While the potential surrounding the NFL’s top rookies has been well-documented to this point, each new season provides an opportunity for a few undrafted free agents to prove themselves.
Just last year, Seattle’s Thomas Rawls, an undrafted free agent out of Central Michigan, earned the 12th-highest overall grade among NFL running backs. Cowboys guard La’el Collins, undrafted out of LSU (albeit for off-field concerns at the time), earned a starting role on the league’s top offensive line. On the other end of their NFL careers, Antonio Gates and Adam Vinatieri—now both considered top-tier veterans—began their pro campaigns after the clock expired on Round 7.
Which UDFAs will be well-known by the end of 2016? Here are five guys who could make an impact during their rookie seasons:
1. Keyarris Garrett, WR, Carolina Panthers
The Panthers found a potential gem shortly after the draft in Garrett. At Tulsa last season, he notched more receiving yards (1,583) than any other FBS receiver, and finished second in targets (161). He made the most of those targets, as well, dropping only three passes all season, and recording 2.86 yards per route run, the 12th-best mark in 2016 class.
Garrett earned the 19th-best passing grade among WRs in the class, and was the No. 64 ranked prospect on PFF’s final draft board, making him a steal for Carolina post-draft.
The main tool Garrett can provide to the Panthers’ offense is his ability as a true deep threat (defined here as passes thrown 20-plus yards downfield), something Carolina missed last season with Kelvin Benjamin sidelined (Ted Ginn received the most deep targets for the Panthers, at just 23—the 22nd-most of any NFL WR). In his final college season, Garrett hauled in the second-most yards in the FBS on such targets (725), and caught all 19 catchable deep passes thrown his way.
While a healthy Benjamin will likely grab the larger share of deep passes in 2016, Garrett can certainly provide QB Cam Newton—who owned the second-farthest average depth of target in 2015—another real option to extend the field.
2. De’Vante Harris, CB, New Orleans Saints
Just a five spots behind Garrett on PFF’s final draft board, Harris joins a Saints’ defense in desperate need of cornerback help. New Orleans finished the 2015 season with the second-worst pass-coverage grade in the league, and Delvin Breaux was the only cornerback that graded positively after seeing significant playing time.
While the Saints did address their secondary needs somewhat by drafting Ohio State safety Vonn Bell in the second round, they otherwise failed to improve the unit this offseason.
For Texas A&M last season, Harris earned the sixth-highest pass-coverage grade among CBs in the class, and was the 13th-highest-graded overall player at the position. He surrendered just one touchdown into his coverage, while nabbing two picks and seven pass defenses.
According to colleague Sam Monson in PFF’s scouting profile for Harris, the former Aggie has one of the best breaks on the ball among the 2016 class. If the Saints can utilize him in off-coverage, Harris could provide a significant impact in New Orleans right away.
3. Nelson Spruce, WR, Los Angeles Rams
As the Rams build around first-overall pick Jared Goff, the rookie QB could potentially look to the sure-handed Spruce early in his career.
The former Colorado standout was a reliable possession receiver for the Buffaloes, averaging 11.9 yards per catch in 2015, and 11.3 in 2014. Last season, Spruce earned the 17th-highest-grade among WRs in the class, and the second-best grade for a Pac-12 wideout (right behind UCLA’s Jordan Payton). What’s more, he owned the ninth-best drop rate in the class, mishandling just four of 93 catchable targets in 2015.
Spruce impressed PFF’s analysts enough to earn the No. 145 spot on our final draft board, just six WR spots behind new teammate Pharoh Cooper, the Rams’ second fourth-round pick. Both Cooper and Spruce will likely be expected to contribute within a Rams’ offense that ranked 31st overall in receiving grade last season. Spruce may not be the team’s game-breaker, but he brings consistency that could help the LA offense move the chains.
4. Jack Allen, OL, New Orleans Saints
The second of New Orleans’ UDFA signees on this list, Allen will most likely add talented depth behind 30-year-old Max Unger, a top-10 NFL center last season in PFF grades. It’s certainly worth noting, however, that 2015 was the first full season Unger has played since 2012, owing to injuries.
If Allen is called into action, it’s likely that questions will soon rise as to why he was drafted. Allen finished 2015 as the 11th-highest-graded FBS center, a short slide from his fourth-place standing the season prior. Last year, he earned the second-highest run-blocking grade in the class, and the seventh-best pass-blocking mark.
As noted by colleague Mike Renner in Allen’s draft profile, the former Michigan State captain plays extremely low and almost never loses his leverage battle against his defensive opponent. Even if he doesn’t win with his hands right away, he has the ability to still create movement on defensive tackles.
If the Saints feel Allen can contribute from the guard position, there is also a possibility he could replace Mike McGlynn, who played just 15 snaps last season, and earned heavily negative season grades from 2012–2014. To earn the spot, though, Allen must beat out fellow UDFA Landon Turner, the 10th-highest-graded FBS guard last season.
5. Nile Lawrence-Stample, DT, Cleveland Browns
The Browns inked former Florida State DT Nile Lawrence-Stample to help an interior D-line group that is wanting for talent.
As noted by Senior Analyst Steve Palazzolo shortly before the draft, Lawrence-Stample will likely be an early-down run-stopper to start his NFL career, and that makes him a good fit for the Browns. He made most of his 456 snaps last season, earning the 12th-best run-defense grade among DTs in the class. His pass-rushing was solid, as well, with three sacks, a hit, and 10 QB hurries to his name in 2015.
Lawrence-Stample—the No. 148 overall prospect on our final draft board—isn’t a name you’ll likely hear often in 2016, but will make his presence felt if given the opportunity, especially on a Browns’ roster that could already feature seven rookie starters.