The 2017 NFL Draft has come and gone and many NFL hopefuls ended the weekend disappointed when their name was not called. In fact, Eric Galko of Optimum Scouting and Sporting News noted that of the 104 underclassmen to declare for the NFL Draft, nearly one-fourth (28 total) went undrafted. While this is frustrating, it is not the end for most of them. Many of these players have already been signed as undrafted free agents, commonly referred to as UDFAs.
While this status could be a setback, it is not a complete deterrent. Since 1994 when the NFL Draft decreased to seven rounds, a relatively large number of productive seasons have come from these UDFAs. For the purpose of this research, I focused only on starter seasons, meaning players that finished among the top 12 scoring quarterbacks and tight ends or top 24 scoring running backs and wide receivers.
At first glance, these numbers are actually pretty encouraging. Essentially around ten percent of the top fantasy scorers from any given season over the past 23 have been undrafted free agents. In digging a bit deeper, it appears a few standout players are responsible for a large part of those start seasons.
Among the 26 starting seasons for quarterbacks, seven came from Tony Romo and another four each from Jeff Garcia and Kurt Warner. The running back position looks like the best opportunity for dynasty players to gamble on UDFAs, with 55 starter seasons in the studied time frame. Of those 55, Priest Holmes and Fred Jackson posted five apiece, with Pierre Thomas and Arian Foster notching four such seasons, totaling 18 among them. Wide receiver seems to be the toughest position for UDFAs to crack the elite group on an annual basis, with only 34 total starter seasons. Of the 34, Rod Smith had eight of those and Wes Welker had seven. Every other UDFA wideout since 1994 managed just 19 total starter seasons, which is less than four percent. Finally, the tight end position has been dominated by Antonio Gates, who has accounted for 12 of the 26 total starter seasons among UDFAs. Former Colt Marcus Pollard chipped in another five seasons and every other UDFA tight end managed just nine starter seasons.
With that dose of reality, let’s return to the class of 2017 and some of the big names who surprisingly went undrafted. If you are careful and diligent, you might find the next Romo, Holmes, Smith or Gates…just don’t expect it.
Ricky Seals-Jones, WR ARI
Once viewed as a high-level prospect, Seals-Jones was overshadowed and outplayed by many of his teammates at Texas A&M and his decision to leave school a year early looks like a poor one for now. The Cardinals are a team built around speed on offense, which makes Seals-Jones an odd fit. The Cards added another speedster in third-rounder Chad Williams, along with the current depth chart that includes Larry Fitzgerald, JJ Nelson, John Brown and others. Seals-Jones has a lot of competition to even crack the roster.
Quincy Adeboyejo, WR BAL
The Ravens surprisingly did not draft a wide receiver despite losing three of their top six most targeted players in 2016 (Steve Smith, Kamar Aiken, Kyle Juszczyk). This could be good news for the former Ole Miss wideout Adeboyjo, who was often overshadowed by bigger names for the Rebels, but always offered a consistent target to quarterback Chad Kelly. He has a shot to make the team and should be monitored through camp.
Fred Ross, WR CAR
It’s a similar story for Ross (another former SEC receiver) in Carolina. The Panthers lost a pair of depth pieces (Ted Ginn and Corey Brown), so there is opportunity for young guys to earn a role. The difference for Ross is the Panthers used their first two picks on players expected to see plenty of targets and touches in the form of Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel. I was actually surprised Ross was not drafted and could also see him making the team, but I’d be surprised if we saw him on the field in 2017.
Krishawn Hogan, WR ARI
After briefly looking like he’d signed with the Colts, small-school stud Hogan cleared things up and announced he had actually chosen the Cardinals. Hogan dominated the NAIA and his massive production got the attention of draftniks and dynasty players late in the draft process. Like Seals-Jones, he faces some tough competition to make the team.
Bug Howard, WR IND
Howard is a big-bodied receiver who showed clear improvement in each of his four seasons at North Carolina. At 6’2” and over 220 pounds, he is unlike the key targets Andrew Luck has made a living throwing to in recent years, so I am intrigued to see what he could do on this roster. Although Howard isn’t leapfrogging TY Hilton or Donte Moncrief, there is room to find a role in this offense.
Amba Etta-Tawo, WR JAX
With Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee, the Jaguars didn’t seem to have a need at the wide receiver position, yet they drafted slot man Dede Westbrook, then grabbed the uber-productive Etta-Tawo. I had high hopes for the Syracuse product and don’t see this as a good landing spot. He’s looking like a long shot behind three young, yet proven receivers and a former Heisman finalist. The best case for Etta-Tawo might be to find his way to a new team.
Artavis Scott, WR LAC
The slot man out of Clemson, Scott was a hot name in the devy dynasty community following his freshman season, but he didn’t show much improvement during his Tiger career and he lacks the speed you’d like to see from a smaller receiver. The Chargers have possibly the deepest receiver corps in the league featuring Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams, newly drafted Mike Williams, Travis Benjamin and tight ends Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry. As much as I would love to see Scott succeed, he landed with the wrong team.
Cole Hikutini, TE SF
A personal favorite of mine, Hikutini was another player who surprisingly didn’t hear his name called this weekend. Instead, the Niners signed him, which was followed by a report that presumed starter Vance McDonald might be on his way out of town. San Francisco also drafted Iowa’s George Kittle, but he’s more of a blocking specialist. Like all undrafted players, Hikutini has a long road to relevance, but I see the path.
KD Cannon, WR SF
At one point not so long ago, Cannon, the big playmaker from Baylor, ranked in my top 12 overall rookies. As I studied and watched more of his game, I decided I was overvaluing him and moved him down my ranks, but I never imagined he would not get selected at all. The new staff in San Francisco has been collecting undersized wideouts and Cannon fits that bill. There’s a massive collecting of receivers, but beyond Pierre Garcon, none are particularly intimidating when it comes to playing time. Cannon is among the top UDFA options.
Corey Clement, RB PHI
Despite having one of the weakest running back depth charts in the league, the Eagles only drafted small back Donnel Pumphrey, who many are already comparing to Darren Sproles. Pumphrey has a lot of talent and is the all-time FBS rushing leader, but he is not likely to be an every down back. Instead, the former Wisconsin running back Clement could have that opportunity, depending what the team does with Ryan Mathews. Clement started his college career well and was considered one of the top prospects of his class, but dealt with injuries through much of his career. While I do not love his talent, his situation is ideal for some short-term success.
Ishmael Zamora, WR OAK
One of the favorites of the metrics community, Zamora showed glimpses of talent during his time at Baylor, but also had some off-field troubles, resulting in his ban from the NFL Combine. Zamora’s upside is sky high, but the fact he went undrafted dampers his value. The Raiders young offense came alive last season, but beyond Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, the opportunity for playing time is there. Zamora is likely to get drafted in most dynasty leagues and is worth a shot late in rookie drafts.
Others to Watch
Damore’ea Stringfellow, WR MIA
De’Veon Smith, RB MIA
Austin Carr, WR NE
Travis Dural, WR NO
Travis Rudolph, WR NYG