Undrafted free agents are the lifeblood of the NFL. Undrafted free agents are living proof that the NFL Draft is a flawed process. It’s not always the best players who are selected. These players captivate our hearts and make fans out of many unbelievers, going against all odds every year. Many undrafted free agents have ended up becoming key players on their franchise. The story of these players isn’t over yet. In fact, it’s just beginning.
For draft analysts and scouts, the real money is made in identifying which players later in the process will flourish. Anyone can predict players like Trevor Lawrence or Najee Harris will be studs at the next level. It’s the players who aren’t drafted or who are taken late that matter more for talent assessors.
Here is my take at five guys who are currently well positioned to push not only for a roster spot. I expect them to become impact players in the 2021 NFL season. Take a look and let me know what you think on Twitter, @DraftVogel.
Undrafted Free Agents #1: DT Marvin Wilson, Cleveland Browns
#65 | HT: 6’4″ | WT: 304 | College: Florida State | High School: Episcopal (Bellaire, TX) | Vogel’s Grade: 79
Undrafted free agents are hinted at being big impact players by the guaranteed numbers on their contracts when they sign with teams. For Wilson, he was the prospect who cashed in the most guaranteed money by any undrafted player this year.
Wilson was a three-season starter at Florida State and was projected by media analysts after the 2019 season as a first-round pick. The NFL, unfortunately, didn’t share those sentiments. The first hint was when Todd McShay dropped Wilson from a top-ten prospect on his rankings to a day two pick in June. Rumblings circled that Wilson was a difficult player to coach, especially after he attacked his new head coach, Mike Norvell, following the George Floyd murder. “He tried an insurrection and didn’t succeed,” an NFL scout told me. “It’s more than that. He is hard to deal with too.”
His public criticism of Norvell stemmed from an interview where the coach claimed that he had one-on-one conversations with each of his players following the murder and offered help and support to all of them. Wilson, however, claimed that the contact was anything but personal. He said that the players all received a “form text” and that “no one talked to him.” Wilson announced on Twitter that he and his teammates were boycotting workouts, inspired by former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
The NFL Draft cycle didn’t go as well as Wilson had planned
2020 was a drop-off year for Wilson who ended up dealing with some injuries and didn’t play at full strength. NFL teams got a good look at him at the 2021 Senior Bowl, where his performance was fine. However, Wilson would not hear his name called during the 2021 NFL Draft.
“Cleveland just seemed like the perfect fit for me,” Wilson said on the Best Podcast Available after signing. “I’ll have opportunities to make the team. That’s all I need.” Opportunities to make the team might be an understatement. On the interior of the defensive line, only one start from last year remains on the roster. Wilson will be pushing veterans Andrew Billings, Jordan Elliott, and Malik Jackson during training camp this season. The Browns also drafted Tommy Togiai out of Ohio State in the fourth round, but that shouldn’t prevent Wilson from making the cut.
Wilson has a good body and has the ability to play one-tech and three-tech, which the Browns will need him to do to free opportunities for Myles Garrett and Jadevion Clowney on the perimeter. He definitely makes the team and becomes part of a rotational tandem that the Browns will use to keep the defensive line fresh throughout the entire game.
RB Javian Hawkins, Atlanta Falcons
#25 | HT: 5’9″ | WT: 195 | High School: Cocoa (Titusville, FL) | College: Louisville | Vogel’s Grade: 74
Many times, the factor for undrafted free agents to bloom is the opportunity that the roster presents. In the case of Javian Hawkins, it most certainly is the the lack of depth currently at the running back position.
I got the opportunity to see Hawkins for the first time in the 2019 Music City Bowl in person when Louisville upset Mississippi State and led to the firing of their head coach, Joe Moorhead. He’s very explosive and fast and can be utilized out of the backfield as a receiver. The Falcons have a new head coach, the former Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith. From the looks of how the roster is shaping up, they will be utilizing a running-back-by-committee approach.
This is the role that Hawkins needs to thrive in the NFL. Currently, on the Falcons roster at the running back position are Mike Davis, Qadree Ollison, and Tony Brooks-James. It was rather surprising when the Falcons concluded their draft without selecting a running back. They quickly moved to add Hawkins to the roster. “I feel like it’s the best situation that I would want to be in,” Hawkins told the Orlando Sentinel. “Not being drafted, there’s nothing good about that, but everything else is good with my situation… I feel like it’s a great fit.”
I like it as much as Hawkins does. He can fit as a third down back and offer speed that the Falcons don’t have in that position currently.
Undrafted Free Agents favorite: WR DJ Turner, Las Vegas Raiders
#19 | HT: 5’9″ | WT: 206 | High School: DeMatha Catholic (Glenarden, MD) | College: Maryland/Pittsburgh | Vogel’s Grade: 75
When I was back at The Brawl Network, I wrote an article about the many uses that DJ Turner brings to an NFL offense and special teams unit. My article led to an opportunity to interview Turner, where we have developed an acquaintanceship. He’s one of my favorite players in this class.
Turner is projected best on offense as a slot weapon. His size prevents him in most schemes from doing much more. However, from that slot position, the Raiders can use Turner in a variety of ways. He has consistent hands and good speed/quickness that allow him to win underneath and as a sideline-to-sideline player. The only other slot receiver on the roster right now is former Clemson receiver, Hunter Renfrow. “Give ’em a reason to cut him, right?” I told Turner with a laugh. He got a kick out of it too and told me, “That’s exactly what I’m gonna do.”
John Gruden’s offense is designed around Derek Carr, who Raiders fans oftentimes lament and criticize. Carr and Gruden like to scheme effectively, though they haven’t had the best weapons to do so. Turner could give them a lot of opportunities to be creative schematically, especially over Renfrow. Turner is much bigger and is built more like a running back than a slot receiver. With Turner potentially as a return specialist, there’s a solid chance he could make big impacts in 2021.
“I got to show some versatility,” Turner told press at his Pro Day when speaking about his transfer, “and have some big games to kind of show that I’m productive.” It’s paid off with an undrafted free agents opportunity to make an NFL roster.
LB Paddy Fisher, Carolina Panthers
#47 | HT: 6’4″ | WT: 240 | High School: Katy (Katy, TX) | College: Northwestern | Vogel’s Grade: 75
Paddy Fisher had some concerns coming out of Northwestern, where he was a four-season starter, mostly because of his lack of athletic ability. NFL teams wonder if he can play coverage. Regardless, he ended up in a good spot, the Panthers roster, where only he and Denzel Perriman are listed as the middle linebackers.
Fisher is very instinctive and was called the “smartest player I’ve ever coached” by his Northwestern head coach, Pat Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald himself was a linebacker in his day, certainly very high praise. Fisher is a good downhill tackler and plugs gaps well with his instincts and recognition ability. This will most certainly prove to be helpful in a thin positional group. He performed at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, where the Panthers coaching staff were able to work and get familiar with him.
“I’d rather go to a place where I can contribute and play and be welcomed into a culture of football, opposed to being picked by a team who will pay me, but I won’t play,” Fisher told the Katy Times. “I want to contribute, whether it be special teams or the defensive side. I really want to contribute right away.”
In Carolina, he most certainly will have that opportunity and can earn his spot on the roster. I’m sure he will be utilized on special teams as well where he, no doubt, will be a monster.
CB DJ Daniel, Jacksonville Jaguars
#31 | HT: 6’0″ | WT: 185 | High School: Spalding (Griffin, GA) | College: Georgia/Georgia Military College | Vogel’s Grade: 76
Weak depth charts at a positional group oftentimes invite talented people to play there. The Jaguars cornerback room right now is skinny. Outside of CJ Henderson and DJ Daniel’s college teammate Jacksonville took with their second-round pick, Tyson Campbell, there isn’t a lot of boundary talent on the roster. This is a great opportunity for Daniels to thrive.
Daniels had a good pro day and performed well at the 2021 Senior Bowl back in January. Daniels was, in fact, voted the best cornerback in the American group of receivers that he practiced against. However, Daniels was timed a little bit slow in the forty-yard dash, running a flat 4.50. His physical play style is one that some teams like and others don’t because of the potential to draw long pass interference penalties. Daniels wasn’t a full-time starter, either, because of Eric Stokes and Campbell being on the roster and an ankle injury in 2020.
What the NFL thought of Daniel
“Just being back healthy, feeling great, feeling like my old self,” Daniel said after Pro Day. “Just getting back to my rhythm, how I normally and how I know I can compete.” Jim Nagy, the Senior Bowl director, really liked what he saw from Daniel too. “We really liked DJ’s junior tape; he was really an easy guy to like over the summer,” Nagy said. “He’s really good at the line of scrimmage. He’s patient, he’s physical, and he’s good with his hands. I never thought he got on track this year, talking to the staff.”
I liked Daniel, despite the concern with his speed. Austin Watkins, a UAB receiver who played at the Senior Bowl, told Chris Mallee Daniel was the best cornerback he faced.
Daniel has an excellent chance to make the Jaguars roster. With some familiarity between being close to home and Campbell, Daniel can thrive into a depth position with the team, perhaps even playing early on.