Just because a player didn’t hear their named called in the draft it doesn’t mean they can’t play or that their NFL dream is over. It simply means their road to a career as a professional football player will be more difficult than their drafted peers. The great thing about the NFL being a meritocracy is that players that can make plays will get roster spots, and those that don’t will be left behind. Coaches need to win to stay in the league and that is driving factor behind who they put on the field. If an undrafted free agent helps their team win and stay relevant, they will find a way to keep that player, period.
The UDFA signing period is a little more organized that it has been in years past, but it still basically the wild west. Once the draft ends players that were not chosen automatically become free agents and are eligible to sign with any team they’d like to immediately. In essence, it is free football talent there for the taking. The complication comes from the fact there are 32 teams competing for the same players…. Instantly and at the same time. It can get a little chaotic to say the least.
Some players already have relationships with teams from the scouting process. Others are looking for any shot they can get. The most valuable players (that have multiple offers) will weigh their chances of making a particular roster and choose a spot where the depth chart favors them making an impact. It is a fascinating, high-speed dating game (demolition derby?) that truly helps shape the NFL you watch every Sunday. According to the Elias Sports Bureau in September of 2016 there were more UDFA’s on NFL rosters than there were 1st and 2nd-round picks combined:
Hope for underdogs: There are more undrafted free agents on NFL rosters today (481) than 1st- and 2nd-round picks combined (480), per Elias.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 5, 2016
The Bears came out of the UDFA process this year much the way they came out of the draft – heavy on the offensive side of the ball. Sometimes a team will use the UDFA process to balance out positions it did not get to address in the draft, but due to all the complicating factors listed above it doesn’t always work out that way.
Chicago did manage to find a couple of legitimate contenders for a spot I felt they needed to address; outside wide receiver. Interestingly they also added another tight end. That addition makes the position group incredibly crowded. With 7(!) TE’s already under contract and the addition of Adam Shaheen in the 2nd-round, and a UDFA the Bears have 9 total TE’s. Look for a serious competition in training camp to sort that spot out.
2017 Chicago Bear UDFA’s
RB Joel Bouagnon, Northern Illinois University (6’1″/230, 4.61 40-yard dash) – Bouagnon is a tough runner who is not afraid to pound it between the tackles. He has a little wiggle to him but he is more of a straight-ahead runner once he’s found an opening. His chances to make the final roster are slim as the Bears have 3 backs under contract from last year, signed Benny Cunningham in free agency and drafted Trik Cohen in the 4th round.
FB Freddie Stevenson, Florida State University (6’/234, 4.75 40-yard dash) – Stevenson did a little running on his own in the Florida State offense but most fans would know him as the guy who paved the way for new Vikings running back Dalvin Cook. Freddie won’t run around you (7.65 3-cone time) but he might run through you. He did power in 4 rushing TD’s last season and has extensive experience on special teams. He’ll compete directly with current Bears fullback Paul Lasike.
WR Tanner Gentry, University of Wyoming (6’1″/208, 4.53 40-yard dash) – Tanner Gentry loves the deep ball. According to Pro Football Focus he had more deep targets (throws of 20 yards or more) directed his way than any other college receiver in the country last year. Wyoming launched 49 of those balls his way and with good reason; Gentry thrives on making tough grabs when the long ball comes his way. That approach paid off for the Cowboys as Gentry ended the season with over 1300 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Gentry will need to get better at beating press coverage and has limited value after the catch, so his ability to bring in the deep ball will key for him to earn a roster spot. He has experience running routes from both the slot and on the boundary, but given his frame and production you’d have to think Chicago will try him at outside WR first. If that is the case he’ll compete with Kevin White, Cameron Meredith, free agent addition Kendall Wright and fellow UDFA addition Jhajuan Seales for playing time. If his name sounds familiar it’s likely because I had Gentry on my 2017 Sleepers Team before the draft:
WR Jhajuan Seales, Oklahoma State University (6’/205, 4.51 40-yard dash) Seales is an excellent leaper who jumped 41″ at his pro day. That would have been the 2nd best result among all WR’s if he had been invited to the Combine. Likely 2018 QB draft prospect Mason Rudolph relied heavily on Seales ability to win down the field and on crossing routes Seales production of only 656 yards and 4 scores is a little misleading as OSU is loaded with receiving talent and Rudolph is very adept at spreading the ball around. One thing that his tape shows that the statistics do not, is his willingness and ability to be a devastating blocker. That kind of things gets you noticed by coaches. I’d also expect Jhajuan to make some highlight grabs early in training camp that will raise his profile with fans. As an outside receiver his competition will be the same as Tanner Gentry’s listed above.
WR/KR Kermit Whitfield, Florida State University (5’8″/185, 4.44 40-yard dash) – Not many players in the country are more electric than Whitfield is with the ball in his hands. His combination of rare acceleration and an ability to make guys miss that is truly special ensures that any time he touches the ball he is a major threat. He has had extensive experience and success as a kick returner. He’ll need to work on cleaning up the footwork in his routes if he wants a full-time role on offense, but he can add some firepower to sub packages and special teams right away.
TE Franko House, Ball State University (6’6″/248) – A basketball standout at Ball State, House is looking to follow a long line of former hoopsters into the NFL at the tight end position. He’s got excellent size and makes catching the ball look easy. His body control in the air is also as good as you’d expect from his background on the hardcourt. He’ll need to re-learn how to run though. Basketball players tend run in longer striding motions and looping circles. Football players need much quicker, choppier steps and sharp cuts. House will need to adapt and learn how to drop his hips when he’s changing direction, especially at the top of route stems. If he can make those changes he could be molded into a contributor. The Bears have an incredibly crowded TE depth chart so he’ll have to impress the coaches quickly to have even a shot at the practice squad.
DL Rashaad Coward, Old Dominion (6’6″,310) This addition goes right back to Bill Parcell’s planet theory: that there are only a handful of men on the planet that have massive size and the athleticism to play in the NFL, so when you find one you grab them. Coward certainly qualifies at 6’6″ and well over 300 pounds. Even at that size, the Cowboys Wire (a website that covers Old Dominion) [correction: Cowboys Wire covers the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys and posted coverage of Old Dominion’s Pro Day – EJ] called him “…the most natural athlete on the team“. That’s an astounding statement. If it’s even close to true the Bears may have found a very valuable defensive line contributor from yet another small school. His tape shows a player easily able to control the middle of the line, shed and then explode through contact.
K Andy Phillips, University of Utah (5’11″/209) Phillips might be the most interesting story of the entire player acquisition class for the Bears this year. Before he walked on to the Utes team 4 years ago he had never played in an organized football game. If that weren’t odd enough his sports background before that wasn’t even on a flat surface. Andy was a member of the U.S. National Ski Team for 5 years as a downhill racer. Top that off with the fact he also speaks Norwegian and I’d say Phillips can certainly hang in the “most interesting college football player” category.
Once he stepped into his kicking shoes his athleticism took over. Kicking outside at Utah he was 4-of-4 from greater than 50 yards (53-yard long) and had an 84% career FG average.
UPDATE: Chicago signed an additional 3 LB’s to its UDFA class announced on 5/11/17
LB Alex Scearce, Coastal Carolina University (6’3″/220) Scearce is a former defensive back who added weight throughout his college years and ended up as a linebacker, which makes him very similar to another Bear; Nick Kwiatkoski. Alex was productive during his entire career but the light really came on for him in his senior season. He was named an FCS All-American after leading the team in tackles (84), sacks (8 – which set a school single-season record), tackles for loss (13.5), interceptions (5), forced fumbles (3), and fumble recoveries (2). He was second on the team with 7 pass break-ups. CCU scored 7 defensive touchdowns last season and Scearce had a hand in 5 of them. Definitely has the look of an ascending player who could contribute in the Jack role on the inside of Chicago’s linebacker corps.
LB Hendrick Ekpe, University of Minnesota (6’5″/240) This former Golden Gopher massacred Rutgers last year, posting 6 tackles, 3 tackles for loss and a pair of sacks in that game. It was by far his best effort as a collegian. Other than that he had limited production, but did show improvement each year. Struggled with migraines early in his career but supposedly has them under control. Shows a decent first step and had a good 10-yard split in his 40-yard dash so he has a little burst, but he’s a long shot.
LB Isaiah Irving, San Jose State University (6’3″/241) Another LB who was slow to get going his first few years in college, and then had a very productive senior season (sensing a trend here?). Irving flashed in a big way versus Fresno Sate last year, racking up 4.5 tackles for loss and adding a pair of sacks. Also had a nice game versus Hawaii, pinning on 2 more sacks and forcing a fumble. He totaled 7 QB takes downs this past year. Would be mostly a rush EDGE player, as he has not demonstrated coverage or ball skills in his college career.
Who do you think might stick with the Bears into the 2017 regular season, either on the final 53-man roster or on the practice squad?