Why The UDFA is a Victim of the NFL Practice System
Undrafted free agents (UDFAs) are among the least likely subgroups of rookies to experience success in football, much less make an impact as a first-year fantasy commodity. The structure of the NFL Draft inherently gives the high-round rookies the first shot at playing time. The organization's grade of talent corresponding to round is one of the underlying reasons. Another is the difference in money invested in the high-round picks compared to a late-round or undrafted rookie.
As Ross Tucker and I discussed on his upcoming podcast, the coaching staff is often guilty of confirmation bias when it comes to high-round versus low-round talent. A high-round talent can get 10 reps in a scrimmage or preseason game and perform poorly in 9 of those 10 reps, but that one good rep will be the play that a coach or general manager will hang onto as the reason the rookie will become a productive NFL player. At the same time, a low-round talent can earn 5 reps in a scrimmage or preseason game and perform better than the high-round talent in 4 of those 5 reps and that one bad rep will be the play that a coach or general manager will cite as the reason the rookie has a longer development curve to become a productive NFL player. Although context can matter enough with these two plays where the coaches and general managers are correct with their assertion, there are many instances where the root issue is a biased stance on a player they've invested so much that they're afraid to admit early struggle or outright failure.
Note the reps mentioned in the example above, because draft status also dictates opportunities. High-round players generally earn more reps than low-round players and undrafted players are often regarded as camp bodies and earn minimal reps in practice. When football practices are structured so UDFAs earn 1-2 reps per practice, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy that most UDFAs will make a bad impression because errors stand out more and good plays stand out less.
Contrary to popular belief, NFL practices are rarely structured to develop skills as much as these sessions are designed for players to learn the scheme and develop timing and rapport with teammates. Players learn position skills and refine technique through individual work after practice, with coaches they hire during the offseason, and with teammates that serve as mentors. It's why there are numerous examples of UDFAs-turned-starters that "slip through the cracks."
Fred Jackson told MLive.com that Joique Bell was always an excellent runner, but his third down skills needed further development. Six teams passed Bell around in 18 months while he was developing this part of his game. When the Lions landed Bell, he was ready to make more well-rounded impact.
NFL Network's A Football Life on Kurt Warner featured a segment where Brett Favre told a story about Warner telling the coaching staff that he was not ready to enter a preseason game. The combination of minimal and/or non-existent reps for UDFAs and Warner's honesty earned the future NFL and Super Bowl MVP a ticket out of town.
The Buccaneers gave future Vikings Hall of Famer a tryout and decided to pass. The New England Patriots were the first time to have Broncos receiver Rod Smith in its camp. Wes Welker was an expendable return specialist as a rookie with the Chargers. Center Jeff Saturday and guard Brian Waters enjoyed long, productive Pro-Bowl careers the began the season after their first teams sent them to the Turk. In addition to Warner, Bell, Welker, Jackson, and Smith, other relevant UDFAs-turned-NFL starters include C.J. Anderson, Arian Foster, Priest Holmes, Tony Romo, Charles Johnson, James Harrison, Jeff Garcia, Wayne Chrebet, London Fletcher, and Antonio Gates.
Why The UDFA matters in Daily, Re-draft, and Dynasty leagues
This brief list of examples should offer compelling enough reason never to assume that UDFAs are a complete waste of time. Dynasty owners often play in leagues where the roster size and makeup that includes a practice squad encourages them to draft UDFAs or make them a higher priority on their free agent radar. Re-draft and daily leagues are seeking more immediate returns where UDFAs are a lot less likely to have any appeal.
It doesn't mean that re-draft and daily players should ignore UDFAs. Re-draft and daily environments have the most fantasy sites, apps, and writers catering to them. The strategies are also more static than dynasty leagues because the windows of competition are shorter and there are fewer variables. Re-draft and daily have a level playing field among the more competitive players than dynasty leagues.
The more level the playing field, the more important it is to consider the smallest details that can offer the biggest advantage. Most fantasy owners in re-draft can find a cheat sheet or a podcast that can spoon-feed them a list of options to pick at the end of a draft or as a free agent during the season. Daily content providers will also cite the hot pickups that could offer great value but if you've paid attention, most providers are a week or two late on UDFAs.
Ever wonder why it is that they're dismissive of the unknown running back one week and 120 yards and a touchdown later they're all over him? You know why if you think about it: They knew nothing about him and the perpetuated the same false assumptions that late-round and UDFAs are not as talented as early-round picks.
If you've been playing fantasy football for a few years, you've seen how disruptive--in a good way--that a productive UDFA can be for the owner acquires him off the waiver wire or a draft. The player often gives the owner an edge with depth and a surplus to trade for more talent in re-draft leagues. In Daily, one player can mean the difference between 150th place and a top-10 finish.
You might not have the cajones to start the next C.J. Anderson before he's confirmed on the field that he's worth playing, but wouldn't you at least want the information at your fingertips to know something about what he can do if given the opportunity? Of course you do.
The players listed below are prospects you should know something about. Don't count on any of them to become starters this year. Most won't earn a spot on the depth chart to see the field. And several won't even make the team that originally signed them.
Nonetheless, many successful UDFAs get picked up by another team and develop. Others get re-signed by the original team due to injury. Knowing who these players are and what they can do can put you a week ahead of your competition, and a week can make all the difference.
RB Zach Zenner, Detroit: The South Dakota State Superman is a 5-11, 223-pound, do-everything runner. Zenner played in an offense where he demonstrated patience behind a zone blocking scheme, receiving skills on check-downs, and the willingness to block blitzers with good position and effort. The only glaring things he lacks are top-drawer breakaway speed and a big-school pedigree. Let's compare Zenner's workout data with one of his classmates with a better pedigrees:
All three players have similar physical dimensions and their data is similar. Zenner has better initial explosion, change of direction, and upper body strength and doesn't lag far behind the other two in any category. On the field, all three players display functional strength that a bench press workout fails to capture. When all three players see their blocks developing as planned, they are patient, decisive, and capable of turning a well-blocked play into a bigger gain that can travel well beyond the second level of an opposing defense.
The player from the Well-Known Program is Miami's Jay Ajayi, a fifth-round pick only because of concerns over the long-term health of his knee. Zenner often displayed more mature decisions as a zone runner than Ajayi. The back from the Big-Time program is Jaguars' runner T.J. Yeldon. Some analysts gloss over Yeldon's talents and say that he looked good because of Alabama's line; the equal and opposite poor characterization of a running back because of perceptions about a program.
Joique Bell had offseason cleanups of his knee and an Achilles. He also turns 29 when the season begins. Theo Riddick will have to prove he's more than a one-dimensional third-down option for the offense and George Winn is a powerful, but slow runner. Zenner offers potential to develop into a three-down NFL back at a bargain basement price.
RB Malcolm Brown, St. Louis: The former five-star recruit of the Texas Longhorns failed to build on solid junior season thanks to an offensive line that had fewer career starts (18) than almost every major college program in the nation last year and that's before the veteran center with most of those starts suffered a season-ending injury in the opener. Brown is a 5-11, 224-pound runner with especially good balance to bounce off contact and maturity as a zone runner. Like Zenner, his 4.62-second 40 isn't awe-inspiring to combine enthusiasts, but the rest of Brown's workout data coincides with a lot of what I saw on tape:
Ryan Riddle often factors weight into his analysis of combine performances. Brown had the third-best speed and agility measurements of the backs in this class. "Brown may lack flat-out blazing speed, but he is quick enough to hit holes and big enough to break arm tackles at the next level." if you recall, Le'Veon Bell had a three-cone drill of 6.75 seconds and a 4.24 short shuttle at 230 pounds despite a 4.6-second 40. I should also note that I never participated in the revisionist history that Bell's weight loss made him quick enough to play well in the NFL. The truth is that Bell was always a good enough athlete and analysts should have been impressed with his combine numbers overall and not make the mistake of being 40-focused.
Pittsburgh's decimated offensive line during Bell's rookie year was the biggest reason for his mediocre production as a rookie. It's also the reason Brown's stock tumbled at Texas. One thing no one can argue is Brown's ball security. He only fumbled once in 619 touches--the lowest career fumble rate of this class.
Rams Head Coach Jeff Fisher and General Manager Les Snead said that they would be extra conservative with top-10 pick Todd Gurley's rehab of his ACL tear. The fact that last year's pick Tre Mason flashed his talents and they have depth with Benny Cunningham are solid arguments that Fisher and Snead will remain true to their word. However, running back is a position with high injury rates and Brown could earn playing time as a result of more reps due to an injury.
As much as I liked Cunningham as a late-round long shot out of Middle Tennessee State, Brown has the three-down skills and maturity to compete for Cunningham's role and split time with Mason if he makes a good enough early impression to earn more reps than what most UDFAs see. If Brown has the typical opportunities of a UDFA, don't be surprised if he's on another depth chart in September.
RB Trey Williams, Washington: A top recruit to Texas A&M, Williams got caught in the Mike Sherman-Kevin Sumlin coaching change and never earned more than committee opportunities in Sumlin's offense. Ben Glicksman does a good job profiling Williams' career trajectory at Sports Illustrated while touching on some of the runner's perceived strengths and weaknesses. What you should know is that Williams is a short (5-7), but stout (195 pounds) runner with a low center of gravity and some of the best change of direction and elusiveness of this class.
His pass protection needs work, but he can catch and make a fool out of anyone in the open field. Rookie Matt Jones might be the "dynasty get" for the mid-rounds of rookie drafts, but Williams is an exciting long shot with high upside to monitor. If Williams makes a good first impression in camp and shows that he's a quick learner with the offense, he could eventually develop into a bargain version of Giovani Bernard in DC if called upon.
RB Thomas Rawls, Seattle: The former Michigan recruit migrated to Central Michigan and finished his career as a the Chippewa's starter. Rawls is runner with dimensions similar to Frank Gore and Travis Henry. His burst is more impressive than his speed and his ability to cutback has a lot of observers impressed with his potential as a late-round steal. Rawls sometimes tries too hard to make those home-run cuts, but I understand why the Seahawks were excited about signing him as a UDFA.
Sigmund Bloom is among the writers I know and respect that are excited about Rawls. John Owning of DraftBreakdown.com was the first guy to mention Rawls to me. Barring injury, Seattle's depth chart is stacked. At the same time, Seattle is one of the few organizations that are true to their word about having open competitions. Spencer Ware was a player that the Seahawks slated for playing time as a late-round rookie (and according to a scout I've spoken with, they liked Ware as a runner) before he suffered a season-ending injury and two DUIs that put him on Seattle's exit ramp the following year. If Rawls impresses, he could stick in Seattle or earn enough playing time in the preseason for other teams to see his tape and acquire him after cut-downs.
RB Rod Smith, Seattle: If there's a player I'd vote as least likely to succeed from this list of options, Smith would earn that designation. It has nothing to do with his football skills or athleticism. Smith is a 6-3, 231-pound runner that arrived at Ohio State with a ton of promise, but never made good on it. He had multiple run-ins with the Buckeye's coaches and when it finally appeared that Smith was maturing, he tested positive for marijuana and was kicked off the team. If Smith can learn from his missteps, he has the agility, power, balance, and burst to one day become that "who the hell is this guy" of the NFL.
WR Darius Davis, San Francisco: Anquan Boldin is not Benjamin Button and there isn't a healthy player on the 49ers depth chart capable of giving Colin Kaepernick the physical play at receiver that Boldin offers. Georgia Tech's DeAndre Smelter has that potential once his ACL tear heals in 2016. The rest of the depth chart is filled with speedsters and open-field options that lack the size, route running, and open-field skill to become an all-around threat like Boldin in his prime. That is, if you're not counting Henderson State's Darius Davis.
Davis has a running back's build (5-11, 219) with receiver-caliber hands. His small-school pedigree and initially poor 40-time at 226 pounds turned off scouts. Although not widely reported, Football Gameplan's Emory Hunt told me that Davis lost seven pounds before a subsequent pre-draft workout and improved his 40-time to the high 4.5-range. Even with Davis' slower initial 40-time, the rest of his workout data compared favorable to Boldin's pre-draft results.
The difference is that Boldin was at Florida State and he dropped from a top-five pick to a second-round pick. The Reddies of Henderson State won't get most players in the top half of the draft based on its program and a less than impressive workout will drop a player out of the draft.
Davis dominates his competition on tape, which is what he needs to do at a small program. He reminds me stylistically of Sterling Sharpe. If Davis plays to his capability and earns enough reps with a new coaching regime in town, he could make the roster. If Kaerpernick's workouts with Kurt Warner result in a dramatically improved timing passer, Davis has both the physicality and burgeoning route skills to develop into a future go-to guy.
WR Adrian Coxson, Green Bay: Another top recruit whose college career didn't turn out as planned, Coxson was slated as the player to replace Percy Harvin in Urban Meyer's offense at Florida. Coxson left the team as a freshman when his father went blind due to complications from diabetes. The 6-1, 215-pound receiver with 4.33-speed (some clocked him at 4.28 at his Pro Day) transferred to Maryland, but then left the program for Stony Brook the following year along with more than two dozen other scholarship players when head coach Ralph Friedgen was replaced.
Coxson's migration to three programs in two years gave him an undeserved reputation as a malcontent among some people who never bothered to do any digging into the background story. Some also questioned the veracity of Coxson's claim that being near his dad was important because he wound up at Stony Brook. To those directional-challenged people, Stony Brook, New York is a four-hour drive to Maryland; Gainesville, Florida is a 12-hour drive. You do the math.
Coxson made the most of his opportunities at Stony Brook, but the scheme is also a run-heavy offense and it put a cap on his stats. On tape, he was physical enough to get the better of top prospect Byron Jones and he's sure-handed. Coxson's routes are good enough that there's reason to project improvement with breaks and setting up defenders with disciplined stems leading to his breaks.
The Packers have a loaded depth chart, but Coxson is a first day athletic talent with a fourth-day resume due to good-son behavior. and if he doesn't get a good shot to establish himself in Green Bay, he visited enough teams pre-draft that he'll earn another look in the NFL. Charles Johnson was an athletic wunderkind that developed this way. Coxson is more technically sound.
WR Tyrell Williams, San Diego: Speaking of Johnson, Williams reminds me a lot of the Vikings' projected starter when Johnson entered the league as a UDFA of the Packers. Kyle Shanahan was rightfully dismayed when Cleveland cut Johnson after not drafting a receiver to replace the suspended Josh Gordon. Williams, like Johnson is a top athlete with enough fundamentals to develop into a starter with focused work on the details of the position.
The three-cone time is especially notable. Combine this exercise with his vertical leap and short shuttle, and you're looking at a player with the physical capability of coming to a stop and restart faster than many competent starters. Stopping fast is one of the most important aspects of route running and Williams has the potential. Pair this hands-catcher in San Diego--an offense that needs a big-play threat to complement the aging Antonio Gates and possession-oriented Keenan Allen--and there's an opportunity for Williams to develop into a nice pet project with Philip Rivers.
WR Devante Davis, Philadelphia: The 6-3, 215-pound Davis reminds me stylistically of Terrell Owens; a powerful runner after the catch with decent speed, but with more consistent mitts. Davis' best skills at this stage of his career is winning the ball in tight coverage as a red zone option. He's made his share of clutch plays at UNLV with defenders wrapped around him like Christmas lights. Not as physically dominating as Owens, Davis still has room to grow into his frame and become a more powerful, polished option.
There are beat writers projecting that Riley Cooper is wearing out his welcome as the starter, if not his tenure in Philadelphia. Neither Nelson Agholor nor Josh Huff offer the physical presence that Davis provides and Jordan Matthews isn't as explosive. I'm not optimistic that Davis makes the Eagles, but I believe he'll find a landing spot elsewhere.
TE Gabe Holmes, Oakland: The 6-5, 260-pound Holmes suffered a wrist injury in 2013 just as he was showing signs of life. Purdue wanted to establish Holmes as a primary receiving option in the slot and split wide of the offense. Holmes is a fluid athlete with the size to develop into an every-down option as a move tight end and an in-line option. Oakland has not been the ideal development environment for offensive skill players in recent years, but Holmes has the athleticism, hands, and room the grow that makes him worth monitoring.
TE Beau Gardner, Atlanta: The Falcons did not get quality receiving production from Levine Toilolo last year. The big tight end from Stanford is a fine blocker, but more of an extra offensive lineman than a consistent receiving threat capable of stretching the seam or beating linebackers after the catch in the underneath zones of the field. Gardner, a product of Northern Arizona, fits the bill as a 6-4, 253-pound seam stretcher with excellent hands and toughness in the face of contact over the middle.
Gardner is an older rookie; he's a Mormon and spent time away from football on a mission and enters the league as a 26-year-old. This will undoubtedly get the ageist demographic of the fantasy community in a tizzy, but it's wise to look at all the details of the player rather than applying wrong-headed, correlation-equals-causation logic to a player--especially when he's already a long shot as it is.
What works in Gardner's favor is his athleticism. He ran a 4.74-second 40 and had a 41-inch vertical, which would have placed him third and first at these respective exercises at the combine. Combine this with Gardner's receiving skills and he could make the roster as a developmental project that can earn time sooner than later as a receiver in an offense that needs an inside presence to take pressure off its outside receivers.
You can find more of Matt Waldman's work on incoming rookie prospects at the Rookie Scouting Portfolio blog.