practice prior to the team’s mandatory minicamp, after Catanzaro successfully drilled a field-goal attempt through the uprights.
Coming through in the clutch is nothing new for Catanzaro. He made a number of crucial kicks, including a 37-yard game-winner against LSU in the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl (see video above at 2:11 mark), during his prolific career at Clemson.
According to Kent Somers of AZCentral.com, Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said he challenged Catanzaro “to find out if this kid has got anything.”
"There's no more pressure than peer pressure and he knocked it down the pipe," Arians said. "That told me a lot about him."
The practice-ender might give incumbent veteran kicker Jay Feely reason to look over his shoulder, but serious questions remain about the undrafted rookie challenger. According to Somers, Catanzaro was “ice cold” before making the big kick Thursday, having missed a "game winner" in one practice and “three of four field goal attempts in another.”
Had he missed that kick Thursday, it’s reasonable to surmise Catanzaro might have not even made it to minicamp. Now, he has a second life, but he’s going to have to be exceptional—including on kickoffs, a duty he never handled regularly at Clemson—to beat out Feely and Danny Hrapmann for a job.
Isaiah Lewis, SS, Cincinnati Bengals
The Cincinnati Bengals have high hopes for one rookie defensive back from Michigan State, cornerback Darqueze Dennard, whom they selected with their first-round pick in this year’s draft. But they could also have a pleasant surprise on their hands with another Spartans product in the secondary in strong safety Isaiah Lewis.
Lewis, according to Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com, looked “terrific” during the first two weeks of OTAs. Hobson wrote that Lewis has been learning to "study the game from the back end and not just from back to front headed to the line of scrimmage."
A solid athlete who plays with physicality, Lewis was a reliable three-year starter on the back middle of the Spartans defense. If the Bengals become convinced of his long-term upside, they should have incentive to find a roster spot for him.
George Iloka is set to remain the starting strong safety alongside Reggie Nelson, while 2013 third-round pick Shawn Williams should return as a primary backup, but both of them still have a lot to prove.
If Lewis can continue to perform well on defense all summer and carve out a role on Cincinnati’s special teams, the Bengals should strongly consider keeping him ahead of Taylor Mays and/or Danieal Manning, who are both signed on one-year contracts.
Antonio Richardson, OT, Minnesota Vikings
Many people, including Antonio Richardson, were shocked when the Tennessee offensive tackle went unselected in this year’s draft. But despite the once highly touted lineman’s hard fall down the board, he has landed on his feet with the Minnesota Vikings and appears to be working his way toward earning a roster spot.
Early reviews of his performance in offseason workouts have been positive.
With starting left tackle Matt Kalil recovering from knee surgery, Richardson has already received some first-team repetitions at left tackle, according to Master Tesfatsion of the Star Tribune. Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, according to Tesfatsion, has described Richardson as “a very talented guy.”
"Obviously he’s got great size and length," Zimmer said of Richardson. "He catches on pretty good as far as the scheme. We’re excited about him, and we think he has a chance to be a good player."
Richardson went undrafted due to concerns with his knees, according to Brian Hall of Fox Sports North, but he hasn’t had any problems staying on the field in OTAs. While his long-term durability remains uncertain, the 6’6”, 336-pound giant showed at Tennessee that he is an adequate athlete who can overpower his opponents and has huge upside.
While the Vikings have a strong pair of starters in Kalil and right tackle Phil Loadholt, there could be an opening on the depth chart behind them.
Richardson will face competition from Kevin Murphy, whom he has been splitting first-team work with, according to Tesfatsion. Richardson has more upside than Murphy or any of the non-starting offensive tackles on Minnesota’s roster, and he should have a good shot to win the swing backup tackle job if he continues to develop and stay healthy.
Erik Swoope, TE, Indianapolis Colts
No rookie in the NFL this year has a steeper learning curve to climb than Erik Swoope, who has never—not in college, high school or any other level—played organized football. Yet despite the tall task that stands in front of him—trying to make a roster at the highest level of a sport he has no experience playing—he has already managed to make positive impressions in offseason workouts.
By signing Swoope to their 90-man preseason roster, the Indianapolis Colts took a low-risk flier on an intriguing athlete in hopes that he can become the next player to make the transition from college basketball standout to NFL tight end.
A 6’5” tight end with impressive vertical ability, Swoope has the physical traits that teams covet at his position, but none of that matters if he can’t translate them to the football field.
Thus far, his rapid progress has impressed Colts decision-makers, including coach Chuck Pagano, according to Kevin Bowen of Colts.com.
"To be able to just break a huddle, get in a stance, run the routes that he ran, catch the balls that he caught, I mean, off the charts, exceeded our expectations way beyond anything that you’d ever imagine for a guy that never played," Pagano said of the rookie.
According to NFL Media’s Judy Battista, general manager Ryan Grigson said Swoope's early performance has quelled concerns that he would look like a “fish out of water."
"His burst, his body control, the way he caught the football were all really, really good signs," Grigson said. "You saw raw athletic ability. He's very mature, very businesslike. He was already a pro and he never played. He's wise beyond his years."
Despite his strong start, it’s a huge stretch to expect that he’ll be able to emulate Jimmy Graham, who has become one of the NFL’s elite tight ends but, like Swoope, was a basketball player at the University of Miami before turning his attention to the gridiron.
Listed at just 220 pounds by NFL.com, Swoope is smaller than the archetypal NFL tight end. Looking good in an unpadded practice does not mean that he’ll be able to contribute in a full-contact game against the best football players in the world. Even so, hope is rising in Indianapolis that the Colts just be able to harvest him into a gem.
Joe Thomas and Jake Doughty, ILB, Green Bay Packers
Although inside linebacker was frequently touted as one of the Green Bay Packers’ greatest needs going into this year’s NFL draft, they didn’t select a single player to play the position. That could leave the door open for one of two undrafted rookies at the position to earn a spot on the team as a backup ILB.
Joe Thomas, from South Carolina State, and Jake Doughty, from Utah State, have both been among the Packers’ rookie standouts early on in OTAs, according to ESPN.com’s Rob Demovsky.
Thomas specifically is an intriguing candidate for a roster spot. Bleacher Report’s Matt Stein highlighted him—the 2013 MEAC Defensive Player of the Year after a senior season that included 19 tackles for loss—as a player who has the “type of playmaking ability that the Packers desperately need at inside linebacker.”
Doughty, a first-team all-Mountain West selection after a senior season that included 148 total tackles and 13 tackles for loss, also brings a promising resume to Green Bay.
Both players are projects who don’t have the ideal size and athleticism of NFL inside linebackers, but they should provide legitimate competition at the position for backups Sam Barrington and Jamari Lattimore.
Considering the Packers’ recent history with undrafted linebackers, it wouldn’t be a surprise if either Thomas or Doughty ends up landing a roster spot. As noted by Weston Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, “the Packers have molded at least one college free agent into a serviceable NFL linebacker”—including Lattimore, in 2011—in each of Dom Capers’ first five seasons as the team’s defensive coordinator.
Carlos Gray, a defensive end from North Carolina State, has also stood out among Packers undrafted rookies, according to Demovsky. It's less likely the team will have a roster spot for him, considering it used a third-round selection to add Southern Miss' Khyri Thornton to an already crowded group of young defensive ends.
Albert Wilson, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
Since most rookies have to work their way up the depth chart over the course of offseason workouts, even early round draft picks often have to wait to get a significant share of repetitions with first-team units. That hasn’t stopped Albert Wilson, an undrafted rookie out of Georgia State, from seeing “extended time” with the Kansas City Chiefs’ first-team offense in OTAs, according to Nick Jacobs of Time Warner Cable SportsChannel.
It would seem that Wilson has earned that opportunity by making a strong, positive impression thus far in workouts. Herbie Teope of ChiefsSpin.com said that Wilson has shown in workouts that he is “quick, catches the ball well with his hands and can contribute on special teams as a returner.”
According to Randy Covitz of The Kansas City Star, Chiefs coach Andy Reid has also been complimentary of the undrafted rookie.
"I like his athletic ability," Reid said. "He’s very strong, even though he’s not the tallest guy. And he runs fast."
Wilson’s first-team work doesn’t mean he will be in the mix for a starting job in 2014. With Junior Hemingway, A.J. Jenkins and Kyle Williams all out of practice Tuesday, according to Joel Thorman of ArrowheadPride.com, the Chiefs had to give other players opportunities to work with the top line, and they decided to give that chance to Wilson.
That might be an indicator, however, that he has a good shot of working his way onto the roster. There’s reason to believe that he could. Not only is he on a team that has one of the weakest receiving corps in the NFL, but he is an explosive athlete who has big-play ability and can offer additional value as a kickoff and punt returner (although the Chiefs are likely to turn to fourth-round pick De’Anthony Thomas as their return specialist).
A productive player at Georgia State who ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, Wilson is an intriguing project who could eventually prove to be a replacement for Dexter McCluster, the dynamic slot receiver who left the Chiefs for the Tennessee Titans this offseason. At 5’9” and 202 pounds, he might not be taken seriously as a receiver prospect outside of the slot, but he has shown that he can play bigger than he stands.
All measurables courtesy of NFL.com.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.