You can feel free to skip the forward and jump right to the team capsules if you like. But I couldn’t help but write one for one of my favorite annual columns of the year.
Undrafted players comprise roughly one-fifth of NFL rosters. For that reason, I consider the UDFA free-for-all Saturday night after the completion of Day 3 the “second draft”, or the “dessert draft.” After a two-month lead-in to a three-day NFL Draft event covering Rounds 1-7, the UDFA carousel on Saturday night in essence takes care of Rounds 8-15 at warp-speed.
Former Saints GM Randy Mueller wrote that the post-Day 3 UDFA window is “just as important as the sixth and seventh rounds of the draft.” (UDFA provide the NFL with more value and snaps than the sixth- and seventh-rounds combined, but Mueller’s point is noted). Per Mueller, teams start calling potential UDFAs late in the sixth round.
For more reasons than you might think: “If I, as the GM, find out a player already has five offers as a free agent and thus will be expensive to sign, I might opt to draft him in the seventh round to eliminate the competition,” Mueller wrote. “A lot of strategy is in play with those late-round picks, and signability is definitely a factor.” In this way, late-draft UDFA negotiations can have a material impact on the final 60 picks of the draft in a way those of us outside the NFL aren’t privy to.
“I remember once having an agreement with a quarterback at the end of Round 6, which, incidentally, is frowned upon by the league,” Mueller continued*. “The agent and the kid had agreed. I had congratulated the kid on the phone. Another team got wind of it and drafted the kid in the seventh round.”
*(Is it any surprise Mueller once worked with Sean Payton? Last year, Payton, one of the league’s most aggressive UDFA pitchmen, admitted to the media that he traded back into R7 to take Mississippi State QB Tommie Stevens after Stevens told the Saints he was going to sign with the Panthers as a UDFA).
Mueller, who helped the Chargers sign small-school UDFA RB Austin Ekeler in 2018, outlined his post-draft UDFA strategy thusly: “[I]n order to sign two running backs, we’d have to go after and recruit five. Although I’ve never been involved in college recruiting, I envision it being similar — except it all happens in such a shorter time frame.”
The year after the Chargers found Ekeler off the UDFA scrapheap, the Broncos discovered Phillip Lindsay. The year after Lindsay, Jacksonville struck gold with James Robinson. Last year in this space, I called Robinson “this year’s Phillip Lindsay candidate.”
Here’s the beauty of the UDFA sweepstakes: Even though it feels like searching for a needle in a haystack to identify the gems, we know, based on both historical and recent precedent, that multiple NFL standouts exist among the 2021 UDFA class -- and a few will star earlier than anyone could have seen coming.
The UDFAs ranks gave the NFL Tony Romo, Doug Baldwin, James Harrison, Wes Welker, Antonio Gates, Arian Foster, and Hall of Famers Kurt Warner, John Randle and Warren Moon (and 14 more going back further, including Dick “Night Train” Lane).
Current UDFAs making an impact in the NFL include Case Keenum, Matt Breida, Adam Thielen, Willie Snead, Cole Beasley, Tyrell Williams, Robby Anderson, Trey Burton, Jack Doyle, Alejandro Villanueva, La’El Collins, Jason Peters, Michael Pierce, Shaquil Barrett, Cameron Wake, Mario Addison, Cory Littleton, A.J. Bouye, Chris Harris, Malcolm Butler, J.C. Jackson, Anthony Harris, Justin Tucker, and Johnny Hekker.
Whereas in past years, my UDFA rankings have been one column, this year I went so long we had to bust it into two. Come back Wednesday for my AFC class rankings. That column will include a table of all 32 UDFA classes in the NFL ranked. Speaking of tables, if you don’t see prospect comps below, your browser didn’t load the full one -- simply scroll right. Enough with the preamble. Let’s hand out some awards and find some gems!
1. Atlanta Falcons
|Javian Hawkins||174||RB12||5'9||183||7.01||Noel Devine|
|Erroll Thompson||238||LB26||6'0||239||1.65||Steven Daniels|
|Feleipe Franks||244||QB11||6'7||234||9.56||Cardale Jones|
|Joe Sculthorpe||342||iOL36||6'2||295||6.92||Conor Boffeli|
|Dorian Etheridge||372||LB40||6'2||233||5.3||Matthew Thomas|
|Marcus Murphy||374||S31||5'11||198||4.99||Will Parks|
|Kion Smith||382||OT31||6'5||315||5.45||E.J. Whitley|
|Bryce Hargrove||385||iOL40||6'4||310||3.9||A. Kirk-Hughes|
|Antonio Nunn||401||WR56||5'11||204||6.66||Kalija Lipscomb|
|Eli Howard||417||EDGE41||6'3||270||2.89||Brett Roy|
|Caleb Huntley||422||RB38||5'10||225||1.83||Nick Brosette|
|Austin Trammell||439||WR65||5'10||180||7.47||Daniel Braverman|
|Ryan Neuzil||465||iOL51||6'3||285||8.94||Chris Reed|
|John Raine||X||FB8||6'1||231||0.62||Charles Stackhouse|
|Dwayne Johnson Jr.||X||S42||6'1||207||3.18||---|
I’m going to keep my overall UDFA rankings a secret until Wednesday, with one exception: The Falcons had the NFL’s No. 1 UDFA class this year. The only team that was even remotely close is listed below (okay, two exceptions). Atlanta not only finished No. 1 in my metrics for most overall UDFA talent acquired, but the Falcons’ haul boasted unmatched quality at the top*. The fact that Atlanta directly addressed post-draft positional needs with draftable-grade UDFAs who can make the 2021 roster makes this crop all the more alluring.
*(Unlike NFL Draft classes, there’s no issue with having a top-heavy UDFA crop. Two undrafted free agents making your Week 1 roster is a solid showing; two teams had four last year, nobody carried more into the season. Consider that another 3-5 will begin their careers on your practice squad. With this context in mind, my UDFA class rankings are based on a scoring system corresponding to my pre-draft rankings that gives roughly half a class’ weight to its top-three ranked signings, one-quarter to its top-five ranked signings, and one-third of the remaining weight to the amount of top-400 prospects it acquired, a point value of its overall class, and consideration of whether the team was able to address its biggest post-draft position need(s) with a legitimate UDFA flier at that position, i.e., DL Marvin Wilson with the Browns).
Let’s get the column’s big prediction out of the way early. If I’m putting money on one UDFA from this class to carry the immediate-impact UDFA RB torch of Ekeler, Lindsay and Robinson into 2021, it’s hands-down Javian Hawkins. Hawkins combined quicks, an okey-doke spin move and legit long-speed to pile up a catalogue of explosive runs over two years as a starter at Louisville.
Hawkins didn’t break out as a star until his senior year of high school. He redshirted his first year at Louisville in 2018. The next year, as a redshirt freshman, he broke the school’s single-season rushing record for a running back with 1,525 yards and nine TD over 264 carries (I say “running back” because QB Lamar Jackson twice ran for more lol).
Hawkins was averaging over 100 rushing yards per game through eight 2020 contests before he opted-out. The NFL seemed to be making a referendum on Hawkins’ dearth of experience and lack of receiving chops (21 career catches) on Draft Weekend. I think that was a mistake.
Between Hawkins’ last season of Florida high school football in 2017 and his rFR/rSO years at Louisville in 2019-2020, he dominated almost every time he took the field. And I believe the concerns about his receiving are a myth -- Hawkins shifted between RB and WR in high school, posting over 600 yards receiving his last two years even as he was rushing for more than 2,500 years. It feels like Louisville, which went through a coaching transition following Hawkins’ redshirt season, made a mistake in not taking advantage of this aspect of his game earlier.
Over his career, Hawkins never once dropped a catchable target (while averaging 9.0 YPC). In 2020, HC Scott Satterfield began to make Hawkins a regular part of the receiving game before Hawkins’ opt-out (16-127-1 receiving line in eight games... again, with no drops). Hawkins is an air back that goes down on first contact. And he’s still early in his development as far as reading the flow of his blockers and consistently making intelligent decisions behind the line -- with his quickness and speed, he was always hunting for homers at Louisville and freelanced his way into some of those along with the accompanying strikeouts.
Hawkins is the most talented back on Atlanta’s roster. Todd Gurley and Brian Hill are gone. Mike Davis is currently penciled in as RB1 with plodding place-holder Qadree Ollison his makeshift backup. Small tweaks to Hawkins’ game could yield a long-term starter -- beginning as early as Week 1 of the 2021 season, depending on the speed of his education.
Incredibly, Atlanta didn’t even have to spend much to bring Hawkins into the fold. Hawkins’ $35,000 in guaranteed money ranked No. 42 in the UDFA class -- he received $2,500 less than the Texans gave drop-machine Missouri WR Damon Hazelton, and nearly half as much as the Raiders gave Wisconsin RB/FB tweener Garret Groshek. This isn’t bad precedent. Last year, Jacksonville stole Robinson for $25k guaranteed.
The Falcons didn’t stop there. After eschewing Justin Fields to take Kyle Pitts at 1.4, and then opting for other positional needs the rest of the draft, Atlanta signed the draft’s best undrafted QB in Feleipe Franks. Franks struggled mightily with accuracy earlier in his career at Florida but had an eye-opening 2020 season after transferring from Florida to Arkansas.
In his last full season as starter for the Gators in 2018, Franks threw for 2,457 yards on 58.4% completions and 7.6 YPA over 322 attempts. Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney were on that team. In 309 attempts over the last two years (238 coming in 2020 for Arkansas -- Franks suffered a dislocated ankle four games and 71 attempts into the 2019 season at Florida and was replaced by Kyle Trask), Franks threw for 2,805 yards on 70.2% completions and 9.1 YPA. This is not progress to scoff at, considering his arm strength, and his toughness, power, and athleticism in an enormous package as a runner.
He’s a better prospect than Tyree Jackson and compares favorably to a more-experienced, fleeter-footed Cardale Jones. Franks still has serious placement issues, but the tools and developmental steps he’s taken are both objective facts -- and they give him some small chance, let’s say 1%, of turning into a starting NFL quarterback. That’s infinitely better odds than Ian Book and Sam Ehlinger, who were both drafted, have between themselves.
Last point on Franks: He should be Atlanta’s QB2 next year. I’m not kidding. With Matt Schaub gone, the only other quarterback on Atlanta’s roster behind Matt Ryan is AJ McCarron, who has started four games in seven seasons. We can agree on two things: 1) The Falcons don’t have great odds to be a Super Bowl contender next year, 2) Atlanta has no chance to make the playoffs if Matt Ryan gets injured. On a roster like this, to me, if you’re only keeping two quarterbacks, you keep the higher ceiling (Franks).
And in this case, Franks as QB2 is the real thinking-man’s contingency to a potential Ryan injury: In such a situation, as the front office, focused only on Super Bowls, we’re flipping the page to next season, when Ryan may or may not be with us. Getting as high as we can in the 2022 NFL Draft without overtly tanking like Doug Pederson would be my thought process. And that requires foresight. Like breaking camp with Franks as QB2.
If Ryan stays healthy all season, great. If Ryan gets injured and Franks falls on his face in his place, great -- we’re tanking for Rattler. If Franks plays better than advertised in relief, well -- now you’ve either got yourself your future quarterback on the cheap, or you’ve found a trade asset for free. Either way, if Atlanta makes Franks its QB2 this season, it has more than justified the cost of his acquisition no matter what happens.
The rest of Atlanta’s UDFA class went deep, with intelligent fliers that should collectively flesh out the bottom of the Falcons’ 2021 roster and stock the practice squad with worthy developmental projects. I think LB Erroll Thompson ends up making the roster. He’s a tough, smart player who will star on special teams early. And I’d be surprised if the Falcons didn’t find one or two other players outside my top-three who will end up breaking camp with the team.
This is one of my three favorite UDFA classes of the past three years. And it might be my favorite of them all.
2. Dallas Cowboys
|Austin Faoliu||245||DL20||6'3||287||---||Treyvon Hester|
|Anthony Hines III||247||LB28||6'2||225||8.22||Keyaron Fox|
|Tyler Coyle||250||S20||6'0||209||9.83||Sheldrick Redwine|
|JaQuan Hardy||270||RB21||5'9||211||7.46||Julius Jones|
|Nick Eubanks||282||TE14||6'4||245||6.99||Randy McMichael|
|Brenden Knox||308||RB26||6'0||215||4.38||Michael Hart|
|Brandon Smith||309||WR41||6'1||218||9.16||Jason Avant|
|Brennan Eagles||345||WR47||6'4||225||8.97||JJ Arcega-Whiteside|
|T.J. Vasher||397||WR55||6'5||185||---||Collin Johnson|
|Osirus Mitchell||414||WR59||6'5||206||5.87||Hank Baskett|
|Braylon Jones||447||iOL49||6'3||319||5.66||Justin Bates|
|Artayvious Lynn||X||TE26||6'3||249||3.53||Randall Telfer|
Last year, Dallas finished No. 1 in these rankings. In 2019, the Cowboys finished No. 9. Over those two years, per Over the Cap, the Cowboys spent nearly a half-million dollars more in UDFA guaranteed money than any other franchise in the NFL. That’s one way to guarantee yourself a top-10 UDFA class ranking every year.
The Cowboys were back at it this year. Iowa WR Brandon Smith was one of their primary targets. Smith, a primo athlete who was inconsistent on the field at Iowa, got top-10 reported guaranteed money in the UDFA class.
The Cowboys also grabbed three defenders I had draftable grades on. Oregon’s Austin Faoliu seemed to suffer from the NFL panning the overall interior class, with seemingly every prospect going well below projection, from projected first-rounder Christian Barmore falling to the second to projected second-rounder Jay Tuefele falling to the fourth to projected mid-rounder Marvin Wilson falling out of the draft completely.
The Cowboys gave LB Anthony Hines $55,000 guaranteed, a smart low-cost move on an athletic linebacker the NFL had limited exposure on. Hines broke out in his first year as starter in 2019, but opted out of the 2020 season in late-September, declaring for the draft in November.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys signed S Tyler Coyle with the idea of making him a LB/S hybrid player in Dan Quinn’s defense. If anybody knows how to make use of prospects like this, it’s the architect of the “Legion of Boom” defense. Coyle transferred from UConn to Purdue prior to last season to reunite with former coach Bob Diaco, who’d latched on as Boilermakers’ DC.
We didn’t see much of Coyle last year, but we know Quinn is going to try to polish off the work Diaco started in trying to mold a hybrid player out of Coyle’s size, length and athleticism.
The Cowboys ended up tying for No. 3 in the league last year when three of their No. 1 UDFA class cracked the Week 1 roster. I believe this class will match that total.
3. Seattle Seahawks
|Cade Johnson||94||WR15||5'11||184||3.04||Dennis Northcutt|
|Tamorrion Terry||220||WR27||6'3||207||7.3||M. Valdez-Scantling|
|Jared Hocker||275||iOL29||6'6||327||8.65||Spencer Long|
|Bryan Mills||304||CB37||6'1||174||2.94||Daryl Worley|
|Josh Johnson||352||RB31||5'9||209||5.09||Darius Anderson|
|Jake Curhan||379||OT30||6'5||316||1.76||Robert Hunt|
|BJ Emmons||386||RB35||5'11||215||8.57||Dan “Boom” Herron|
|Jon Rhattigan||391||LB43||6'0||236||2.92||Hardy Nickerson Jr.|
|Greg Eiland||408||OT33||6'8||321||1.73||George Hegamin|
|Connor Wedington||445||WR66||6'0||196||8.48||Trishton Jackson|
|Jarrod Hewitt||492||DL40||6'1||290||---||Maurice Hurst|
The Seahawks, which finished No. 19 in these rankings last year after checking in at No. 4 in 2018, return to the top-five in 2020. Seattle leveraged the hidden advantage a small draft class can have in UDFA negotiations by landing the No. 2 overall UDFA prospect in my rankings, a second prospect with a draftable grade, and a deep overall class full of interesting fliers after that.
The headliner is South Dakota State WR Cade Johnson, who I had a late third-round grade on. Following a prolific collegiate career (163-2863-28) and a strong Senior Bowl, Johnson was almost assured of being drafted, perhaps even in the middle rounds, despite SDSU’s season having been cancelled in 2020. But a disastrous pro day (4.49 40-yard but with a ninth-percentile broad jump) changed all that.
The Seahawks, with new OC Shane Waldron and an edict from QB Russell Wilson to invest more in offensive personnel, took advantage of the NFL’s oversight. Receiver was clearly the primary area of emphasis for Seattle’s brass over NFL Draft weekend -- they used their first pick, a second-rounder, on speedy Western Michigan WR D’Wayne Eskridge.
Seattle’s signing of Florida State WR Tamorrion Terry was yet another nod in that direction. Terry, a lanky athlete with a handful of flash plays and a reputation for being inconsistent, played at FSU during one of the darkest offensive periods of the school’s modern history. If Terry ends up popping, you’ll know the collegiate inconsistency had more to do with his situation than him. And if not, it was worth the low-cost flier to find out.
Outside of Eskridge, Seattle only drafted CB Tre Brown and OT Stone Forsythe. Corner and offensive line were two other problematic areas of the roster, and Seattle’s UDFA strategy included stocking up at those positions in hopes of finding something for nothing at a need area. One of Jared Hocker, Jake Curhan and Greg Eiland is likely to make the Seahawks’ Week 1 roster.
Don’t be surprised if CB Bryan Mills does as well. Mills has length and coverage chops, but I had him just outside of a draftable grade because he lacks speed (4.6), agility (30th-percentile agility drills) and play strength (only two bench reps!) at a spindly 174 pounds (sixth-percentile).
But Mills’ tape showed closing quickness represented by his 75th-percentile-plus jumps. And if there’s any team that plays up defensive backs with length and closing burst that lack prototype skills elsewhere, it’s the Seahawks and their zone coverage scheme.
This was a high-quality UDFA class that targeted and brought back draftable prospects at positions of need that are scheme fits. That’s the name of the game, folks.
4. Detroit Lions
|Jonathan Adams||206||WR25||6'2||210||7.53||Stevie Johnson|
|Tommy Kraemer||219||iOL23||6'5||309||---||Jamon Meredith|
|Drake Jackson||223||iOL24||6'2||293||---||Joey Hunt|
|Sage Surratt||228||WR30||6'2||209||5.66||Michael Floyd|
|Rakeem Boyd||327||RB28||5'11||213||2.17||Paul Perkins|
|Javon McKinley||340||WR46||6'2||215||7.25||Noah Brown|
|Jerry Jacobs||426||CB49||5'10||208||5.81||Doran Grant|
|Tavante Beckett||431||LB45||5'10||220||1.11||Eric Striker|
|Dedrick Mills||444||RB39||5'10||215||---||Rashad Penny|
|A.J. Parker||493||CB54||5'11||182||2.75||Bené Benwikere|
|Brock Wright||496||TE24||6'4||257||9.21||Jerell Adams|
|Jake Hausmann||X||TE29||6'4||242||1.69||David Grinnage|
Detroit signed a league-high four prospects I had draftable grades on. Including, based on my UDFA rankings, the No. 3 and 7 available WR in Jonathan Adams and Sage Surratt, and my No. 5 and 6 iOL in Tommy Kraemer and Drake Jackson. Another sign of intelligent design from an organization that’s been devoid of it for far too long.
Wide receiver was Detroit’s biggest need coming into the draft. Most mocks that had Ja’Marr Chase and Penei Sewell going to the Bengals and Dolphins slotted Jaylen Waddle to Detroit at No. 7. Instead, Waddle went No. 6 to the Fins, and Detroit did the right thing to steal Sewell at No. 7. The Lions got good value on a trio of defenders on Day 2, so the organization’s receiver need had to wait until the first pick of Day 3, USC slot WR Amon-Ra St. Brown, the only receiver Detroit ended up picking.
By adding Adams and Surratt to Brown, the Lions, in sum, according to my rankings, acquired a third- and two sixth-round values at receiver for the price of 4.112 and slightly over $100k in guaranteed UDFA money, per Spotrac. Extremely slick thrift shopping. No panic. Portends a sustainable organizational decision-making model focused on long-term roster health.
iOL was a tertiary need that didn’t come up during the draft. So Lions GM Brad Holmes similarly attacked that position in a targeted way on Saturday night post-draft. Kraemer and Jackson could easily both make this roster. As Detroit’s new administration rebuilds the shoddy roster it inherited, this deep class will give it the option of swapping out the previous regime’s failed developmental projects for fresh hand-picked alternatives.
By any metric, the Lions had one of the best draft processes in the entire NFL, from the draft itself on through to the UDFA extravaganza. It’s a new era of Detroit Football.
5. New Orleans Saints
|Trill Williams||108||CB14||6'0||208||7.71||James Bradberry|
|Dylan Soehner||188||TE10||6'7||268||5.85||Jack Doyle|
|Stevie Scott III||292||RB24||6'1||225||3.49||LeGarrette Blount|
|Bryce Thompson||301||CB36||5'11||182||3.17||Justin Coleman|
|Josiah Bronson||329||DL28||6'3||304||6.25||Timmy Jernigan|
|Shaq Smith||435||LB46||6'3||237||4.22||Abdul Hodge|
|Nolan Cooney||X||P5||6'2||195||---||Sterling Hofrichter|
|Eric Burrell||470||S39||5'11||197||2.4||Jahleel Addae|
|Michael Brown||482||iOL53||6'3||340||1.5||Mark Jackson|
|Lawrence Woods||X||CB57||5'9||182||4.44||Nigel Tribune|
The Saints are one of the NFL’s best at the UDFA game. In the previous two years of these rankings, they checked in at No. 1 and No. 3, respectively. In last year’s column, I summed up New Orleans’ UDFA strategy those two years thusly: “The Saints use their late Day 3 picks to trade up for prospects they’ve targeted who are falling. [This] seems to be part and parcel of a larger prospect acquisition strategy. While other teams are drafting on Saturday, monitoring their boards and negotiating trades, the Saints are calling their top UDFA targets. They literally get a jump on the rest of the league.”
This year, the Saints went about things a little differently. Though the Saints had a typically-light draft class compared to the rest of the NFL, they actually picked six prospects (double what they did last year) and had three Day 3 picks (compared to none last year). Either way, nobody in the NFL competes on the phone harder for UDFA than New Orleans, and they emerged with another sterling UDFA class in 2021.
New Orleans acquired two of my top-20 overall UDFA: DB Trill Williams was No. 4, TE Dylan Soehner was No. 18. Williams’ fall out of the draft was a true stunner. The 21-year-old was a first-team All-USA Today High School All-American that started all three years he was at Syracuse. He showed versatility at Syracuse, playing both CB and S, and proved to have a ballhawking nose for the ball wherever he was deployed.
Williams’ 2020 season ended after five games due to ankle surgery. But he proved to be healthy at his pro day workout. Williams earned a strong 7.71 RAS while taking all the tests. He struggled in the 40 (4.59) and agility drills (47th- and 26th-percentiles), but confirmed he was an explosive athlete with a springy lower-half (both jumps were over 66th-percentile). Williams is likely headed for safety duties at the next level.
Soehner tested as a slightly above-average athlete for his size, which is all I thought he would have to do to get drafted. After all, he’s the draft’s best blocking inline prospect (if you consider Tommy Tremble an H-Back). Soehner proved last year at Iowa State that, in the receiving game, he can be relied upon as an outlet within five yards of the LOS, pinning defenders to his back and using a massive catch radius to corral balls. He’s never going to do much more than that, but he does now have that one utility in addition to being a mauler in the run game.
Toss in the special teams value, and the trump-card of his inline blocking, and I think there’s a good chance he hangs around for a long time. I knew of two teams that were hot and heavy on him in the weeks leading up to the draft -- two teams that love to use 12 personnel with a blocking inline TE -- and both ended up taking another tight end before the late rounds. Soehner only had utility to a certain number of teams and likely ended up filtering out of the draft that way. Saints gain on that one -- though it’s an open-ended question as to whether they’ll have an inline spot for him out of camp.
The Saints fleshed the class out with a group of prospects that won’t look out of place in an NFL training camp. I think RB Stevie Scott, a bruising hammer back in the LeGarrette Blount vain, has a shot to stick around for a while.
6. Philadelphia Eagles
|Jamie Newman||118||QB7||6'3||234||---||David Garrard|
|Kayode Awosika||161||iOL17||6'3||307||5.03||Lucas Nix|
|Trevon Grimes||226||WR29||6'4||220||8.45||Chris Henry|
|Harry Crider||310||iOL32||6'3||307||7.62||J.D. Walton|
|Jhamon Ausbon||356||WR50||6'2||217||4.67||Amara Darboh|
|Jack Stoll||394||TE19||6'4||247||7.98||Jake Murphy|
|JaQuan Bailey||411||EDGE40||6'2||246||1.57||Michael Sam|
This is the lowest the Eagles have ever finished in my UDFA rankings. The last two years Philly finished No. 5 and No. 8 (overall), respectively. But this class is just as intriguing as those ones were (this UDFA crop in my opinion is the best of the last three for reasons I’ll touch on in Wednesday’s AFC UDFA rankings). I wouldn’t even argue with someone who thought it was more intriguing. The Eagles didn’t sign anyone, either year, that I had ranked as high overall in the Thor500 as QB Jamie Newman and iOL Kayode Awosika.
Newman is 100% a victim of circumstance. My favorite sleeper quarterback in this class, Newman made an inspired transfer decision to go from Wake Forest to Georgia after the 2019 season. But he decided to opt-out after the pandemic hit.
At the time of his opt-out prior to the 2020 season, Newman was sitting atop a murky Tier 2 of 2021 NFL Draft quarterback prospects behind sure-things Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and Trey Lance. That tier included guys like Kyle Trask and Kellen Mond. Not only did Mac Jones and Zach Wilson quickly surge past him as the 2020 season began, but so did Trask, Mond, Davis Mills, and, well, everyone else.
I think the NFL was a bit too quick to forget about Newman’s 2019 season. That year, in a hyper-speed offense that rarely threw screens, Newman showed off a sniper rifle. He ranked as PFF’s No. 6 graded quarterback on throws 10-plus yards downfield and No. 2 (behind Trevor Lawrence) on graded throws beyond 20 yards. Newman also had 22 big-time throws against just four turnover-worthy passes, a fabulous ratio. For some context, Mond had only 25 big-time throws over the last two seasons combined.
Newman is a big dual-threat who will also hurt you outside the pocket. It’s a real shame we didn’t get to see him in Georgia’s pro-style system with superior athletes in 2020. My guess is Newman is a Day 2 pick if that had happened, probably Round 2. Newman’s decision to opt-out gives the Eagles a highly-intriguing developmental option behind Jalen Hurts for the cost of free. Newman’s bonanza upside is David Garrard. You’ll recall that Mr. Garrard needed a few years to learn before seeing an NFL field. No different here.
Awosika was a three-year starter for Buffalo at offensive tackle who’s going to kick inside at the next level due to his lack of length. Awosika was one of the MAC’s best run-blocking tackles over the past three seasons (Jaret Patterson wracked up all kinds of yards running behind him) -- his transition to guard should be a smooth one. I expect him to stick.
And for a team with so much uncertainty at receiver -- the Devonta Smith pick sure helps, but the depth chart behind the starters is far from settled -- the Trevon Grimes signing is naturally interesting. A former five-star recruit, Grimes is a big, athletic outside receiver that never got to be Florida’s go-to guy because of the presence of Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney. Even Grimes’ harshest critics don’t think he’s a finished product.
If the Eagles don’t find multiple long-term roster pieces from this crop, I’d be surprised. Another strong showing by an organization that can outthink itself at times -- Reagor over Jefferson comes to mind -- but always has its heart in the right place when it comes to clawing to find value at the margins.
7. Carolina Panthers
|David Moore||176||iOL18||6'2||330||6.82||Parker Collins|
|Paddy Fisher||241||LB27||6'3||240||3.36||Jack Cichy|
|Spencer Brown||262||RB20||5'11||208||4.89||Spencer Ware|
|Peyton Ramsey||307||QB15||6'2||215||4.2||Nathan Peterman|
|Mason Stokke||343||FB4||6'2||242||6.15||Anthony Firkser|
|Oscar Draguicevich III||X||P8||5'9||188||---||---|
The Panthers’ UDFA class was very much like Matt Rhule and company’s first two drafts -- highly focused on infrastructure.
What this seven-man group (six, if you don’t count Fonua, who only got a tryout) lacks in depth, it makes up for at the top with prospects who have a legitimate shot to crack the roster and contribute one day.
Carolina left the draft with the offensive line still a need area, and thus did well to agree to terms with David Moore, who tied for No. 12 in the UDFA class with $125k in guarantees. You can think of the top-32 UDFA guarantees sort of like Round 8 of the NFL Draft. If Roger Goodell had gotten drunk and nostalgic on Saturday night and extended the draft a round so he could emcee the final 32 picks from his basement like the good old days, I would have applauded the Panthers popping Moore with their pick and called it a steal at an area of need. Discounted by NFL because of small-school background and sawed-off frame. But Moore has long arms to negate length concerns. He’s also a strong athlete that plays ticked off. Rhule’s gonna love him.
After that, the Panthers grabbed unathletic tackle machine LB Paddy Fisher, who will basically give you 90% of Chiefs second-rounder Nick Bolton’s skillset. I’m a big fan of UAB RB Spencer Brown -- to stick with the percentage thing, “The Moose” is about 90% of 2020 Packers’ second-round pick AJ Dillon, offering the same skills in a less-athletic package (I thought Brown’s 49th-percentile RAS composite would push him over the hump to get drafted, but no dice).
Peyton Ramsey seems like a jolly lad to have on the practice squad soaking up Joe Brady’s offense for a few years. Meanwhile, I’d be more intrigued by the addition of Wisconsin FB Mason Stokke -- one of the class’ best fullbacks, and a signing that otherwise had Alec Ingold potential -- had the Panthers not taken Tommy Tremble in R3. I’m not sure there will be another open roster spot for a blocker.
Editor’s Note: Don’t forget to download the NBC Sports EDGE app to receive real-time player news and updates. Plus, it allows you to easily track your favorite players. Get it here!
8. Minnesota Vikings
|Tuf Borland||196||LB23||6'0||229||1.32||Tyler Matakevich|
|Whop Philyor||287||WR38||5'10||184||1.67||Keke Coutee|
|Jordon Scott||324||DL27||6'0||311||---||Antwaun Woods|
|Asim Rose||330||RB29||6'1||215||7.49||Bilal Powell|
|Christian Elliss||334||LB35||6'2||228||8.91||Alex Gray|
|Riley Patterson||X||K3||5'10||181||---||Cody Parkey|
|Blake Proehl||433||WR63||6'2||186||8.57||Ricky Proehl|
|Zach Von Rosenberg||X||P6||6'4||235||---||---|
|Myron Mitchell||X||WR81||6'0||180||---||Terry Godwin|
|Zeandae Johnson||X||DL42||6'4||280||2.69||Frostee Rucker|
The Purple ranked No. 30 in my 2019 rankings (John Keenoy/Jake Browning/Khari Blasingame) and No. 17 last year (a class that produced gunner WR Dan Chisena and not much else). This year, with a thinner roster -- in part why the Vikings traded down from No. 14 to No. 23 with the Jets in Round 1 to accumulate three extra picks -- the Vikings took a deeper and more serious foray into the UDFA free-for-all.
It’s likely that either Borland or Ellis will make the team as the last linebacker. I give Borland the edge heading in, especially because he’s a really good special teamer. As Minnesota showed with Chisena, it will give roster spots to UDFA on special team utility alone.
It was notable that the Vikings, who have one of the shallowest receiving corps in the NFL, signed WRs Whop Philyor and Blake Proehl. Proehl, who appealed to the Vikings’ affinity for bringing in UDFA WR with NFL bloodlines (he and Chad Beebe will no doubt become fast friends), got more money than Philyor (oddly, the Vikings gave him $115k, the same amount they gave CB Nevelle Clarke after giving QB Jake Browning $140k in 2019 -- the Vikings’ don’t lack for UDFA enthusiasm, but their top targets are generally head-scratchers). Philyor, who has a silky-smooth slot game but lacks athleticism, has a better shot of becoming an NFL contributor.
Thumbs-up on the Vikings bringing in three specialists to spice up the kicking competitions in camp. Minnesota’s kicking games stunk last year. I thought there was a possibility, under a scenario of trading for more picks, that the Vikes might draft a kicker, punter, or both in the late rounds on draft weekend.
Instead, they signed my No. 3 overall kicker Riley Patterson, my No. 6 punter Zach Von Rosenberg (a former minor league pitcher who was LSU’s emergency quarterback the last few years), and are bringing in my P9 Oscar Bradburn for a workout. Greg Joseph and Britton Colquitt are guaranteed nothing. I expect Patterson to beat out Joseph.
9. Chicago Bears
|Charles Snowden||119||LB10||6'6||243||---||Lorenzo Carter|
|CJ Marable||364||RB33||5'9||190||3.2||C. Artis-Payne|
|Dareuan Parker||395||iOL43||6'5||331||---||Jamil Demby|
|Dan Archibong||428||DL35||6'6||295||3.67||Jalen Wilkerson|
|Gunnar Vogel||451||OT37||6'6||306||3.71||Colton McKivitz|
|Khalil McClain||497||WR76||6'3||214||2.37||Quinshad Davis|
|Scooter Harrington||X||TE28||6'5||250||1.23||Jack Doyle|
|Thomas Schaffer||X||DL47||6'7||302||---||Ulrich Winkler|
|Caleb Johnson||X||LB55||6'2||220||8.66||Quart’e Sapp|
|Gage Cervenka||X||iOL36 (2020)||6'2||325||---||---|
According to the draft media consensus grades, the Bears just had the best draft in the NFL. Their work in the UDFA process wasn’t as inspiring, but I think Chicago found at least one keeper.in Virginia’s Charles Snowden, a former basketball player who posted 15 sacks and 30.5 TFL in college.
🚨 2021 NFL Draft Team Grades— René Bugner (@RNBWCV) May 2, 2021
I combined 18 evaluations for GPA incl:
Doug Farrar & Mark Schofield
Mel Kiper Jr
Thanks guys 🙏🏻 pic.twitter.com/vM6OnVl4aK
At 6’7/240, Snowden has a built-in-a-lab frame and length for days. He’s a good athlete for his size, chewing up ground laterally with quick shuffles of those long legs, ala his days on the hardwood. Snowden reminds me of so many Georgia 3-4 OLBs we’ve seen enter the league in recent years -- Leonard Floyd being the name Bears fans will recognize, Lorenzo Carter being the comp I ended up settling on.
Like his former collegiate Bryce Hall, Snowden was a college star whose stock fell sharply due to an injury in his final season. Snowden was having a good senior season -- -- until he fractured his right ankle in November, an injury that prevented him from having a pre-draft process.
The Bears are pretty deep in pass-rushers with Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, Jeremiah Attaochu and Trevis Gipson, but I wouldn’t count out Snowden from cracking the roster. His college HC Bronco Mendenhall, one of the nation’s best defensive coaches, raves about him:
“Charles’s influence on our program has been breathtaking in terms of maturity and growth, and in a lot of ways, his own maturity and growth have matched that of the program,” Mendenhall said. “He came in as tall and thin and a basketball player, and he’s blossomed into a future NFL player with amazing leadership skills and a captain of our team in a four-year period. That trajectory almost has been straight up … I’m not sure there could be a better exemplar than him of what I would like our program to be.”
The rest of Chicago’s class featured a lot of bodies but lacked sizzle. If there’s one dark horse to keep an eye on in camp, it’s Houston Baptist LB Caleb Johnson. Johnson was named Southland Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year for the fall season.
He averaged 12.2 tackles per game in HBU’s four games, three of them against FBS teams (North Texas, Texas Tech and Louisiana Tech) and the other against a top-shelf FCS (Eastern Kentucky). The tackle machine finished his career with 278. Johnson’s 2020 performance earned him a spot into my 2021 NFL Draft database.
His pro day workout -- Johnson only ran a 4.7 at 226 pounds, but dominated the rest of the tests, with 83rd-percentile or above showings in the vertical, broad, 3-cone and 20-yard split -- earned him more homework and a spot into my position rankings. He’s from a military family, team captain, would have started in the FBS, teammates and coaches love him. Name to monitor in camp.
10. San Francisco 49ers
|Justin Hilliard||177||LB21||6'0||229||4.3||Skai Moore|
|Austin Watkins||209||WR26||6'1||207||2.63||Gabriel Davis|
|Elijah Sullivan||303||LB33||6'0||214||4.87||Beniquez Brown|
|Josh Pederson||X||TE27||6'4||232||2.88||Isaac Nauta|
Despite the bundle of picks San Francisco sent to Miami to land 1.3 to select QB Trey Lance, the 49ers still made eight picks in the 2022 NFL Draft. Perhaps because of that, their UDFA class wasn’t deep. But the name of the game is to find one or two guys who’ll stick long-term, and the 49ers may have done that.
In addition to Hilliard, the 49ers signed LB Elijah Sullivan. It wasn’t a surprise that half of San Francisco’s UDFA class was off-ball linebackers. Linebacker was the one area of need San Francisco wasn’t able to check off over NFL Draft weekend. Whoever plays better between Hilliard and Sullivan in camp likely wins their way onto the Week 1 roster.
Watkins faces longer odds simply because of the 49ers’ numbers at receiver. But he does have two things going for him: 1.) The 49ers don’t have a ton of receiver spots earmarked behind the starters, 2.) Like his cousin Sammy, Watkins is a very reliable possession receiver, and that should shine through in camp, even if he won’t wow anyone athletically -- Watkins caught 98-of-99 career catchable targets at UAB.
11. Green Bay Packers
|Christian Uphoff||216||S16||6'2||209||6.26||Chris Conte|
|Jack Heflin||272||DL23||6'3||304||4.94||Jonathan Hankins|
|Bailey Gaither||377||WR53||6'0||188||4.2||Ryan Switzer|
|Carlo Kemp||378||DL31||6'2||281||2.52||Maurice Hurst|
|Jon Dietzen||495||OT40||6'5||312||6.7||Rees Odhiambo|
Coming out of the NFL Draft, I had iDL, OT and WR as three of Green Bay’s five-biggest roster needs. These areas were heavily emphasized in the Packers’ seven-man UDFA class. Not only is fifth-round space-eater DT Tedarrell Slaton a lock to make this roster, but whoever impresses more in camp between UDFA DT Jack Heflin and Carlo Kemp will have a shot to crash the opening-day party as well.
I thought the Packers made one of the league’s most intriguing under-the-radar UDFA signings in San Jose State WR Bailey Gaither, who brings a skillset this team could use next season. Whereas third-round WR Amari Rodgers only caught 36 balls beyond nine yards of the line of scrimmage over four years in college -- the last three of them working with Trevor Lawrence -- Gaither caught 39 such balls over just 19 games the last two seasons with a pair of starting quarterbacks who will never take an NFL snap between them.
Clemson did not trust Rodgers in these situations, and with a 4-for-13 (30.8%) career contested catch rate on balls 10+ yards downfield, you can see why. San Jose State loved sending Gaither deep. Gaither showed a knack for making big plays even when covered, with a 22-for-46 (47.8%) contested catch rate 10+ yards downfield the last two years.
Gaither is a fit for Aaron Rodgers’ game in a way that Amari Rodgers isn’t (in that any quarterback can throw the manufactured screens), and it wouldn’t surprise me if Gaither made the team and saw the field earlier than expected. I know you devy guys are reading: If you’re at the end of a draft so deep that numerous UDFA are taken, and you want to be tipped off to a receiver nobody would ever think to pick for your final selection, Gaither is my suggestion.
The Packers’ top UDFA signing in my rankings, Illinois State S Christian Uphoff, may face longer odds of sticking on the Week 1 roster because of the situation at his position group. But Uphoff, who I had a sixth-round grade on, is certainly talented enough to put the Packers to a decision.
Uphoff may be Quadruple-A small-school tweener. Or he could be an above-average NFL starter that’s a plus in coverage. It’s hard to tell, because he broke out as a star in 2019 and then his conference’s season was postponed until the spring in 2020, meaning he didn’t play at all.
These 2020 opt-outs are going to be fascinating to monitor: By the numbers, multiple of them would have had superstar turns had they played a 2020 season. Will they resume where they left off? Will they be forever stunted? Will they return further along developmentally but fresher? Your guess is as good as mine.
But I’ll tell you this: I would have taken as many fliers on those guys this year in the UDFA process as I could have. Blowing a few hundred thousand of the owner’s money on UDFA bonuses doesn’t get you fired. But finding stars in UDFA can get you extended. UDFA is where you want to acquire the volatile assets with a large band of outcomes -- because by definition it means there’s a chance they could become an NFL starter.
No group proposition has ever offered more intrigue vis-a-vis band-of-outcomes than athletic/projectable 2021 UDFA that didn’t play a single game in 2020. The risk of the lack of last-season tape has been taken off your hands by the prospect going undrafted. Remember: There are no busts in UDFA, only booms.*
*(Please carve this into my tombstone).
12. Tampa Bay Bucs
|Sadarius Hutcherson||151||iOL16||6'3||321||9.89||Michael Jordan|
|Elijah Ponder||338||EDGE37||6'2||268||5.76||Victor Abiamiri|
|Jose Borregales||X||K1||5'10||206||---||Austin Seibert|
|Calvin Ashley||415||OT34||6'6||314||2.22||Kent Perkins|
|Leighton McCarthy||464||EDGE43||6'2||226||6.33||Tahir Whitehead|
|T.J. Simmons||474||WR70||6'1||208||5.33||Isaiah Coulter|
|Cameron Kinley||X||CB59||6'1||201||6.18||Rasul Douglas|
You might be aware that the Bucs made the Super Bowl last year. And you might even be aware that the Bucs had an awesome draft last year (getting Tristan Wirfs and Antoine Winfield Jr.). Did you know that the Bucs also tied for the NFL lead last year with four UDFA making their Week 1 roster?
I don’t think this class will match that one. But I’d be surprised if the number was less than two. I was surprised Sadarius Hutcherson and Jose Borregales didn’t get drafted. Hutcherson in that he’s an explosive, projectable athlete, and Borregales in that he was considered by most to be the class’ top kicker.
Hutcherson is a big ball of clay. During the draft cycle he was called boom-or-bust, but of course UDFAs can’t bust. The NFL mitigated Tampa’s risk on Hutcherson’s profile. The Bucs may just get a long-term starter out of it. If not, it only cost couch change and some assistant coaches’ time to take a look-see.
Bucs GM Jason Licht, who once traded up in the second round to take K Roberto Aguayo, got the last laugh on the NFL on the kicker position in this process. Curiously, only one kicker was taken in the draft this year -- and he wasn’t the guy most considered to be the class’ best. So Tampa, which wanted to add a kicker and was aided by the fact that they’re local, was able to sign Jo-Bo on the cheap.
12. Washington Football Team
|Jaret Patterson||180||RB13||5'9||195||4.46||Devin Singletary|
WFT signed only one UDFA, and he happened to be one of the class’ very best, Buffalo RB Jaret Patterson. Patterson doesn’t look like much, and he’s a slightly below-average athlete. But it was a little surprising that a hyper-productive back that shared so many stylistic comparisons with Devin Singletary didn’t get picked.
Like Motor, Patterson is an ankle-breaker with spinning-top balance that contributes as a receiver (but is small and lacking in sprinter speed). Patterson feels like a really nice complimentary option to Antonio Gibson, in that he’ll give the defense a completely different look, a Mini Cooper swapped in for a Hummer.
13. Los Angeles Rams
|Alaric Jackson||221||OT21||6'5||321||3.27||Dennis Daley|
|Paris Ford||328||S27||6'1||197||1.03||DJ Swearinger|
|Jordan Meredith||421||iOL46||6'3||302||9.36||Adrian Klemm|
|Jovan Grant||430||S35||6'0||214||7.75||Jacob Thieneman|
|Landen Akers||X||WR78||6'0||189||6.2||Stedman Bailey|
|Jeremiah Haydel||X||WR88||6'0||170||1.03||Harry Douglas|
|Brontae Harris||X||CB74||5'9||178||0.03||DeAndre Presley|
The Rams followed an uninspiring draft with an uninspiring UDFA showing. Disappointing after the Rams finished No. 8 in these rankings last year and had three UDFA break camp with the team, tying for No. 3 in the NFL.
The crop’s best prospect by margin is Iowa OT Alaric Jackson, and the Rams, who have declined to add young blood to an offensive line in desperate need of it the past few drafts, could sure use him.
Los Angeles may have to keep Jackson on the active roster to retain the opportunity to develop him, however. In the week following the NFL Draft, Jackson, a native of Windsor, Canada, was taken No. 15 overall in the CFL Draft. He’s not opting for a CFL roster spot over an NFL roster spot, of course, but may just choose to start his career in Canada if his other option is the practice squad.
Los Angeles’ only other noteworthy signing was Pitt S Paris Ford, who has a bigger name than game. Ford is an unathletic freelancer with a handful of flash plays in college. His skillset won’t translate apples-to-apples, meaning it might be a short stay.
15. New York Giants
|Raymond Johnson||331||EDGE36||6'3||260||5.11||Jerome McDougle|
|Brett Heggie||370||iOL38||6'4||310||4.11||P.J. Lonergan|
Raymond Johnson fit with New York’s strategy of adding EDGE help during the draft. But with roster spots already delineated for Azeez Ojulari and Elerson Smith, he feels like a long-shot to make the Week 1 roster.
Brett Heggie’s reps were smart to pair him with the Giants. iOL was the biggest position of need that the Giants were unable to address in the draft. Of this group of three, Heggie’s got the best odds of making the team.
16. Arizona Cardinals
|Cary Angeline||418||TE20||6'6||245||2.31||Jackie Moon|
|Lorenzo Burns||452||CB51||5'10||183||2.51||Coryell Judie|
|Cameron Murray||454||DL37||6'2||294||7.81||Louis Trinca-Pasat|
|Bruno Labelle||X||TE25||6'4||247||8||Kano Dillon|
The Cardinals’ must have been content after a solid seven-pick draft, because they didn’t do much on Saturday night. Along with the Patriots -- who very nearly didn’t make a UDFA signing at all -- the Cardinals were the only NFL organization that didn’t sign a UDFA that I had ranked as a top-400 overall prospect.
There’s nothing to get excited about, here. Angeline is a smooth receiver with an ideal frame, but he moves like it’s a senior citizen game, Burns is small and unathletic, Murray is a 294-pound fifth-year senior that was considered a run-stopper in college, and Labelle had 20 catches over four seasons, with his Cincinnati bio noting that his “career long catch of 21 yards came in the 2020 opener versus Austin Peay.” Fun!
The latter page includes 2021 Supplemental Draft information, the six 2021 NFL Draft prospects who are headed to the CFL, the four 2021 NFL Draft prospects who it turns out are returning to school, and the top 100-plus remaining unsigned UDFA (including a ballyhooed quarterback recruit that started at two upper-tier P5 schools for two of college football’s most respected coaches, in two vastly different systems, and threw for 623 yards and five TD against LSU in September!).
Check back Wednesday for the AFC UDFA class deep-dive, and my overall NFL UDFA class rankings from 1-32.