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What NFL Teams Look for In Undrafted Free Agency

What NFL Teams Look for In Undrafted Free Agency
Tom Rudawky is a former NFL scout for the New York Giants who previously worked in football operations for the Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings. He now writes for The 33rd Team among other publications.

With the draft coming to a close, all NFL clubs have reached the end of their final roster-building season landmark. Both the draft and the year-long process leading up to it is a grueling but rewarding process for all members of their scouting department as they come away with a crop of young players that they hope can shape the franchise in a positive way for years to come. 

For all NFL fans and viewers of the draft alike, the draft ended Saturday once the final card was turned in and “Mr. Irrelevant” was revealed. However, for NFL Scouting staff members, the frenzy right after the draft ends might be the craziest part of it all.

Really, the undrafted free agency process begins a couple hours before the draft ends, as area scouts for most clubs typically start contacting agents to express interest in a potential signing as soon as the final round or two commence – obviously pending a potential selection of that player by another team in the remaining picks. For agents of players in the draft pool, it’s a race to see what team will give their player the most guaranteed money and what roster offers the best chance to make that respective team. 

As the draft continues to wind down, if a team catches wind of a player getting a strong offer from another club that they will likely not match (due to higher priority free agents that will likely command more money), the discussion begins on whether they should use one of their final draft picks on that player in order to secure their services.

Now, you may be wondering why it’s so important to make smart personnel decisions at the end of the draft as well. The fact of the matter is, building an NFL roster through the draft is about acquiring top talent in all areas of the draft – and that includes undrafted free agency. 

Players that go undrafted often fail to get drafted because of some big deficiency: size, speed, dealing with a major injury, etc. However, being able to properly pick which players are deserving of a shot, like scouting in general, is an inexact science. It’s a process that requires careful thought and precise, thorough roster-building strategies. So, what are teams specifically looking for in undrafted free agents?

First, as simple as it may sound, teams are looking for traits. While there may be something that held that player back from being drafted, decision makers are looking for baseline traits that can potentially, in a best case scenario, result in a successful player due to that player’s upside. For example, take a pass rusher who is vastly undersized but has explosive get-off and bend – a player with a skillset such as this, while lacking the size necessary to likely play every down, could develop as a potential DPR (designated pass rusher) that can come in the game on 3rd down and apply pressure off the edge. With a player such as this, while having a major deficiency, it’s more of a “what CAN this player do?” approach then a glass-half-empty mindset. 

Similar to scouting as a whole, the science of why, when, and how players develop once they’re inside an NFL building is also an imperfect art. Some young players step in and impact games every Sunday right away, while others take time to adapt, adjust, and materialize into a steady producer. Some never even reach that point at all. Therefore, when evaluating what a player CAN do in between the white lines, careful thought must be given to what their potential 99th percentile outcome could be. 

Realistically, most undrafted free agents are not going to make the roster, which is why taking chances and shooting for upside can be a wise strategy.

A second major part of the UDFA evaluation process is trying to project that player’s ability to potentially carve out a special teams role. Every single year, around the late August-early September roster cutdown date, tough decisions are largely decided by special teams value. 

When deciding who players 48-53 on the roster are going to be, the tie usually goes to the player who will best fill a role in the ever-important third phase of the game. For this reason, being able to go out and identify a special teams skillset in collegiate players is especially valuable. Doing this is a unique challenge because most players who are viewed as potentially draft-worthy don’t play on special teams in college - due to being a major asset on their team from the line of scrimmage.

So, how can teams evaluate a special teams skillset? Really, there are three things that indicate a potential stud special teamer: Play speed, physicality, and motor. The top special teams units in football consistently have one thing in common: They play fast, and they play physical. Those top-tier units bring a physical edge and a competitive spirit that can often set the tone and bridge the gap to their offense and defense playing that way as well.

If a player plays fast, physical, and competes his tail off from the line of scrimmage, he’s a good bet to do so on special teams – especially given the fact that player will likely need to prove himself as an asset in that phase to secure a roster spot.

Undrafted free agency is a hectic process, but its importance therein lies in every team’s mission to build a complete roster from top to bottom. That means depth and competition in all spots and for all roles, while also taking chances in the effort to try and “hit the home run.” 

Scouts and decision makers grind year-round to vet all players, whether they’re first round picks, or likely undrafted free agents. Such is life in the ever-competitive world of the NFL, where the margin between winning and losing on Sundays is razor thin, and people’s jobs are on the line every day in an attempt to find those less-heralded players that end up allowing those evaluators to say “I told you so.”

The 33rd Team’s Top 25 UDFA Available Post-Draft

  1. Dustin Crum (QB Kent State) —Kansas City Chiefs source
  2. Carson Strong (QB Nevada) —Philadelphia Eagles source
  3. Leon O’Neal Jr (S Texas A&M) — San Francisco 49ers source
  4. Justyn Ross (WR Clemson)
  5. Verone McKinley III (CB Oregon) —Miami Dolphins
  6. Jalen Wydermyer(TE Texas A&M)—Buffalo Bills source
  7. Christopher Hinton (DT Michigan) —New York Giants source
  8. Dohnovan West (OC Arizona State) — San Francisco 49ers source
  9. Josh Jobe (CB Alabama) —Philadelphia Eagles source
  10. JoJo Domann (LB Nebraska) —Indianapolis Colts source
  11. Jayden Peevy (Texas A&M DT)—Tennessee Titans source
  12. Sterling Weatherford (S Miami OH) —Indianapolis Colts source
  13. Xavier Newman-Johnson (OG Baylor) —Tennessee Titans source
  14. Josh Seltzner (OG Wisconsin) —Indianapolis Colts source
  15. Noah Elliss (DT Idaho) —Philadelphia Eagles source
  16. Derrick Deese Jr.(TE San Jose St.)—Detroit Lions source
  17. Mike Rose (LB Iowa State) —Kansas City Chiefs source
  18. Tyler Vrabel(OT Boston College)—Atlanta Falcons source
  19. D’Eriq King (QB Miami)—New England Patriots source
  20. Jack Coan (QB Notre Dame)—Indianapolis Colts source
  21. Zakoby McClain (LB Auburn) —Baltimore Ravens source
  22. Alec Lindstrom (G Boston College)—Dallas Cowboys source
  23. Haskell Garrett (DT Iowa State) — Tennessee Titans source
  24. Jerrion Ealy (RB Mississippi) — Kansas City Chiefs source
  25. Markquese Bell (S Florida A&M) — Dallas Cowboys source