Undrafted Free Agents Who Could Beat Out NFL Draft Picks as Rookies in 2022

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyFeatured Columnist IVMay 5, 2022

Undrafted Free Agents Who Could Beat Out NFL Draft Picks as Rookies in 2022

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    While the focus of the 2022 NFL draft is understandably on the 262 draftees, another frenzy begins after Mr. Irrelevant is announced. The chaos of undrafted free agency begins on Day 3 of the draft, when teams start reaching out to players who might not get picked, and continues late into the night. 

    The vast majority of these signees end up being no more than camp bodies or practice squad investments. It's not that these guys can't play at a high level, but there are only so many open spots on the final 53-man roster. 

    However, some of the more influential players throughout NFL history were UDFAs. Quarterbacks Kurt Warner, Warren Moon and Tony Romo emerged as prolific stars. Wide receiver Wes Welker and running backs Arian Foster and Priest Holmes helped redefine their positions despite going undrafted. And of course future Hall of Fame tight end Antonio Gates will never be forgotten.

    There may not be such a trailblazer from the 2022 UDFA class, but teams will be happy if they unearth solid depth pieces or starters. We've identified six undrafted free agents who are talented enough to beat out a drafted rookie on their team in their first season.

Sterling Weatherford, S, Indianapolis Colts

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    Emilee Chinn/Associated Press

    The 2022 class had two gigantic safety prospects who had solid speed and a history of impressive college production. One was Baltimore Ravens first-round pick Kyle Hamilton. The other was Indianapolis Colts UDFA Sterling Weatherford.

    Weatherford is walking into a perfect situation to succeed even though the Colts drafted two safeties. The 6'4", 230-pounder ran an impressive 4.6-second 40-yard dash and 6.93-second three-cone drill despite being several inches taller than most safety prospects. He's not just intimidating in shorts, either, as he racked up 209 total tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions and 19 pass deflections in his career at Miami (Ohio).

    Indianapolis is perfect for Weatherford because new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has years of experience working with taller, higher-cut safeties who can run. His favored Cover 3 concept will put Weatherford closer to the line of scrimmage or line him up against tight ends in the slot. Third-rounder Nick Cross is more fitted to two-high looks or as the deep safety, and seventh-rounder Rodney Thomas II was a hybrid linebacker and safety, so he lacks the coverage skill of Weatherford.

    In some ways, Weatherford will earn playing time even over Cross because they function differently in this scheme. The Colts will quickly find that Weatherford's explosiveness and tackling ability will make him a better roster fit than Thomas.

Isaiah Weston, WR, Cleveland Browns

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Browns have perfected their draft strategy since they hired Andrew Berry as general manager in Jan. 2020. They look for highly athletic players under age 23. The rare times they veer from that mold is when a player's production is so good that it overcomes certain age or athleticism flags.

    2022 third-round pick David Bell is a good example of fitting the latter mold. With a need to round out their receiver corps, the Browns also selected former Oklahoma receiver Michael Woods II and signed several UDFAs. The best receiver of the latter bunch was Northern Iowa's Isaiah Weston.

    Weston has the best chance of any Browns rookie receiver besides Bell to earn a roster spot. The FCS star lit up powerhouse North Dakota State to the tune of five receptions, 181 yards and one touchdown when the lights were brightest. He posted 11 games with at least 90 yards over the previous three years.

    The 6'3", 214-pounder verified his NFL potential when he blazed a 4.42 40-yard dash and jumped out of the gym with a 40-inch vertical and 11-foot, 3-inch broad jump. He perfectly fits the big-play sideline threat Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson has grown used to maximizing in his time at Clemson and in Houston.

    Woods spent three seasons at Arkansas and one year at Oklahoma, showing good speed but never a well-rounded game. While Woods will get lost in a depth chart filled with similar players, Weston will explode with highlight-worthy plays.

Ronnie Rivers, RB, Arizona Cardinals

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    Gary Kazanjian/Associated Press

    After losing scatback Chase Edmonds this offseason, the Arizona Cardinals likely took a hard look at their running back depth chart and saw an opportunity for competition. Re-signing James Conner helped prevent a major need for a starter, and 2020 seventh-rounder Eno Benjamin was left as his primary backup.

    Arizona drafted former Texas and USC running back Keaontay Ingram in the sixth round and then signed former Fresno State star back Ronnie Rivers in free agency.

    Comparing Ingram and Rivers head-to-head is difficult since they function differently. Ingram is more like Conner at 6'0" and 221 pounds. He impressively ran a 4.53 40-yard dash at that size, whereas Rivers sprinted the 40 in 4.6 seconds at just 195 pounds. 

    However, with Edmonds now in Miami, the path to playing time will be easier for Rivers. The 5'7" back displays more quickness than flat-out speed and offers pass-catching ability, which was a major part of the Cardinals 2021 offense. Rivers caught 150 passes compared to Ingram's 89 in college.

    Durability also favors the 5'7", 195-pound Rivers. He carried the ball 681 times at Fresno State and racked up 40 touchdowns. Despite Ingram's size, he had 495 carries and 16 touchdowns.

    Both players are in a good position to make the roster considering the lack of depth, but it's Rivers who can fill Edmonds' void, a role valued by head coach Kliff Kingsbury.

Seth Green, TE, Houston Texans

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    Justin Rex/Associated Press

    The tight end position seems to produce some of the most interesting career development stories. The popularity of basketball players moving to tight end was one way to take advantage of their rare blend of size, power and vertical leaping ability. The path for new Houston Texans tight end Seth Green was even more rare.

    The former Minnesota Gophers Wildcat quarterback and receiver tallied 388 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground in three seasons before he transferred to the University of Houston. His senior season in 2021 featured a positional change for the 6'3", 242-pounder. Green tallied 157 yards and three touchdowns on 13 receptions.

    He's certainly a project, considering his lack of experience, but the Houston Texans recently lost another athletic tight end who moved well for his size in Jordan Akins.

    Green's main competition is fifth-rounder Teagan Quitoriano, who is a traditional in-line tight end who offers almost zero receiving upside because of poor athleticism. The Texans need to provide quarterback Davis Mills with playmakers, but Quitoriano doesn't fit the mold.

    Houston has zero proven depth at the position, making Green a legitimate candidate to earn playing time thanks to his 4.77 speed and excellent explosiveness. Green had elite jumps, with a 38.5-inch vertical and 10-foot, 6-inch broad jump. Even if it's just in the red zone, Houston should hunt for mismatches whenever possible since it lacks individual stars outside receiver Brandin Cooks.

Jerrion Ealy, RB, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    A former top recruit who excelled in the Under Armour All-American game in high school, Jerrion Ealy assembled a solid collegiate performance at Ole Miss. Though he may not have met expectations as a 5-star, transformational presence, the dual-threat back averaged 927 total yards and eight touchdowns over his three years in Oxford. The 5'8", 189-pounder is lightning-quick in short spaces and has elite acceleration.

    Adding him to the Kansas City Chiefs backfield along with seventh-round Rutgers tailback Isaih Pacheco was a wise decision. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, a 2020 first-round pick, hasn't been used as expected as a receiver out of the backfield like he was at LSU, and his issues with fumbles has opened the door for others to get playing time. Kansas City also signed Ronald Jones and have Derrick Gore.

    Pacheco is bigger (5'10", 215 lbs) and ran faster (4.37 40) than Ealy (4.52 40), but his tape didn't show as dynamic or explosive of an athlete. Pacheco also struggled to produce despite his athleticism, averaging just 4.3 yards per carry and totaling 47 receptions throughout his career. Ealy is the better player.

    With Kansas City likely only having one roster spot available for one of these players, Ealy is the rarer talent compared to who is on the roster between the two. Neither Edwards-Helaire nor Jones has pass-catching chops, and Gore is 18 pounds heavier than Ealy. We'll gamble that Ealy earns the roster spot over Pacheco.

Chris Hinton, DT, New York Giants

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    The rule of thumb regarding interior defensive linemen is to look for either quick-twitch athletes or find nasty, bullying individuals who know it's their role to do the dirty work by taking up blockers.

    Michigan tackle Chris Hinton fills the second description perfectly. With just 55 tackles and two sacks over three years, he was never the star at Michigan. But he made the jobs of Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo much easier in 2021 because he occupied the middle of the offensive line.

    His top competition to make the New York Giants roster is Arizona State's D.J. Davidson. Davidson was a fifth-round pick and stands at an impressive 6'3" and 327 pounds. He has 23 pounds on Hinton but measured as a significantly worse athlete in his vertical and broad jumps. There is an opportunity for Hinton to beat his drafted counterpart for a final roster spot.

    Though neither individual will be asked to get upfield and into the quarterback's lap often, Davidson's struggles to move will be an issue on outside run designs. He has no lateral movement ability at his immense size, whereas Hinton is more fluid and can move down the line of scrimmage easier. These little details can earn Hinton playing time.


    Recruit rankings via 247Sports.