Ranking the Best Undrafted Free Agents from 2013 NFL Draft Class
For this year’s crop of undrafted free agents, sticking in the NFL won’t be easy, but it can be done.
Take the players who weren’t drafted in 2013, for example: Rookies such as Nickell Robey, LaAdrian Waddle and Joplo Bartu made strong first impressions and have talent to expand upon.
Those three are among the top UDFAs from last year’s NFL draft class. Who else made the list? Well, the criteria are simple:
1. The more impressive the player was in their rookie season, the better.
2. Playing time is important. Was the player trusted enough as an undrafted rookie to get plenty of snaps, and will that continue going forward?
3. Potential should not be overlooked. All of these players undoubtedly had their bumps, but those players who can improve upon these mishaps and stick on the roster will get the nod.
Let’s get rolling.
Da’Rick Rogers, WR, Indianapolis Colts
Rogers showed the makings of a top NFL draft pick while at the University of Tennessee, but a myriad of issues off the field forced him to play his last collegiate season at Tennessee Tech. After being cut by the Bills as a UDFA, Rogers was picked up by the Colts and showed flashes of being a capable NFL receiver.
Rogers’ ability was on display during his six-catch, 107-yard outing agsint the Cincinnati Bengals, where he used his 6’3” frame and physical style of play to overwhelm their secondary.
With Hakeem Nicks now in the fold, Rogers likely won’t make much noise this season but could grow into something special as long as he stays focused on football.
Kenbrell Thompkins, WR, New England Patriots
Perhaps best known as the recipient of Tom Brady’s game-winning touchdown pass against the Saints, Thompkins did well when immediately thrown into the fire last season. Benefiting from the Patriots’ razor-thin receiving corps, he caught 32 balls for 466 yards and four touchdowns.
Thompkins had issues holding on to the ball and struggled to keep pace with Brady’s offense at times. However, the bruises from his rookie year added with another offseason should only help him going forward.
He will likely see a decline in statistical production with the increased role of Aaron Dobson but proved that he is worthy of an NFL roster spot.
Paul Worrilow, ILB, Atalanta Falcons
Worrilow’s statistics immediately jump off the page—127 tackles is nothing to scoff at, especially for an undrafted rookie.
He fits the paradigm you’d expect: He is nothing special athletically but makes up for it with smarts and intensity. What was most impressive about Worrilow was his ability to take charge on a team lacking direction and motivation. Perhaps Atlanta has stumbled upon the new leader of its defense.
But that doesn’t mean Worrilow has maximized his potential. He was out of position often in his first year. He also needs to improve strength-wise so offensive linemen won’t continue to body him.
Much is expected of Worrilow in 2014, and much needs to be improved.
5. Joseph Fauria, TE, Detroit Lions
Fauria was perhaps the most surprising omission from the 2013 NFL draft due to the love that mismatch-heavy tight ends have gotten in years past. Julius Thomas and Jordan Cameron were as raw as raw can be coming out of college yet were snatched up quickly on the third day of the draft.
In his first season with the Lions, Fauria was strictly used as a red-zone weapon, with seven of his 18 catches going for a score. There was little that opposing defenses could do to stop him. And the most criticized aspect of his game, his run-blocking, actually graded out at plus-4.0 per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
That’s ability deserving of a starting spot on most teams. But not on the Lions.
With first-round rookie Eric Ebron out wide and Brandon Pettigrew remaining the top option inline, Fauria won’t see his role expanded much this season. That and his lack of initial playing time hurts him in these rankings, but his towering frame and gruesome dance moves should terrify defensive coordinators for years.
4. Tony Jefferson, S, Arizona Cardinals
Tony Jefferson’s 2013 statistics: two starts, 24 tackles.
That’s nothing. Jefferson is on this list for the high-caliber flashes he showed at a position without many safe bets.
Bleacher Report’s Tyson Langland wrote that Jefferson is the answer for the Arizona Cardinals at strong safety. It’s hard to disagree.
Jefferson displayed the ability to be a destructive presence against the run, particularly in Week 2 against the Detroit Lions. He also proved to be a quality player in punt coverage, as noted by Pro Football Focus’ Neil Hornsby. While his performance in pass coverage was largely inconsistent, Jefferson did display NFL-caliber coverage traits while at Oklahoma. He can and will improve in that area.
Just like with Fauria, a lack of snaps weakened Jefferson’s case in these rankings. However, he could see a boost in playing time this season despite the addition of first-round pick Deone Bucannon.
Defensive back Tyrann Mathieu is still recovering from an ACL injury, and Bruce Arians said he won’t be back until October, according to Darren Urban on the Cardinals' official website. The versatile Jefferson could fill Mathieu’s role while continuing to be an excellent special teams player.
3. Nickell Robey, CB, Buffalo Bills
For players like Fauria, height is their biggest strength. For others, it can be their biggest weakness.
That is why Nickell Robey went undrafted.
Standing at 5’7” while the NFL is desperately searching for the next Richard Sherman, Robey will never be a shutdown corner who can handle Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall. However, he thrives as a slot cornerback, where he matches up more often with Wes Welker types than with towering Pro Bowlers.
Stats like his 39 tackles, three sacks and an interception fail to tell the full story of Robey’s impact. Ranked as the 28th-best cornerback in Bleacher Report’s NFL 1000 series, Matt Miller wrote that Robey had a promising first season after displaying aggressive ball skills and excellent quickness.
In a league that is trending more towards nickel defenses than ever before, Robey certainly has a place as the Bills’ slot cornerback. In fact, Robey had the best season of any player on this list. That should make him the top UDFA, right?
The problem is that Robey likely won’t become much better as a corner due to his physical limitations, and the addition of veteran Corey Graham, a quality slot corner in his own right, will cut into his 2014 playing time.
Robey’s sharp rookie season puts him above the likes of Jefferson and Fauria, but he lacks the Pro Bowl upside that the next two players have.
2. LaAdrian Waddle, RT, Detroit Lions
Waddle is a large human being. At 6’6” and weighing in at 321 pounds, the former Texas Tech lineman certainly looks like he belongs in the big leagues.
He plays like it, too.
After Corey Hilliard went down with injury, Waddle manned the right tackle spot admirably in his eight starts. He earned a plus-5.5 overall grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) and showed Pro Bowl traits in each game, most notably in Detroit’s win against the Dallas Cowboys.
Waddle’s size is his best asset, and he uses it to maul defenders in the running game. He wasn’t anything special in pass protection, but with long arms and a handful of professional games under his belt he should improve in that area.
Waddle performed well enough in 2013 to be given a shot with the first-team offensive line. According to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, Waddle has the edge to start at right tackle over Hilliard this season.
With plenty of upside and the poise of a veteran, it would be stunning if Waddle didn’t maintain that advantage. His superb 2013 season and bright future give him the edge on all but one 2013 UDFA.
1. Joplo Bartu, LB, Atlanta Falcons
Yes, the Atlanta Falcons gave two undrafted rookies major playing time at linebacker. Worrilow might have put up better statistics than Bartu, who tallied 85 tackles and 3.5 sacks in 13 starts, but Bartu will be the best player of this bunch in three years.
Undrafted out of Texas State, Bartu is still raw as a starting linebacker. He played well against the run last season but occasionally lapsed in coverage and could be seen out of position, just like his running mate.
What gives Bartu the edge is his upside as a jack-of-all-trades defender for Atlanta. The Falcons gave Bartu plenty of responsibility in Mike Nolan’s defense as a rookie, having him rush the passer and cover tight ends whenever the situation called for it.
Experience will only help the ‘backer that “moves like a safety,” per Bleacher Report’s Murf Baldwin.
Assuming Bartu capitalizes on his athletic gifts, he will be a mainstay on the Falcons' defense for years to come. Atlanta’s switch to a 3-4 might stunt his growth, but Bartu appears to be settling in as the starting inside linebacker, per Daniel Cox of the Falcons' official website.
Bartu’s wealth of playing time, solid rookie season and huge potential make him the top UDFA of the 2013 NFL draft class. He’s living proof that NFL teams can find quality starters even after the draft has ended.