10 Undrafted Free Agents with the Best Chance of Making an NFL Roster
As training camp looms, multiple undrafted rookies have already made a favorable impression during OTAs and minicamps to place them in a strong position to make an NFL roster this fall despite not hearing their name called during the 2015 NFL draft.
Of course, mitigating factors could certainly play a role in how everything eventually plays out, but the talent these particular prospects showed when given an opportunity to shine this spring was enough to put their respective coaching staffs on notice.
Talent always rises to the top, whether the player was once a first-round pick or struggled to make a squad after going undrafted.
In fact, nine undrafted position players were named to this year's Pro Bowl, which represented 12 percent of the rosters.
Obviously, those players who weren't drafted are long shots to eventually become Pro Bowlers. However, aspiring athletes can only deal with the hand that is dealt to them. By impressing at the onset of offseason workouts, they have already put themselves on the right track to one day reach much-loftier goals.
Bleacher Report identified 10 undrafted free agents who took full advantage of their situation and are likely to make it through final cuts as their respective teams prepare for the regular season.
Thomas Rawls, RB, Seattle Seahawks
The Seattle Seahawks backfield is loaded, and it's only gotten deeper this offseason.
Marshawn Lynch remains one of the game's best running backs—even though he didn't get the ball on the 1-yard line in the Super Bowl. Robert Turbin is a steady backup. And Christine Michael has plenty of potential after being the team's second-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
However, head coach Pete Carroll always stresses competition at all positions. Michael might be on his way out due to the play of Thomas Rawls.
"The Seattle coaches are high on Rawls, a free-agent rookie from Central Michigan who started his college career at the University of Michigan," ESPN.com's Terry Blount wrote. "Pete Carroll loves Rawls’ toughness, seeing him as a bruising runner similar to Lynch."
He added, "[Michael] needs to do everything right in camp, or he might find his days in Seattle have ended."
Rawls is a 215-pound bowling ball. After transferring from Michigan to Central Michigan, the running back became the focal point of the Chippewas offense. Rawls carried the ball 210 times for 1,103 yards and 10 touchdowns in nine games.
Legal troubles kept Rawls from being drafted, but he's already shown the type of ability that originally warranted mid- to late-round consideration. Clearly, the Seahawks coaching staff is enamored by his ability.
With Lynch turning 30 years old next April, Turbin set to become a free agent after the season and Michael on the roster bubble, it's a perfect time for Rawls to become part of Seattle's running back rotation.
La'el Collins, OT, Dallas Cowboys
If there has ever been a case where an undrafted free agent is guaranteed to make a roster, it's La'el Collins' current situation with the Dallas Cowboys.
No one denies Collins' ability. The offensive tackle almost certainly would have been a first-round pick if off-the-field concerns late in the draft process had not drastically affected his future. In an unprecedented series of events, the LSU product went from being a potential top-20 pick to going completely undrafted.
"I know where I would have been," Collins told USA Today's Lindsay H. Jones (via the Shreveport Times). "I know I would have been drafted in the first round, and I'm good with that. I know my talent. That doesn't make me any less of a player."
Once Collins' reputation was reclaimed, nearly every team in the league was interested in acquiring his services.
The 320-pound blocker dreamed of playing for the Cowboys and being a part of the NFL's best offensive line. He'll now compete with Ronald Leary and Doug Free for a starting position this season. There are absolutely no worries whatsoever of this undrafted free agent not making the team.
Collins' only downfall at this point is what he might have lost in monetary compensation during his rookie contract.
"Yeah, but at the same time, that doesn't matter," Collins told Jones. "I've been playing this game for a long time, I've got nothing but love and passion for this game, and I know that one day, in the future, everything is going to work out for me just the way I want it to work out. All I have to do is continue to work and continue to do the things I've always been doing, and I'll be fine."
Brett Boyko, OG, Philadelphia Eagles
Offensive line depth is a must for any team, and the Philadelphia Eagles battled during a war of attrition last season in regard to their big boys up front.
Guards Todd Herremans and Evan Mathis then departed this offseason with very little done to replace them. Instead of adding more talent via free agency or the draft, the organization decided to develop the talent on the roster and add three undrafted blockers.
Brett Boyko, who the BC Lions selected in the second round of the CFL draft, presents versatility and upside.
The former UNLV blocker can play offensive tackle or guard, and teams thought highly of him throughout the draft process.
"Boyko had a draftable grade from many teams, but suffered an elbow injury late last season, which was [what] caused him to drop out of draft," ESPN NFL Insider Adam Caplan tweeted in June.
Philadelphia's new starting five appears set with Jason Peters, Allen Barbre, Jason Kelce, Matt Tobin and Lane Johnson.
Depth remains a concern, though. So much so that the team recently decided to take a chance on John Moffitt, who came out of retirement this offseason after being away from the game for nearly two years.
As such, a young player with Boyko's upside is an ideal candidate to make the Eagles roster to develop over the course of the year.
E.J. Bibbs, TE, Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns entered the offseason with skill-positions issues. General manager Ray Farmer did what he could to address quarterback, wide receiver and tight end with stopgap solutions at each position.
The veteran additions of Josh McCown, Dwayne Bowe, Brian Hartline and Rob Housler certainly don't move the needle in terms of expected organizational growth, but they're all viable options.
However, each of these positions still require an infusion of young talent. Tight end, in particular, will play an important role in the new offensive scheme first-time coordinator John DeFilippo is implementing. The system requires multiple two-tight end sets with different responsibilities for the position.
The Browns offense is relatively set at Y-tight end with Jim Dray and Gary Barnidge already on the roster. But the team lacks a true mismatch among the more versatile F-tight end. Housler is athletic but inconsistent.
During OTAs and minicamps, undrafted rookie E.J. Bibbs took full of advantage of the uncertainty at the position.
“The (E.J.) Bibbs kid has had a real good spring for us,” Pettine said during minicamp, per ClevelandBrowns.com's Kevin Jones. “He’s kind of come out of nowhere. We feel that we have some depth in the room and some future depth in that room that we’re very pleased with.”
Cleveland selected USC tight end Randall Telfer in the sixth round of the draft, but he continues to deal with a foot injury. Bibbs, meanwhile, impressed the entire staff.
“I’m certainly pleased with his work ethic right now,” tight ends coach Brian Angelichio told Jones. “(He’s) taking the approach in the classroom, working hard outside the building."
Anyone who can make plays for the Browns offense this season should be welcomed with open arms and a shoo-in for the team's final roster.
Matt LaCosse, TE, New York Giants
There are currently six tight ends on the New York Giants rosters. Two of them are undrafted rookies, and Jerome Cunningham spent the bulk of last season on the team's practice squad.
Beyond Larry Donnell and Daniel Falls, the tight end position isn't settled. Adrien Robinson appeared in all 16 games last year (with one start), but the team could carry four tight ends this fall.
The right talent will be hard to keep off the roster, and Matt LaCosse presents an intriguing option.
"Different skill set," Giants tight ends coach Kevin Gilbride Jr. told NJ Advance Media's Jordan Raanan. "He's a linear guy, a long-legged guy who can get down the field. Very, very bright. Talk about [fellow rookie] Will [Tye] making too many mistakes, Matt didn't make many mistakes, which is impressive.
LaCosse is a 6'5", 261-pound former quarterback who is still coming into his own as a tight end. The Giants are already testing ways to use his size and natural athleticism.
"We had him in a role where we moved him around all the time as far as motioning and shifts," Gilbride said.
Plus, there are long-term considerations here as well. Donnell and Fells are free agents after the upcoming season. LaCosse, whom the team gave a $10,000 signing bonus, can be brought along slowly and eventually develop into a significant contributor in a year or two.
DeAndrew White, WR, San Francisco 49ers
DeAndrew White never realized his full potential during his time with the Alabama Crimson Tide opposite Amari Cooper.
“DeAndrew White is probably the guy that I would say, if you said, 'Who would be most underappreciated by the NFL?' because he has a lot more ability than what his production maybe has been here,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said after the school's pro day, per AL.com's Matt Zenitz. ... “He's got great speed. He's got great size. He's a great special teams player."
Despite Saban's seal of approval, White still wasn't drafted. The wide receiver dealt with injuries during his collegiate career and never produced at expected levels.
His talent has certainly been on display since becoming a member of the San Francisco 49ers, though.
“The type of person he is; he motivates himself,” co-wide receivers coach Adam Henry told 49ers.com's Tyler Emerick. “He has a little chip on his shoulder, and he brings it to the building each and every day.”
White quickly became a favorite target of quarterback Colin Kaepernick during OTAs and minicamp, and the rookie's growing comfort level was obvious.
“The NFL is not for everybody, but I feel like I’m at home; I feel like I belong here," White told Emerick. "I know I’m going to succeed. This is just the beginning.”
Not only can White contribute to the 49ers offense, but he's an outstanding special teams player as well, which hasn't gone unnoticed.
“He’s not afraid of anything,” special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey Jr. told Emerick. “He’s not afraid of competition. He goes out there every day and works his tail off. You can’t ask for much more from a rookie free agent. I think he’s on his way.”
White certainly has the feel of an undrafted rookie on his way to becoming a regular contributor this fall.
DeAndre Carter, WR, Baltimore Ravens
Anytime a respected veteran compares a rookie to an established Pro Bowler, everyone takes notice.
This is exactly what Steve Smith Sr. did during OTAs, when he compared DeAndre Carter to the Green Bay Packers' Randall Cobb.
Carter playing alongside Smith wasn't coincidence either.
"Going through the predraft process, my agent definitely targeted the Ravens as one of the potential teams I could land with—just because they didn't have a returner, because Jacoby Jones left," Carter said on Glenn Clark Radio (via Kyle Melnick of PressBoxOnline.com). "Special teams is definitely a way I can make this team."
For most undrafted free agents, the ability to play on special teams determines whether or not they'll make a squad. As a senior, Carter averaged 17.3 yards per punt return, even though teams rarely punted to him.
"In college, I was used in both areas quite a bit, and I'm used to it," Carter said. "I embrace the more responsibility I have and try to contribute as much as I can to my team. I'm just going to go out there and try to make a name for myself."
Jacoby Jones created a void at both wide receiver and returner on the Baltimore Ravens roster, when he signed with the San Diego Chargers as a free agent.
Carter will likely compete with last year's seventh-round pick, Michael Campanaro, for primary punt-return duties and a spot on the roster.
If the undrafted wide receiver from Sacramento State is as good as Smith believes, it won't be much of a competition.
Zach Vigil, LB, Miami Dolphins
At least one undrafted linebacker should be expected to make the Miami Dolphins roster this season. Zach Vigil, Jeff Luc and Mike Hull are vying for the spot.
Of the three, Luc is the biggest and most physical, while Hull brings versatility and special teams skills. Vigil falls somewhere in-between these two.
Any of the three could impress during training camp and eventually win a roster spot, but Vigil gets the nod at this point for two reasons.
First, he regularly received repetitions at middle linebacker during OTAs and training camp.
Second, Vigil is arguably the most instinctive of the threesome. During his career at Utah State, the middle linebacker set a school record with 43.5 career tackles for loss.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, still have questions marks at middle linebacker and lacked toughness against the run last year.
Even after finishing 24th against the run last season, veteran middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who missed the majority of the 2014 season due to a hip injury, proved to be expendable when he was part of a trade to the New Orleans Saints for wide receiver Kenny Stills.
Koa Misi moved inside last year and provided mixed results, but his comfort level (and overall health) should be improved during the upcoming season. The team still lacks depth, though, behind its shaky starting situation.
Vigil is a natural at the position, and his readiness to contribute was evident during the early portions of the offseason.
J.R. Tavai, LB, Tennessee Titans
J.R. Tavai found himself in a position that very few undrafted free agents experience during their very first team minicamp: He lined up with the first-team defense.
"I surprised myself that I stepped in right away," Tavai said, per the Tennessean's John Glennon. "I thought they would have (the rookies) learn some more things first, but the best way of learning is experiencing."
Granted, veterans Brian Orakpo and Jonathan Massaquoi were injured and didn't participate, but Tavai's readiness to contribute to the team's defense speaks to his preparation.
"He got an opportunity to get in there, and he's done a good job with the mental aspect of it," Tennessee Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt told Glennon. "The thing that you like is that he doesn't make a lot of mistakes, and he continually shows up."
Ray Horton enters his second year as the Titans defensive coordinator, and the organization is still searching for the right pieces to fit his 3-4 base defense.
Tavai served as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker—he even played defensive tackle—for the USC Trojans. As a senior, the California native tied for the team lead with seven sacks.
His ability to move forward and make plays isn't in question. His ability to drop into space as a 3-4 outside linebacker is.
"He really showed up in the run game," Whisenhunt said. "The biggest question is going to be the pass game and the space drops, those kind of things, to see how he adapts. You're excited by what you've seen. But we're still in shorts, too."
The undrafted rookie will receive fewer opportunities once the veterans in front of him are healthy, but his early performance is a very good indication of his status with the team.
Nick Marshall, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Once a team signed Nick Marshall, it did so with full knowledge he was long-term conversion project.
No team knew this better than the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jaguars staff coached Marshall during Senior Bowl week, which was the point the collegiate quarterback fully committed to his transition into a cornerback.
The Jaguars didn't sign Marshall to turn around and release him a few months later.
"Marshall, who played quarterback collegiately, has shown the athleticism and instincts to make the transition to NFL cornerback," Jaguars.com's John Oehser wrote. "It appears likely he’ll get every chance—including a roster spot—to show he deserves time to develop into that position."
The Auburn product is an ideal fit for Gus Bradley's scheme, which requires cornerbacks to take advantage of their size and length by being physical at the line of scrimmage. Plus, Marshall can concentrate on playing only one side of the field due to the system's requirements.
At 6'1" and 207 pounds with 32 ⅛-inch arms, the former signal-caller, who led the Tigers to the final BCS National Championship Game just 16 months ago, landed in the ideal situation with a franchise that understood his potential.
“My mindset is I can play any position once I put my mind to it," Marshall told Bleacher Report prior to the draft. "No one can change that. It's just the type of person that I am. It's the athlete in me and the type of competitor I am. I'm just doing what I believe is best for my future."