Undrafted Free Agents with the Best Chance of Making an NFL Roster
As each of the 32 training camps kick into full gear this week, excitement and tension grow, especially for those players who aren't guaranteed roster spots. It's now or never to make a good first impression—which could be the difference in an undrafted free agent making a team or seeing his dream of becoming a professional athlete disappear.
A few elements often indicate where the best opportunities exist. First, the combination of an individual's skill set and attitude is crucial to garnering attention. Second, roster construction factors into decisions.
This is why it's usually preferable to go undrafted instead of being selected in the later rounds. Players and their representation can evaluate lineups to choose a destination conducive to their situation.
On the flip side, undrafted free agency is an opportunity for astute franchises to supplement their incoming classes with quality talent that fell through the cracks.
A quick glance around the league shows the importance of adding quality options once the draft concludes. Nine undrafted non-specialists either attended the 2018 Pro Bowl or were selected as alternates. Andrew Norwell, Case Keenum and Malcolm Butler signed massive free-agent deals this offseason after not hearing their names called on draft day.
A few unknowns will emerge and become crucial contributors, and this week will be the start of something special.
QB J.T. Barrett IV, New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints decided against drafting Drew Brees' heir apparent this year in favor of further developing Taysom Hill and signing J.T. Barrett IV.
Head coach Sean Payton is a fan of Hill and believes in his potential, but Barrett is 4.5 years younger with far more success coming out of the collegiate ranks.
Barrett left Ohio State as the Big Ten Conference's all-time leader with 104 passing touchdowns, 147 combined passing and rushing touchdowns and 12,697 total yards. More importantly, the young quarterback's locker room contributions are undeniable.
"There's a leadership presence about him," Payton said during rookie minicamp, per the Times-Picayune's Josh Katzenstein. "He's a good athlete. He's played a lot of competitive football. He's handled this camp very well, so (he has) a lot of the things you look for in that position. He certainly was worthy of being drafted, and he's done a good job here."
Tom Savage's offseason addition should mean next to nothing with two young and talented options behind Brees. Hill has plenty of physical potential, while Barrett is a smooth athlete and consummate leader. Both will get an opportunity to learn from the future Hall of Fame inductee.
FB Luke McNitt, Atlanta Falcons
Fullback isn't a sexy position, but it's one of the most likely to have an undrafted free agent emerge as a contributor. The position itself is being used less and less, yet the Atlanta Falcons still utilize a lead blocker.
However, the organization didn't re-sign Patrick DiMarco or Derrick Coleman the last two offseasons, and it's left with a pair of undrafted free agents, Luke McNitt and Daniel Marx, competing for the spot.
McNitt holds two advantages.
At 250 pounds, McNitt is five pounds heavier than Marx and posted 12 more bench press reps during the predraft process, which suggests more of a physical presence. The Nebraska product can also be a big part of the Falcons special teams.
"They really like my special teams film," McNitt said, per 247Sports' Brian Christopherson. "They can see me playing on all four special teams. I want to be a leader on those special teams units."
WR Janarion Grant, Baltimore Ravens
Special teams are an overlooked aspect of evaluations. While the Baltimore Ravens need help at wide receiver, Janarion Grant has a far better chance to make the roster based on his return skills.
Grant left Rutgers with a program-record eight returns for touchdowns.
"Janarion Grant is a young man that I thought had exceptional college tape," special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said, per Ryan Mink of the Ravens official site. "He came in as a tryout player in our rookie minicamp and earned a roster spot because of those things and his skills as a receiver."
The specialist averaged 24.8 yards per kick return and 11.3 yards per punt return during his collegiate career.
"Coach Rosburg says he loves me a lot," Grant said. "He's been looking at me, watching me and thinks I can do great things for the Ravens. I know I can as well. I just have to go out there and show them I can. I need to show them that I can better myself and better the team."
If Grant can contribute anything as a wide receiver—he produced 1,062 career receiving yards for the Scarlet Knights—he should be a roster lock.
TE Deon Yelder, New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints reinvigorated the entire franchise with last year's draft class. With Alvin Kamara and Marshon Lattimore earning Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year honors, the rest of the rookies didn't garner enough attention.
Five undrafted free agents acquired before the start of last season are still on the roster. The Saints front office is as good at unearthing talent as any in the league. So, it should come as no surprise two of this year's post-draft additions are counted among those likely to make the roster.
The Saints signed tight end Deon Yelder to a $90,000 contract, which is tied for the most lucrative among this year's undrafted free agents, according to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero.
"He's big (6'4", 255 pounds), and he can run," Payton said, per Katzenstein. "... So, his speed and some of his times were good. We think he catches the ball well. We got to work and get (him) up to speed a little bit on the blocking."
New Orleans features an aging tight end group with Benjamin Watson, Michael Hoomanawanui and Josh Hill. Yelder is an ideal option to develop behind the veteran group.
OT Desmond Harrison, Cleveland Browns
Physical potential can keep a player in the league for a long time, especially if he plays a premium position like left tackle. Desmond Harrison's athleticism immediately jumped to the forefront during the Cleveland Browns' rookie camp, organized team activities and minicamp.
"Desmond is probably the smoothest athlete we have out of 17 guys on the offensive line, doing it the way it should look with his feet and his hands and bending his knees and all that," offensive line coach Bob Wylie said, per the News-Herald's Jeff Schudel. "His thing is he has to do it mentally. He has to learn to play like a pro, learn how to see the defense, find your triggers, find the safeties. The last guy you look at is the guy you're going to block."
Being a smooth athlete is only part of the equation, though. Harrison must make significant strides with his technique and overcome the fact he played at a lower level and missed significant time after being dismissed from the Texas Longhorns program.
"Preseason games will be big," Wylie said, per Terry Pluto of the Plain Dealer. "He's going to face some real guys there...you gotta play to get better."
Considering the Browns' left tackle issues, Harrison's natural ability should lead to a roster spot.
DE Jeff Holland, Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos' edge presence fell off upon DeMarcus Ware's retirement. To help out Von Miller, the team invested the fifth overall pick in Bradley Chubb, who should help fill the void.
Shane Ray hasn't lived up to expectations because of injuries and Shaquil Barrett, who also entered the league as an undrafted free agent, is a solid edge defender but lacks explosiveness.
Jeff Holland was added to the mix and has already made everyone in the Broncos organization take notice.
"The biggest thing is making plays between the white lines," defensive coordinator Joe Woods said, per Broncos Wire's Jon Heath. "We record all of the positives that guys make, and right now he’s blowing people away.
"He had a big day at the end of last week in OTAs, but right now he's leading the charge. We just need to see what he does in training camp and in the preseason."
Holland, not Chubb, led all Power Five draft-eligible edge defenders with 65 total quarterback pressures last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Usually, top pass-rushers don't drop out of the draft unless they're found lacking in certain areas. Holland doesn't have the length or athleticism most prefer, but his first-step quickness makes him difficult for offensive tackles to handle.
LB Cayson Collins, Miami Dolphins
The Miami Dolphins are far from settled at linebacker with up-and-down play from Kiko Alonso and two new potential starters in Raekwon McMillan and Jerome Baker.
Everyone else's job is up for grabs—which creates the perfect scenario for an undrafted free agent to stake his claim. The team also drafted Quentin Poling in the seventh round before signing Cayson Collins and Mike McCray.
A stiff competition will ensue between those three rookies, but Collins established an early edge during the offseason.
"Cayson is actually showing a little bit of ability to absorb some things," defensive coordinator Matt Burke said, per the Palm Beach Post's Jason Lieser. "He's got some savvy about him and stuff."
The linebacker played well during his collegiate career yet struggled with injuries and thus never served as a full-time starter. Also, his overall speed is a concern after running a 4.79-second 40-yard dash at North Carolina's pro day. However, Collins is nifty working through traffic and playing between the tackles. Since concerns exist about Alonso missing tackles, Collins might be the ideal developmental option as an inside or outside linebacker.
A healthy Collins adds quality depth to a team in the middle of an overall makeover.
CB Tarvarus McFadden, San Francisco 49ers
Three factors play into Tarvarus McFadden's favor to make him arguably the most obvious undrafted candidate with roster potential.
First, follow the money. The 49ers handed McFadden a $90,000 contract, which is tied for this year's highest-paid undrafted free agent.
Second, many considered McFadden a top talent entering the 2017 season before an underwhelming campaign and putting together one of the worst workouts in combine history. Although, his talent didn't just disappear even if he didn't perform well during the predraft process.
Finally, the 6'2", 205-pound cornerback is an ideal fit for defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and his Seattle Seahawks-inspired system.
"I feel like I fit perfectly for the defense they run here," McFadden told reporters. "I've got guys like Richard Sherman and guys who have been in the system a while, which gives me the best opportunity."
Beyond Ahkello Witherspoon and Sherman, who is coming off a season-ending Achilles injury, the 49ers are still searching for the right pieces at cornerback. McFadden may not be able to turn and run with some wide receivers, but his length is a benefit at the line of scrimmage and necessary to consistently reroute opponents in the Cover 3-heavy scheme.
DB Kameron Kelly, Dallas Cowboys
Kameron Kelly played safety for the San Diego Aztecs before he converted to cornerback as a senior. He earned first-team All-Mountain West honors after the move. He'll be asked to play both corner and a safety for the Dallas Cowboys.
"Right now they've got me playing corner," Kelly said, per the team's official site (via 247Sports' Patrik Walker), "but then I asked Coach [Kris] Richard after practice if he wants me to learn safety, and he said yes because at any time he could just plug me back there. I went up to the receivers coaches and was like, 'Hey, if you want me to play receiver, I’ll play receiver for you all, too.'"
Kelly didn't hear his name called during draft weekend, because he's not the most fluid in coverage. However, his size (6'2", 204 pounds) and physicality fit well in Rod Marinelli's preferred zone scheme.
"I think he's trying to turn me into his next Richard Sherman or something," Kelly said of Richard, who previously coached the four-time Pro Bowl cornerback.
Kelly's inclusion to Dallas' cornerback room shows a greater emphasis on bigger defensive backs, especially after the Byron Jones conversion. If the rookie can't generate playing time at corner, he can always move back to safety.
K Eddy Pineiro, Oakland Raiders
Kickers deserve some attention, especially when undrafted free agents are being discussed. Quality kickers can be found after the draft ends, and the Raiders may have found their future at the position in Eddy Pineiro.
"When you talk about Eddy Pineiro, he hasn't missed a field goal," head coach Jon Gruden said during a teleconference with season ticket holders, per the team's official site. "We watched him kick today and he made every one.
"... We felt Eddy was so good we were going to draft him in the seventh round. That's how much we thought of this kid, and we paid him a lot of money to make sure we were going to get him as an undrafted free agent."
Giorgio Tavecchio converted three 50-plus-yard field goals in Sebastian Janikowski's injury absence last season. The inexperienced kicker also missed five of his 21 attempts.
Now, Gruden and Co. seem enamored with the undrafted rookie, and they should be if he hasn't missed any kicks during practice sessions.
Not seeing Janikowski in a Raiders uniform will be weird, but it was his time to go. The Raiders may have found a long-term replacement in Pineiro.