Corbin Smith

Undrafted Free Agents Aim High in Seattle

Created on Jul. 19, 2014 11:08 AM EST

Each NFL team opens training camp with 90 players, but by the time camp breaks in late August, the roster has been whittled down by a large series of cuts to a mere 53 players. Nearly half of the players who begin camp with a roster spot will inevitably end up receiving a pink slip, and typically, the vast majority will never get another shot to make it in the National Football League.

Being drafted doesn’t necessarily guarantee a roster spot, but it’s much easier for a team to justify keeping a player they have invested a coveted draft choice on than it is for an undrafted free agent signee. With so many players vying for a limited number of available roster spots, going undrafted used to be a death sentence for professional prospects. While making a final roster will always be a steep challenge for these players, the 
Seattle Seahawks have unearthed undrafted gems in recent seasons and have given players who don’t hear their name on draft day reason to be optimistic.

The Seahawks are not the only team that has found “diamonds in the rough” following the draft, but no team has had near the success finding starter-caliber talent. General manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll aim to find players with unique skill sets, and that mindset doesn’t waver after the draft comes to a close. After leading the Seahawks to a division crown in 2010, Carroll and Schneider blew up the roster, letting go of several high-priced veterans with a vision of building a team that would be a consistent winner over the long haul.

The front office knew that it could be a lengthy rebuilding process, but superb drafting coupled with exceptional player development allowed Seattle to win a Super Bowl three years later. Drafting future stars like 
Earl ThomasRussell Wilson, and Richard Sherman provided building blocks for long-term success, but the contributions of undrafted players towards the team’s rise to become a champion cannot be understated.

Wide receivers 
Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse both joined the Seahawks as undrafted free agents with chips on their shoulders the size of boulders. Baldwin, who signed prior to the 2011 season, instantly made an impact by leading the team with 51 receptions for nearly 800 yards and finished fourth overall in reception yardage for rookies. Kearse didn’t make near the splash initially after signing out of the University of Washington in April 2012, as he only appeared in seven games and made three catches during his rookie season.

However, both Baldwin and Kearse caught touchdown passes in a Super Bowl XLVIII victory over the 
Denver Broncos, and other undrafted talents took roster spots last season. Tackle Alvin Bailey saw action as a sixth offensive lineman during critical stretches of the team’s playoff run last year, and defensive end Benson Mayowa was on the active roster the entire season.

The Seahawks have gone to great lengths this offseason to make sure agents and players alike know that Seattle is a perfect place for undrafted players to thrive. Carroll and his staff sent out a brochure to agents prior to the draft highlighting statistics proving that the franchise provides the most opportunities for undrafted free agents in the league. It’s not a complicated message- the best player will play, regardless of whether he was drafted or not.

Entering the 2014 season, Carroll has once again accumulated an intriguing group of undrafted players to evaluate during training camp. The road will be much tougher than it was for Baldwin or Kearse thanks to great depth across the board, but there are several players who have a realistic shot at making the final roster.

Defensive end 
Jackson Jeffcoat may be the best candidate to steal to a roster spot. The son of former Dallas Cowboys star Jim Jeffcoat starred at the University of Texas and was named the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year last season. Despite earning consensus All-American honors in 2013, he was labeled as a “tweener” who was too small to play defensive end in the NFL and lacked the athletic ability to play linebacker at the next level. He also battled various injuries in his college career, leading many scouts to question his durability. Ultimately, Jeffcoat went undrafted and signed a deal to join the Seahawks quickly after the conclusion of the draft in May.

From a production standpoint, there’s no question Jeffcoat was one of the premier pass rushers in the nation last season. He racked up 13.0 sacks for the Longhorns and has shown he can get after the quarterback, which could bode well for his chances of making it in Seattle. Carroll covets edge rushers who can quickly disrupt the pocket, and he won’t care if this young defender doesn’t have prototypical size for an end. 
Michael Bennett once received the “tweener” label, and he’s made a pretty good career for himself. Don’t count out Jeffcoat making a similar splash in Dan Quinn’s defense.

The Seahawks should be set at safety with Thomas and 
Kam Chancellor for years to come, but depth at the position could be improved. Veteran Chris Maragos signed with the Philadelphia Eagles this spring, leaving a vacancy behind Thomas at free safety. Jeron Johnson returns to the Seahawks as the primary backup at both safety spots, but former USC starter Dion Bailey could be a steady alternative as well. As a junior for the Trojans, he saw action at both safety and linebacker, making 62 tackles and intercepting five passes.

At only 6’0, 200, Bailey lacks the size Seattle normally seeks in its secondary, but he loves to tackle and has shown he’s capable of creating turnovers in coverage. His prior experience playing linebacker may also help him find his way onto special teams to further bolster his stock to the coaching staff. Like Jeffcoat, he was a highly-productive player in college who could find success in Seattle if deployed properly.

Bailey and Jeffcoat easily stand out as the biggest names from this year’s crop of undrafted signees heading into camp, but other players will have a shot to make their mark as well. Former Montana standout linebacker 
Brock Coyle will have a chance to compete against veteran Heath Farwell for a backup role. Converted college tight end Garry Gilliam has drawn positive reviews from offensive line coach Tom Cable and could sneak onto the roster as a reserve tackle. Tight ends Chase Dixon and RaShaun Allen may see opportunities to battle for a reserve role at arguably the weakest position on the roster.

It’s highly unlikely that more than one or two of these undrafted players will survive the final 53 man roster cuts on a loaded team coming off a championship season. But as Carroll and Schneider made clear in their brochure, draft status doesn’t matter in Seattle. If you’re one of the best 53 players, you will make the team. Based on prior evidence, don’t be surprised to see Carroll and his staff work magic once again and find another player or two who can develop into a steady contributor.