10 UDFAs That Matter, Deep Surveillance, The Late Late Show, whatever the title I've used to profile late-round rookies and free agents, most of them won't amount to anything in fantasy football. Who cares about undrafted free agents?
Thomas Rawls owners.
The UDFA from Central Michigan was the No.26 fantasy RB during his 13 weeks of playing time with the Seahawks. This includes the first two weeks where Rawls was the No.3 RB on the depth chart and Weeks 6-10 when Marshawn Lynch returned from injury. During Weeks 3-5 and 11-17, Rawls was the No.11 fantasy back.
Allen Hurns owners.
The UDFA from Miami, who was in the same draft as Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee, posted WR14 fantasy production despite playing with a sports hernia since Week 3. Despite the injury, Hurns only missed a week. Tallying Hurns' first two years of production against receivers entering the league since 2000, he's 9th among receivers in touchdowns, 23rd in yardage, and 29th in catches.
The vast majority of qualifiers are first- and second-round picks, but other late-round and UDFAs to earn an appearance on at least one of these three lists include Danny Amendola (UDFA), Marques Colston (7th round), Martavis Bryant (5th round), Marvin Jones (5th round), Denarius Moore (5th round) and Kenny Stills (5th round). Hurns is the only UDFA receiver to make the top 30 on all three lists.
Spencer Ware owners.
The third-year runner was the No.8 fantasy RB for the month (Week 11 -14) that he earned meaningful playing time in Kansas City. When he earned at least 10 touches in a game, Ware averaged 15 carries for 95 yards and a touchdown for those 3 games.
These are three guests from the past three years of the Gut Check's Late-Late Show. All three have worked their way to prime time fantasy production.
Chris Thompson also emerged from the "Late Late Show" to the No.48 fantasy RB during an eight-week run from Weeks 3-10 in 2015. Albert Wilson made a similar trip when he delivered No.47 fantasy WR production during a nine-week stint from Weeks 6-14 last year. Both are modest gains, but signs of talent flickering to life.
Several prominent fantasy studs ascended to the top after providing a smaller initial glimpse.
Wes Welker was the No.40 fantasy WR after the first six weeks of 2006. The second-year Dolphin finished 57th overall, but it began a six-year run with the Patriots where Welker posted four WR1 seasons and two WR2 seasons, including a top-three finish in 2011.
Antonio Gates turned in production that placed the Chargers' tight end No.18 at his position in fantasy leagues as a rookie. What the full year doesn't reveal is that Gates was the No.5 TE from Weeks 9-17. After this rookie year, Gates performed as a top-5 fantasy tight end for the next seven—including three consecutive years as the top fantasy option at the position.
Arian Foster finished his rookie year as the No.62 fantasy RB. The UDFA from Tennessee played six games and produced as the No.25 fantasy RB during that stint. It launched a three-year run of top-four fantasy production as an RB.
Tony Romo earned his first start during Week 7 of the 2006 season. He finished the season as the No.19 fantasy QB, but the second-year UDFA from Eastern Illinois posted top-4 fantasy QB stats when only counting his starts. Romo has been a fantasy QB1 whenever he's stayed healthy for at least 13 games.
London Fletcher and James Harrison are two IDP options that easily come to mind as UDFAs-made-good. There's no argument that UDFAs-turned-studs are the exception to the rule, but it's important to know where and how to seek an edge as a fantasy owner. UDFAs are tricky cases because once most of these players show signs of fantasy life, your competition saw the data and you're now hoping he falls to you on the weekly waiver wire.
The trick is learning about these UDFAs well before the national fantasy columnist or the general newswire at any fantasy site mentions the player's name for the first time. If you're reading this column before August, you're the type of fantasy owner who does his due diligence as a researcher of talent.
The most important thing about monitoring UDFAs is understanding why the NFL Draft is as much a process of risk management as it is a determination of talent. I'd argue talent takes a back seat.
WHY THE UDFA IS A VICTIM OF THE NFL PRACTICE SYSTEM
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 last year on his 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.
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, but 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 the early-round prospect.
The early-round players have the most money invested in them. It creates a bias for teams to overcome before they can declare that player a failure—or at least not as successful as a player they haven't invested nearly as much into his development. First-round players aren't always the top "pure" talents. In addition to high talent grade, they possess specific qualities that make them safer risks:
- Strong statistical production of at least two seasons.
- Production at a well-known, successful Division-I program.
- No major injuries requiring surgery to body parts critical to the position.
- No major off-field issues.
- Top-shelf workout data.
- Prototypical physical dimensions (height and weight).
The more of these bullet points these players have, the safer they are to NFL decision makers. Myles Jack and Jalen Smith were top-10 talents in the 2016 draft class, but the injuries heightened their risk. Even if Jack has a solid shot of playing 8-10 years, the heightened risk of a career-ending injury dropped him a full round.
Long-time Cowboys GM Gil Brandt once described Eagles RB Brian Westbrook as a top-5 talent if he was a couple of inches taller and 10 pounds heavier. Westbrook, a second-round pick, might have been a first-round pick if he didn't have two ACL tears that occurred off the field and he played at FSU instead of Villanova. Risk management is ever-present in the draft process.
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. All teams run drills designed to enhance technique, but players only earn a few reps at a time during short time spans of each drill. The real development happens after practice when players work on their own, with the help of a mentor on the team, or a coach that they hire during the offseason.
Practice is primarily designed for players to learn the scheme and develop timing and rapport with teammates. 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 a 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.
WHY THE UDFA MATTERS IN DAILY, RE-DRAFT, AND DYNASTY LEAGUES
These players exemplify why UDFAs are not a waste of time. Dynasty owners have long valued the potential of UDFAs. Re-draft and daily leagues are seeking more immediate returns, but both formats are also ripe for UDFAs to turn results upside down.
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, but 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 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.
Allen Hurns was one of my favorite Daily plays during the first month of the season in 2015. Although he flashed big-time production in 2014, the UDFA label was still a big negative attached to his profile. You might not have the cajones to start the next Allen Hurns before he has confirmed on the field that he's worth playing every week (even if you should), but wouldn't you at least want the information at your fingertips to know something about what he can do if given the opportunity?
This week, I'm profiling late-round (6th-7th) and UDFAs from the 2016 NFL Draft that 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.
Next week, I'll profile late-round picks and UDFAs that showed signs of emerging into relevant fantasy contributors and could take the next step in 2016.
Best Shot at Fantasy Relevance in 2016
RB Keith Marshall, Washington: Matt Jones excited fantasy owners in Week 2 with 123 yards and 2 touchdowns against the Rams. It was not only Jones' best output of the year, it took Jones another 5 weeks worth of production to match that one-week total. His next-best game on the ground was an 18-carry, 62-yard effort against the Bears in Week 14. Chris Thompson became a bigger part of the offense, but Jones still had double-digit touches in 8 of the 15 games he played.
A hip injury down the stretch was a big factor in Jones' diminished output. So were five fumbles in 144 carries—second-most in the NFL. On paper, Jones will be the lead back and likely the feature back in 2016. But we've seen runners fumble their jobs away and Jones is a big back whose upright style can lead to easier shots at the ball.
Enter Marshall, the other half of the "Gur-shall" freshman tandem at UGA that lit up the SEC. Blessed with 4.3-speed, many Georgia analysts tabbed Marshall as the superior runner to teammate Todd Gurley. An ACL tear as a sophomore limited that analysis to unanswered speculation. Marshall suffered the typical cascade injuries that occur during rehab, which forced the former 5-star runner to the bench and launched the careers of Heisman candidate Nick Chubb and 5-star recruit Sony Michel—considered the best football player on the team.
As we've seen with Terrell Davis backing up Garrison Hearst, Priest Holmes backing up Ricky Williams, Barry Sanders backing up Thurman Thomas, and a Miami Hurricane depth chart that cycled through Clinton Portis, Edgerrin James, Willis McGahee, and Frank Gore, there is a long precedent of starting NFL talent backing up college stars at the running back position. Marshall is more than a speedster; he runs with patience, strong pad level to break tackles and push piles, and his skills on passing downs won't need much work for him to see the field on Sundays.
This tape is from Marshall's freshman year. A lot of the highlights come from spread packages against defenses playing one safety high and shaded to a specific side. During Marshall's senior year, a lot of his attempts came from I-formation sets against two-deep or with a crowded box.
Marshall didn't have any game-breaking runs, but his yards per carry average was about the same as it was his freshman year. It suggests that the RB was more consistent on a carry-to-carry basis despite defenses set up to stop the run more often than his first year in college football.
The Washington depth chart lacks every-down talent beyond Jones and Marshall. Chris Thompson has the skills, but his health history makes it difficult for an NFL team to trust him as more than a change of pace complement. Silas Redd lacks burst or starter-caliber power.
If Marshall plays like he did as a senior at Georgia, he'll cut into Jones' hold on the job. If Marshall earns holes that he did as a freshman with the Bulldogs, Jones could wind up the No.2 in Washington. As long as Marshall stays healthy, I'll be drafting him late in every re-draft league that I can.
Britt has never made good on his immense physical promise. He still has a chance to develop into a more consistent big-play threat, because Jared Goff might be the most accurate passer Britt has teamed with.
Quick began his 2014 campaign on fire, earning 21 catches for 322 yards and 3 scores during his first four games. An injury derailed Quick's season in Week 8 and he never returned to this level of production in 2015.
Goff might be the key to changing the woeful reputation of L.A.'s receiving corps, but it's more likely the Rams move forward with new talent. Thomas is the only outside receiver the team drafted this year and it makes him a strong favorite to earn playing time this year.
A sixth-round pick, Thomas didn't earn an invitation to the NFL Combine. My theory behind the pre-draft snub is that NFL scouts tend to place too much weight on well-known competition when they evaluate small-school prospects.
When I watched film with James Madison QB Vad Lee before the draft, Lee told me that the only game of his NFL scouts ever wanted to watch with him was the SMU game.
This matters because the only thing I ever heard from corporate draft media about Thomas was that the Southern Miss star dropped the ball a lot. I studied eight games of Thomas and the only contest where I saw him have egregious drops came against the biggest name team the Golden Eagles faced: Mississippi State. In that game, Thomas sprained an angle and the drops began after he got taped up.
The rest of the games I saw were showcases of Thomas' vertical game (4.4-speed), skill after the catch, fundamentally strong routes that he'll build on as a pro, and skill to win the ball in the air that rivals Odell Beckham, Jr.
I'm not saying this lightly. Watch Thomas' performance again Louisiana Tech and you'll see at least four catches that could be categorized as acrobatic. One of them rivals Beckham's iconic grab (2:04) and there's a near-catch that would have exceeded it (4:34).
This didn't get by the Rams. They also value his work ethic, which is another fantastic sign for a small school player who already displays starter potential.
Jared Goff repeatedly displayed the willingness to let his receivers win the ball above the rim and Thomas is more skilled in this area than the Goff's options at Cal. Expect Thomas to compete for immediate playing time. If he lights it up in camp, he could earn a starting role.
WR Keyarris Garrett, Carolina: Remember that one season when Big Mike Williams of USC fame had a fantasy-worthy season in Seattle? Garrett's upside is somewhere within the range of a more consistent type of Big Mike Williams and his new teammate, Kelvin Benjamin. After drafting Benjamin and Devin Funchess in consecutive years, it appears as if Carolina is collecting tall, sturdy wideouts.
The 6'3", 220-pound Garrett isn't as fluid as Funchess or Benjamin, but he's more consistent facing tight coverage with the ball in the air than Funchess. His change of direction lacks the suddenness that teams want from a receiver after he catches the ball or when he's working in and out of breaks on timing routes, but the long speed (4.53-40) and burst (4.33-shuttle) are good enough for him to get on top of defenders early and use his size to keep them at his back.
I wouldn't be shocked if Garrett overtakes Funchess as the starter opposite Benjamin within a year or two only because I have concerns that Funchess doesn't play to his potential. As a rookie, he'll be the No.4 receiver behind Benjamin, Funchess, and deep threat extraordinaire Ted Ginn Jr. If an injury befalls any of the receivers ahead of Garrett, he has fantasy WR3 upside this year because of how good Cam Newton is at getting the most from his primary options.
Starter Skills, Crowded Depth Chart
RB Peyton Barber, Tampa Bay: After Tre Mason left Auburn, he told the media that the best back on the team wasn't impending starter Cameron Artis-Payne, but scout team runner Peyton Barber. After evaluating Barber, there's a good argument that Barber still would have been the best back at Auburn if Mason stuck around.
Marion Barber's second cousin runs a lot like the former Cowboy. The Bucs' new back is light on his feet but finishes runs with strength. He has a strong balance between running with patience and creativity and attacking the line decisively.
Barber is a UDFA because his 4.64-40 is average, he only saw a year of playing time, and his production diminished late in the season. There's a flip side of these negatives. Barber's 20-shuttle and 3-Cone times were on par with Kenneth Dixon and DeAndre Washington, two rookies that NFL personnel regard as potential every-down backs at the position. The runner's production decreased because Auburn transitioned to an option-heavy scheme after its starting quarterback, a traditional pocket passer, got hurt and the team decided to diversify its ground attack to better match its run-oriented backup.
Barber lands on a Buccaneer's depth chart that's loaded at the top with Doug Martin and Charles Sims. If Mike James has earned any kind of deference as the No.3 back, Barber might not see enough reps to challenge for the spot. If he doesn't, look for Barber to eventually find an opportunity with another team and work his way up. If Marion Barber isn't a relevant comparison for your experience as a fan, Spencer Ware is another good stylistic comparison.
WR Daniel Braverman, Chicago: Drafting rookies that are likely slot receivers is an overrated practice unless they are bigger options like Michael Crabtree. But Braverman might have the most potential of the rookie class to eventually deliver strong fantasy production primarily from the slot as a smaller guy.
Braverman's speed and quickness are notable on the field. He can make multiple defenders miss in the middle of the field and he can get on top of cornerbacks when split wide. Like Julian Edelman, Braverman has the speed to do quality work from multiple positions.
Eddie Royal will likely maintain his role as the primary slot receiver in Chicago this year, but Braverman has the talent to challenge Royal if the veteran doesn't play to his potential. John Fox's offensive preferences are to run the ball and run it some more, but he's shown the willingness to let his offense play to its strengths. Jay Cutler appeared to turn a corner last year. Look for Braverman to make the roster and earn playing time if Royal can't stay healthy.
RB Brandon Wilds, Atlanta: I love this pick for the Falcons because the depth chart needed help and they found a runner with starter skills. You may argue that Devonta Freeman and Tevon Coleman comprise a strong depth chart, but a closer look reveals it's not as solid as it appears on paper.
The Falcons drafted Coleman because he's a scintillating athlete. An added benefit was that Coleman starred in an outside zone scheme at Indiana. But one of the issues I saw with Coleman when I studied him at Indiana was his inconsistency reading and setting up blocks in that scheme.
You could see this was apparent based on his failure to adjust his stride length and cut from a balanced position. Coleman wasn't setting up his blocks as you should expect when running behind a zone scheme. His approach was often too hurried and he couldn't create like most adept zone runners i the defense forced his hand behind the line of scrimmage.
Coleman's best runs came on man/gap plays where the runner is supposed to hit the hole fast and get ahead of the down blocks early so he can work behind his pulling blocker and/or lead block. Coleman displayed the same difficulties with the zone scheme during the preseason and it lingered into the regular season.
By midseason, the Falcons began using Coleman on gap plays, which wasn't the original plan for this offense. If Coleman improves his zone skills, his raw athletic ability is superior to Freeman. If he hasn't improved his approach, he'll offer little more than boom-bust production between the tackles and the Falcons will have to alter its scheme or pigeon-hole Coleman as a space player.
Wilds offers the Falcons a potential safeguard to Coleman flaming out. He's a skilled zone runner with strength, underrated quickness, and gliding speed. His quickness is aided by strong footwork that Coleman has lacked to this point.
Wilds' size, speed, and upright style remind me of Titans runner Chris Brown. If Wilds can avoid Brown's injury bug, he has the skills to become an asset to an NFL ground game. I expect Wilds to win the No.3 job in Atlanta. If Coleman hasn't progressed with his conceptual understanding of blocking schemes, then I'm adding Wilds to my rosters if Freeman gets hurt—even if Coleman remains the No.2 option on the depth chart.
top-Drawer Talent, Needs Time and Seasoning
WR Marquez North, Los Angeles: On the basis of athletic talent alone, North is the most promising long-term option on the Rams' depth chart. His skill at adjusting to the football in the air is as impressive as Mike Thomas but more physical in its expression.
North thrilled Tennessee fans as a freshman. He failed to build on that success after injuries derailed his career. None of these injuries will prevent North from being a healthy NFL player, but it has raised questions about his ability to stay on the field and play through pain.
North has more upside than what Kenny Britt brought into the league—and Britt was a first-round pick. The question is whether North has enough experience and maturity to make the jump from SEC freshman to limited college participant to full-time NFL starter. He's worth the risk at the end of dynasty drafts to stash and wait.
He's also worth monitoring for re-draft and daily leagues because if he builds a rapport with Jared Goff early, it's easy to see how the QB's willingness to throw the ball into tight windows is compatible with North's strengths.
WR Moritz Boehringer, Minnesota: Another tall, strong, and fast receiver, Boehringer's late-round status is based on the fact that his only experience comes from playing football in Germany. Gil Brandt said Boehringer's tape is useless.
While it isn't as helpful as it would be watching him outrun LSU or FSU cornerbacks, I found 12 things about Boehringer's film that were useful:
Unless he looks utterly out of his depth this year, I believe Boehringer will earn a year on the bench while Charles Johnson and Cordarrelle Patterson play out the final year of their contracts. Based on what I've seen, I won't be surprised if Boehringer earns time ahead of Patterson and shows enough to excite teammates and coaches about his future. The athletic ability is good enough that if he picks up the techniques of the NFL game faster than expected, he could surprise.
WR Charone Peake, Clemson: Peake will leave boards earlier than North because his full season of production came as a senior; not a freshman. When you compare Peake's depth chart with North's, the Rams' UDFA has more immediate upside. If you're drafting with a more cautious outlook in the fourth or fifth round of rookie drafts, Peake is your guy.
The rookie fits the physical profiles of Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall. Both are plus-possession receivers who are capable of winning in the vertical game. Peake is a stiffer athlete than Marshall and doesn't bend as well after the catch, but he's a physical player who runs through wraps. I see him as a potential successor to Marshall if he stays healthy and works hard.