The draft is an excellent opportunity to add talent, but many high-quality players make it through the entire selection process to the feeding frenzy that happens afterwards. The NFL is littered with very good players that came into the league as undrafted free agents, and there will be some from this year’s class that stick on a roster and find a way to contribute.
Let’s take a look at the 15 best undrafted free agent signings that have a real chance to make an impact:
1. Jeremy Cash, S, Duke: Carolina Panthers
There was no higher rated player on the PFF draft board to slip out of the draft entirely than Jeremy Cash (No. 53). There may have been injury concerns with Cash or teams were simply scared off by a player without a position. At Duke he played a kind of safety/linebacker/slot hybrid that doesn’t really exist at the next level. He has never played true safety, so most teams project him as a linebacker initially, and at 212 pounds he is incredibly lightweight for that role, even in the current era of defensive back to linebacker converts. He can play the game though, and has two straight seasons of excellent grading against the rush and on the blitz, with his 2014 season showing he can make plays in coverage as well.
2. Keyarris Garrett, WR, Tulsa: Carolina Panthers
I have no idea how Keyarris Garrett was not drafted, especially considering some of the receivers whose names were called. He stands at 6-foot-3, weighs 220 pounds and was No. 64 on PFF’s board — before the draft I assumed he'd go higher than projected, if anything. Garrett actually led the nation in receiving yards last season and every time I was watching cornerback tape and they came across Tulsa, he would flash on the tape and make some plays. He gave Houston’s William Jackson III all he could handle when the two faced off, winning many of those reps, and Jackson went in the first round of the draft. His route tree at Tulsa was very limited — featuring almost exclusively screens, slants, hitches and go routes — but he was insanely productive on those, and teamed up with Cam Newton could produce early fireworks in a limited role.
3. De’Vante Harris, CB, Texas A&M: New Orleans Saints
For whatever reasons, De’Vante Harrisn never had any draft stock throughout the entire process, but his tape is pretty special and we had him ranked at No. 69 on our draft board. We talked about him at length on the podcast, but the bottom line is he has some of the slickest movement skills and break on the ball of anybody in this draft class. He allowed just 275 receiving yards and one touchdown this past season and even impressed the year before against Amari Cooper. He doesn’t fit the ideal size profile the NFL covets, and he uses an unusual technique in his coverage, but if a team embraces that and just lets him play, he could be a steal for the Saints in the secondary.
4. Darius Latham, DI, Indiana: Oakland Raiders
Darius Latham has the eighth-highest pass-rush grade in the draft class among defensive interior players this past season – higher than Robert Nkemdiche who went in the first round. Nkemdiche was doing it in the SEC and Latham for Indiana, but it gives you an indication of the kind of production he had, notching 39 total pressures over the year and grading well against the run to go along with it. He isn’t the most athletic interior defender in the class, and he is not ideally suited to any one technique position on the line, but his production suggests he can make an impact somewhere in the rotation.
5. Cre’Von LeBlanc, CB, FAU: New England Patriots
LeBlanc is emblematic of the NFL’s problem with short cornerbacks. If you’re 5-foot-9 or shorter, the NFL isn’t interested in investing in you anymore, and several NFL teams don’t even spend time watching those players. At FAU though, LeBlanc played bigger than his measured height. He wasn’t outmuscled by bigger receivers and could run down field with them as well. He can play man and zone coverage — vital for a Patriots player — and allowed just 39.3 percent of passes thrown into his coverage to be caught this past season. If given the opportunity, he is a player that could prove short cornerbacks still have a place in today’s league
6. Kevin Peterson, CB, Oklahoma State: Chicago Bears
Anybody sticking to 2015 tape would probably be right in viewing Kevin Peterson as an undrafted player. It was an ugly season (-3.6 PFF coverage grade) marred by injury, but the year before he performed well (+6.7) and looked like a completely different player. He was a sticky guy to shake in coverage and only really lost out on plays where he failed to look for the ball and didn’t adjust the way the receiver did, beating him at the catch point. He was at his best playing man coverage, so this is an interesting fit in Chicago – a team that plays more zone – but he has the ability to succeed if we get the 2014 version of his play.
7. Matt Johnson, QB, Bowling Green: Cincinnati Bengals
Matt Johnson is one of the most intriguing QB prospects in the entire draft. Everything about his play is ugly, or unconventional, lacking proper fundamentals or technique right up until the ball leaves his hand, and then you just say “wow” more than you do watching any other signal caller’s tape this season. Johnson has one of the best deep balls you will ever find, but there are other impressive passes out there too. His offense featured a very Spartan route tree, and is so divorced from an NFL, “pro-style” system it’s tough to compare, but he has some fascinating tools to work with, and makes for an interesting project going forward. Teams too often try to take a guy with the pro-style experience and teach accuracy, here the Bengals have a chance to try the reverse.
8. Byron Marshall, RB/WR, Oregon: Philadelphia Eagles
The Oregon offense has a way of manufacturing production, so it can be tough to identify the real talent from the system and those that are more a product of the scheme. Byron Marshall is the former. A player that had a 1,000-yard rushing season and then became a receiver and notched a 1,000 receiving season, Marshall could be a new Darren Sproles for the Eagles, right around the time their current Darren Sproles is approaching the end of his career. Marshall has run and receiving skills, but will also block with force on the edge and make his presence felt in all aspects of the game.
9. Jack Allen, C, Michigan State: New Orleans Saints
One of the highest graded centers over the past two seasons of PFF grading, Allen plays with leverage as well as any center in this class, and an otherwise fine season was undone by one ugly game against Rutgers. Allen allowed 14 total pressures over the season and four of them came in that game. He has two consistent seasons of positive run grading but is a little undersized, struggling to top 300 pounds. He is an interesting project for an NFL strength program, but he has the ability to be a solid player if he can stand up physically to the highest level of athlete.
10. Jake McGee, TE, Florida: Carolina Panthers
The Panthers have themselves quite a haul in undrafted talent, and there are few more natural receivers in this class at the TE position than Jake McGee. His blocking this season was almost prohibitively bad, but then the Panthers just made it to the Super Bowl with Greg Olsen posting the single-worst season of run blocking we have ever seen from a TE, so if there’s a team prepared to live with that trade off it is Carolina.
11. Matt Skura, C, Duke: Baltimore Ravens
There might not be a more powerful center in this class than Matt Skura, but the scheme they ran at Duke protected him in terms of the kinds of blocks he was expected to execute. He was rarely in any kind of space or on much of an island, so the transition to the NFL is a bigger jump for him than most players at the position, but if a team is prepared to bring him along and develop him in a pro system he could be a steal as an undrafted player. He had the third-highest run blocking grade of the draft class
12. Terrell Chestnut, CB, West Virginia: San Diego Chargers
Injuries have blighted Terrell Chestnut’s career at West Virginia, but he was the better coverage corner from West Virginia in this draft – ahead of teammate Daryl Worley, who was selected in the Round 3. Over the past two seasons Chestnut has a +10.9 coverage grade compared to Worley’s +3.2, and this past season allowed just 41.8 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught and an NFL passer rating of only 46.9. If he can hold together physically, he could be a true steal.
13. Landon Turner, G, UNC: New Orleans Saints
A powerful guard most naturally suited to a power/man blocking scheme at the NFL level, Landon Turner had the seventh-best run blocking grade in the class and had the eighth-highest overall grade. The Saints are one of the more balanced blocking teams in the league, straddling both man and zone blocking concepts, so it remains to be seen how Turner can develop in that system when asked to play more on the move, but he has the raw strength to move people.
14. Eric Striker, LB, Oklahoma: Buffalo Bills
Another player who had exceptional production but just doesn’t fit the size profile the NFL looks for, Eric Striker had 126 total pressures over the past two seasons, which is 59 more than both Leonard Floyd and Shaq Lawson and 10 more than Emmanuel Ogbah – all of whom were drafted within the first 32 picks. What kept Striker from that lofty status is the fact that he is 5-foot-11 and weighs less than 230 pounds. His coverage grade has been impressive each of the past two seasons — as well as his pass rush, obviously — but the NFL does not have a ready-made position for him to play, and in that regard Rex Ryan may be the best possible coaching fit for Striker. He can be an impact role player despite his size if he is used creatively.
15. Nick Arbuckle, QB, Georgia State: Pittsburgh Steelers
It would be easy to go with Trevone Boykin or Vernon Adams Jr. here, but the quarterback that most intrigues me is Nick Arbuckle landing in Pittsburgh. A lot of Boykin’s production was aided hugely by Josh Doctson and his accuracy-erasing ability deep, but Arbuckle didn’t have nearly the same help at receiver and yet has comparable two-year grading to Paxton Lynch. When kept clean this past season he completed 70.4 percent of his passes for 10.2 yards per attempt, and showed the ability to create and extend plays. In that Pittsburgh system he has the potential to develop into their backup and unseat Landry Jones.