The Zone Read
Undrafted Free Agents to Watch
Written By: Dresdon Rohrer
The NFL offseason is in full swing, leaving us fantasy diehards clamoring for any scrap of news we can find. Unfortunately, the headlines that we normally get during this time of year aren’t always all that informative, and it’s easy for a coach to say all the right things to get us excited but until we see something on the field it doesn’t count for anything. During OTA’s and minicamps, we see blurbs like “Breshad Perriman is catching everything that comes his way!” or “Matt Forte has cut down to 5% body fat!”. That isn’t news, those are just random statements that are supposed to get us excited. I’d certainly hope Breshad Perriman is catching everything thrown at him, they’re not even practicing in full pads yet!
What I love in particular about the dynasty format for fantasy football is that it gives me a reason to care about other things besides what directly influences the current season. If I want news I don’t have to sift through all the coach-speak and player self-inflation, but rather I use this time to dig deep into camp rosters and find high-upside players that might not be getting a lot of immediate attention. I’m talking of course about undrafted free agents.
Now I know what you’re thinking; “Why should I care about undrafted free agents? If a player’s good then they’ll get drafted, right?”. Ninety percent of the time I would agree with you, however there have been numerous cases throughout the league’s history of players being picked up off of the reject pile and producing prolific NFL careers. Just a few names to get you excited: Kurt Warner, Tony Romo, Antonio Gates, Wes Welker, even guys like Priest Holmes and Warren Moon; not a single one of these great players saw their names called on draft day. It’s the same reason that players like Tom Brady slide in the draft, sometimes a guy just slips through the cracks and whichever team takes a shot at him makes the rest of the league look like fools.
I will say this; if you are a redraft fantasy football player, there’s a chance that the players I’m going to discuss will mean nothing to you, and that’s okay. Heck, some of these guys might not even be on an active roster by the end of the season! What I’m saying is “Have patience!”. These are players that you’ll likely want to monitor for the next year or so to see how they progress. Sure, some could emerge by the start of the season and shock the world, but in reality it’s likely going to be a longer journey to relevancy for these guys than the high profile Corey Davis’s and Leonard Fournette’s.
There are more UDFA’s than just the guys that I’m going to list, these are just players that I personally feel have the best shot out of their crop at emerging as diamonds in the rough, be it now or a few years down the road. Now then, let’s dig in!
- Age: 21
- Ht: 6’3”
- Wt: 225
- 40: 4.4
- Vert: 40”
- College Stats: 72 catches, 941 yards, 10 TD’s (20 games played)
Amid all of the chaos surrounding the Baylor athletics program, Zamora opted to enter the NFL draft after only one season as a full time starter. His sophomore campaign was great (63 rec, 809 yds, 8 TD’s, 12.8 ypc) despite once again losing quarterback Seth Russell midway through the year. The “Bear Raid” system is notorious for being extremely passer-friendly and drastically inflating stats, but you can’t help but be impressed with Zamora’s brief production especially considering he wasn’t ever even his team’s primary target. His measurables alone make him all but a lock to at least get a tryout with an NFL team, but why did such an intriguing prospect go undrafted?
In June of 2016, a snapchat video emerged of Zamora physically abusing his dog. Although a large public outcry emerged for his removal from the team, he ultimately was subjected to a three game suspension. Behavior issues aside, for all his athleticism Zamora is also likely hurt by the Baylor system; despite his big numbers he’s still very raw in his route tree and got by on his size and speed rather than technical ability.
Despite his draft plummet, Zamora finds himself in an incredibly favorable situation with the Oakland Raiders. They currently boast a solidified starting receiver rotation, but the talent beyond Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree is limited. Zamora certainly has the talent to supplant Seth Roberts as the team’s #3 option, with the potential for more. He’ll need a lot of work on the technical aspects of his game, but if he can prove that he’s moved past his behavior issues and focus on refining his play then he has a chance at a solid NFL career.
- Age: 23
- Ht: 6’1”
- Wt: 195 lbs
- 40: 4.61
- Vertical: 33.5”
- College Stats: 113 rec, 1649 yds, 14 TDs, (32 games played)
Austin Carr is a guy that you can’t help but root for. A walk-on at Northwestern in 2012, he began his career at the runningback position before switching to wide receiver. His production increased each year, but he really exploded onto the scene in his senior season (90 rec, 1247 yds, 12 TD’s) earning him a spot as a finalist for the coveted Biletnikoff Award and netting him the 2016 Big Ten Receiver of the Year award. He’s not a guy that will blow anybody away with his measurables, but on the field he is a technician and a tough competitor who can make just about any catch.
The unfortunate reality of the NFL is that labels tend to stick with a player. Had Carr come out of high school as a high profile prospect, he would likely have earned at least a late round consideration in the draft. The “walk-on” label coupled with only one season as a primary target and average athleticism is likely what caused his fall into the undrafted ranks. While his 40 time leaves plenty to be desired, Carr did post a 4.04 shuttle time and a 6.72 in the shuttle; for reference, those numbers would be good enough for 5th and 4th place respectively among receivers at the NFL Combine. For a guy that plays the slot, those change-of-direction numbers indicate some underrated shiftiness.
Leave it to the New England Patriots to pick up an undrafted walk-on and turn him into a future Pro Bowler. In all seriousness, New England is the only place that can utilize a guy like Carr to his potential. They’ve been notorious at taking under the radar slot players and turning them into highly productive weapons. If Carr can stick around on the roster, he’ll have the benefit of learning from two of the game’s best offensive minds in Belichick and Brady while watching one of the game’s best slot receivers in Julian Edelman. At the age of 31, Edelman is likely closer to the end of his career than the beginning, and in a contract year it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Patriots move on from their veteran in favor of a cheap younger guy. Who comes cheaper than an undrafted free agent?
- Age: 22
- Ht: 6’3”
- Wt: 222 lbs
- 40: 4.56
- Vertical: 36.5”
- College Stats: (263 rec, 4395 yds, 42 TD 40 games played)
Krishawn Hogan is yet another case of a late bloomer, a guy who fell through the cracks coming out of college only to explode onto the scene in college. After transferring from Walsh University to Marian, he blew up the NAIA with three consecutive 1,000+ yard seasons, also posting double digit touchdowns in each one. It was a long way to climb for a guy who barely cracked the starting roster during his high school tenure, but as he came into his own NFL teams began to realize that he could just be something special.
His biggest knock is obviously where he played; nobody is going to mistake Marian University as a powerhouse (fun fact: Hogan was the first player in Marian history invited to the NFL Combine). While his college stats are gaudy, they’re also telling of the competition he faced. It can be easy for a player of Hogan’s stature to excel at that level with pure physical dominance, and that shows in the polish (or lack thereof) to his game. That will have to change once he reaches training camp.
Hogan may have just struck gold when he found a home with the Arizona Cardinals. It’s true that after this season they’ll likely be without a proven franchise quarterback, but he at least gets the benefit of working with Carson Palmer for a year. Additionally, he has the opportunity to learn from one of the best professionals on and off the field to ever play the game in Larry Fitzgerald. With Fitzgerald also eyeing up retirement and John and Jaron Brown’s contracts expiring next season, there’s a very real chance that Hogan not only makes the final roster, but also finds his way onto the field sooner rather than later.
- Age: 24
- Ht: 5’11”
- Wt: 207 lbs
- 40: 4.56
- Vertical: N/A
- College Stats: (578 rush, 2607 yds, 17 TD’s; 52 rec, 418 yds, 1 TD; 43 games played)
Two-time National Mr. Football Award. #1 2012 high school recruit. Honorable mention All-Big 12 honors as a freshman. Johnathan Gray is as decorated of an athlete as you could hope for, and boasts the kind of resume that should earn a player a spot in the NFL draft. Additionally, despite missing some time during his college career he finished as the 12th all time leading rusher in Longhorn history. So how does a guy like Gray fall through the cracks?
Injury. John Gray was the victim of not one, but two Achilles tendon tears, an injury notorious for sapping an athlete of his burst and explosiveness (see: Crabtree, Michael). His first Achilles tear came part-way through his sophomore campaign, and while he was able to return for his junior season it took him a while to get comfortable with the game speed. His senior season was also hampered by injury, and to top it all off he tore his opposite Achilles tendon while preparing for the 2016 NFL draft.
The crowded platoon that the New York Giants already boast at the runningback spot is not a great sign for Gray’s early career aspirations. If he is able to stick around at all, it’s likely to be as a member on the practice squad while Wayne Gallman, Paul Perkins, Shane Vereen and Shaun Draugh all fight for snaps. The best hope for Gray is that his time with the team enables him to work himself back into top shape and hopefully compete for either the Giants or a team that would swipe him from their practice squad after a year or so. Of all the players listed Gray probably has the longest shot of hanging around, but he’s shown the toughness, dedication and work ethic to keep himself in the game.
In closing, it has to be noted that there are plenty of other UDFA’s out there who could well earn themselves valuable roster spots. I’ve simply chosen to highlight a few key players that I think have the best chance to not only make an NFL roster but to also have prolific careers based on talent, opportunity and potential. Whether a player is a first round pick or an undrafted talent, there is no guarantee that anybody will for sure pan out in the NFL; rather it’s a mixture of the right environment, attitude and ability that determines whether a player is the next big thing or just another statistic.
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