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Mock Draft Tips: Don’t wait for rookie free agency to land a late-round gem

As part of an occasional series, Fanspeak will offer tips and best practices for its wildly popular and first-of-its-kind On The Clock draft simulator.

Today’s topic: Are you hoping your team nabs a particular player or two in rookie free agency? It’s best not to leave it to chance – draft him late on Day 3.


You’re reaching the end of the draft, and there’s still a position or two you’d like to fill. Problem is, you’ve only got one pick left.

So now you’re hoping your team lands one of those players in rookie free agency.

Here’s the problem with that line of thinking: It’s called “free” agency for a reason, meaning undrafted players are free to sign with any team they want.

There’s a simple solution to this problem: Trade for an extra seventh-round pick if you can find a team to cooperate. That way, you remove the uncertainty – you got your player before he could sign with someone else.

A look at some of last year’s rookie free agents provides a glimpse into what teams are looking for in potential late-round prospects.

Experience

UTEP cornerback Nik Needham was a four-year starter for a bad team but had one of the best seasons of any of the undrafted rookies. Despite not playing until he was promoted from the practice squad in October, Needham still managed 54 tackles, 2 interceptions and 11 passes defended. Experience is particularly valuable for quarterbacks, who generally don’t get pressed into duty as rookie free agents or late-round picks unless they are injury replacements. The common denominator between Purdue’s David Blough (Detroit) and Samford’s Devlin Hodges (Pittsburgh)? The two QBs were four-year starters in college.

Versatility

California offensive lineman Patrick Mekari flew under the radar due to various injuries over the years, but he played and/or started at every position along the line except center, his primary position in high school.

Possesses at least one good to great skill

Wyoming safety Andrew Wingard and N.C. State wide receiver Jakobi Meyers went undrafted due in part to a perceived lack of ideal athletic traits for their respective positions. But the two rode one specific skill all the way to playing time at the next level. Wingard was generally seen as an exceptional tackler while analysts said Meyers had great hands. Sure enough, Wingard wound up playing in all 16 games with two starts, 30 tackles (22 solo) and one INT for Jacksonville. Meanwhile, Meyers caught 26 passes for 359 in 15 games with one start for New England.

Special teams value

Kickers, punters and returners are generally seen as late to undrafted prospects – but several went on to have impressive rookie seasons in 2019. Former Illinois kicker Chase McLaughlin recently signed a one-year contract extension with Indianapolis after making 18 out of 23 field goals for three teams; punter Jamie Gillan of Pine Bluff-Arkansas averaged 46.2 yards per punt for Cleveland; and receiver Deonte Harris of Assumption College made the Pro Bowl for New Orleans as a punt and kick returner.

Trench players

DL Shy Tuttle of Tennessee played in 32 percent of New Orleans defensive snaps; Wisconsin fullback Alex Ingold played in 20 percent of Indianapolis’ offensive snaps; Alabama tight end Hale Hentges started four games for Washington. You can add Mekari to this list, too: prospects who didn’t play a premium position but had experience with a major program.

What’s missing: An elite trait

All of the aforementioned players were at one time or another mentioned as potential Day 2 to Day 3 draft picks, and all were highly productive in college.

But their athletic testing and/or measurables were low enough to give evaluators pause. Generally speaking, those lacking ideal (or close to ideal) measurables and athleticism generally have a tougher road to NFL success. That’s what teams are looking for on Day 3: players who possess at least one elite trait.

None of the aforementioned prospects wowed evaluators with elite athleticism or measurements. Therefore, it shouldn’t have come as a big surprise when all went undrafted, as the players with elite traits were already selected.

When to draft them? Before they become PFAs

Kansas State OT Scott Frantz started 51 consecutive games. Massive Alabama OT Matt Womack has experience for a major program at both tackle and guard, with 15 career starts. North Carolina safety Myles Dorn started 33 games and comes from NFL bloodlines. Texas A&M punter Braden Mann averaged 48.9 yards per punt for his career. And Oklahoma CB Parnell Motley has a knack for creating turnovers, with six interceptions and six forced fumbles in his career.

It’s possible all of them will be drafted, just as the reverse is possible, too.

But one thing is certain: If any of those players aren’t selected, there will be plenty of teams interested in their services as rookie free agents.

That’s why, if you’re eyeballing a player at a position of need late in the draft, it’s best to trade for him in the seventh round if you’re nearly out of picks.

 

Jake Rigdon (jake@sydwriting.com) covers the NFL draft for Fanspeak and the On The Clock, which is the only NFL draft simulator that allows you to customize and use your own big board while giving you control over trades.


A look back at the 2019 undrafted rookie free agents

(Snap counts courtesy of FootballOutsiders)

  • C Patrick Mekari, California: Played 38.8 percent of snaps for Baltimore
  • K Chase McLaughlin, Illinois: Made 18 out of 23 FG attempts for three teams, recently signed a one-year deal with Indianapolis
  • OT Fred Johnson, Florida: Played 13 percent of snaps for Cincinnati’s after he was waived by Pittsburgh
  • QB David Blough, Purdue: Played 29 percent of snaps for Detroit
  • P Jamie Gillan, Pine Bluff-Arkansas: Averaged 46.2 yards per punt for Cleveland
  • TE Hale Hentges, Alabama: Played in 24 percent of snaps for Washington after he was waived by Indianapolis
  • S Andrew Wingard, Wyoming: Played in 17.5 percent of defensive snaps for Jacksonville
  • WR Preston Williams, Colorado State: Caught 32 passes for 428 yards and 3 TDs for Miami while playing in 38 percent of offensive snaps
  • CB Nik Needham, UTEP: Had one of the best seasons of any undrafted rookie with 54 tackles, 2 interceptions, 11 passes defensed, and one forced fumble while playing in close to 67 percent of Miami’s defensive snaps
  • WR Gunner Olszewski, Bemidji State: Received 79 snaps on offense for New England
  • WR Jakobi Meyers, N.C. State: Caught 26 passes for 359 yards while playing in 36 percent of New England’s offensive snaps
  • WR Deonte Harris, Assumption College: Received only 68 snaps on offense but went to the Pro Bowl as a returner, as he averaged 9.4 yards on punt returns with one TD and almost 27 yards on kickoffs.
  • DL Shy Tuttle, Tennessee: Played in 32 percent of defensive snaps for New Orleans
  • RB Jon Hilliman, Rutgers: Played in 9.4 percent of offensive snaps for the New York Giants
  • FB Alec Ingold, Wisconsin: Played in 20 percent of offensive snaps for Las Vegas
  • QB Devlin Hodges, Samford: Completed 100 of 160 passes (62.5 percent) for 1,063 yards, 5 TDs and 8 INTs in eight games (six starts) for Pittsburgh, good for almost 38 percent of offensive snaps.
  • WR Steven Sims, Kansas: Played in 33 percent of offensive snaps for Washington


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