This week, Giants undrafted rookie receiver Victor Cruz caught the attention of football fans everywhere, catching everything on his way to 145 receiving yards and three touchdowns. As the Monday Night Football crew oohed and awed, fans of other teams lamented that their squads hadn’t stumbled upon a special UDFA find.
However, Cruz isn’t the only rookie undrafted free agent who’s made a strong first impression. In fact, several UDFAs have made bigger impacts than their drafted counterparts.
Cruz isn’t the only undrafted receiver to receive early plaudits. Arizona wideout Stephen Williams has drawn plenty of praise and put himself in position to contribute this fall. With Larry Fitzgerald out with a knee injury, Williams is getting reps with the first team offense; he’s clearly outplayed 3rd round receiver Andre Roberts, who’s been plagued with drops.
Arizona’s first pre-season game gave a small taste of why Williams is an intriguing talent. The nearly 6’5” receiver was more impressive than his stats would indicate. Unlike most leggy receivers, Williams showed some quickness getting off the line and into his routes. He displayed very good hands, plucking the ball away from his body on both of his receptions. And on his second catch, Williams managed to hold onto the ball after being decked by a defensive back.
Williams’ size and hands could make him an intriguing red zone target, but he has the potential to do much more. When he ran a go route, Williams managed to get behind the receiver, who then drew a flag for interference while contesting the slightly underthrown pass. The undrafted free agent could develop into a poor man’s Larry Fitzgerald, which would be a big boon for the Cardinals, especially if Fitz’s recovery takes longer than expected.
While Cruz and Williams have impressed as pass catchers, fans should be just as excited about an intriguing pair of pass rushers. Saints undrafted defensive end Junior Galette was one of the most impressive rookies in the first week of the pre-season. The speed rusher from Stillman routinely abused New England’s reserve offensive tackles.
On a play that was called back due to a penalty, Galette used his explosive first step to beat Thomas Welch, then strip the football away from the quarterback. On a subsequent matchup against Welch, Galette beat him to the inside before clobbering QB Zac Robinson. He then flipped to the other side of the line and proceeded to embarrass right tackle Mark Levoir.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Galette’s performance was his hand play. Going into the draft, Galette had a reputation of relying solely on his ability to threaten the edge with speed. While still not a very powerful rusher, Galette used his hands to rip and swim past offensive linemen, beating them both to their inside and outside shoulders. He also dispatched tight end Rob Gronkowski on the way to an impressive run stop
With his explosiveness and improved hand play, Galette could contribute early on as a situational pass rusher. He also did a nice job in the first pre-season game chasing plays, which could be a sign that Galette will continue to work hard and make the most of his pass rush potential.
In addition to Galette in New Orleans, San Diego may have found a solid UDFA pass rusher in Brandon Lang. The Troy product made an immediate impact on special teams, blocking a punt that ended up bouncing out of the end zone for a touchback. For an undrafted rookie, showing up on special teams is one of the best ways to lock up a roster spot, so Lang already is off to a good start.
Also, Lang’s quick first step has created a positive pass rush impression. On multiple plays, Lang beat offensive tackles around the edge, pressuring Bears backup QB Caleb Hanie. And on one running play, Lang fired out of his three-point stance straight into the backfield, notching a tackle for loss.
Lang’s special teams contributions and quick first step should earn him a roster spot and buy him time to polish the rough edges of his game. Unlike Junior Galette, Lang is being asked to make a position switch, transitioning from 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker. In the first pre-season game, he looked uncomfortable playing in space, on more than one occasion struggling to change directions.
Most of Lang’s positive plays came when he was allowed to line up with his hand in the dirt, not standing up as an outside linebacker. As a result, Lang probably will be relegated to special teams and a possible nickel rusher role, but he could develop into an every down 3-4 OLB.
While Lang’s undergoing a difficult transition, other promising UDFAs have landed in close to ideal situations. Though it took Micah Johnson a while to get there, the former Kentucky linebacker landed in a very good spot in Miami.
Before the ‘09 season, some projected Johnson as a future first round pick. Unfortunately, Johnson’s below average range and agility were exposed during his senior year, and a knee injury suffering in Kentucky’s bowl game further dropped his draft stock. After the draft, Johnson signed with the Saints, only to be released after the team’s minicamp.
But being released by New Orleans ended up working out well for the middle linebacker. Because of his lack of ideal range and “thumper” style of play, Johnson is a better suited for Miami’s 3-4 defense. And that showed in the team’s first pre-season game, in which Johnson was one of the biggest standout performers.
Despite nasty weather and sloppy field conditions, Johnson did a nice job patrolling the middle. On one play, the sea of linemen parted in front of him, allowing Johnson to notch a tackle for loss. More impressively, Johnson later fought through a block, then used his good short area quickness to shoot behind the line for another TFL.
Though he’s still facing an uphill battle to make the 53 man roster, Johnson’s putting together the kind of tape that could intrigue 3-4 teams. His lack of ideal athleticism will limit his upside, but there’s a good chance that that he’ll carve out a niche as a two down 3-4 inside backer.
Another UDFA benefiting from a good situation is Bills running back Joique Bell. Like Micah Johnson, Bell isn’t the most athletically gifted player, but the 220-pound back is a strong runner with very good balance. Late in the team’s second pre-season game, Bell was knocked back when he tried to leap over the goal-line, but he managed to regain his footing and sidestep the pile for a touchdown. In addition, Bell has broken off a series of long runs, including a 28 yard run to the house.
As more of one speed back, Bell isn’t going to run away from a lot of first team defensive backs. Also, he’s made a costly mistake or two on special teams. But with the Bills’ two veteran backs injured (and Marshawn Lynch rumored to be on the trading block), Bell will get an extended opportunity to showcase his wares and earn a roster spot. At this point, it looks like Bell’s putting together a very strong for making the 53 man.
Several other undrafted free agents have made excellent initial impressions: Eagles offensive tackle Austin Howard, Jaguars defensive tackle Ko Quaye, and Redskins return specialist Brandon Banks are some notable examples. Their impressive contributions are proof that promising rookie talent that can be found after the draft: sometimes due to luck, other times because a team has been diligent in its deep sea scouting.