Throughout NFL history, many players have sat through the NFL draft and failed to hear their name called by the commissioner. Some of those players later received calls from NFL teams and came on as undrafted rookie free agents (UDFA) with varying degrees of success. Some get cut after initial workouts, some get cut during or after camp, and others toil on practice squads for years. But every so often, UDFAs not only thrive, but go on to see great success in the NFL – players like Kurt Warner, Warren Moon, Antonio Gates and James Harrison to name a few. This year at the running back position, a few players stand out. Will they get cut soon or will they be the next Arian Foster or Priest Holmes? Only time will tell, but let’s a take a quick look at a few UFDAs who might be able to step up at the NFL level and make a name for themselves.
Matt Breida, San Francisco 49ers (Georgia Southern)
The 5’10”, 195 pound back from Georgia Southern was on everybody’s radar a year ago after back-to-back 17-touchdowns seasons where he amassed over 3000 yards on the ground between 2014 and 2015 while averaging an insane 8.3 yards per carry. Then after a coaching change, and along with it a change in offensive scheme, Breida fell out of favor and turned in only 646 rushing yards with 3 scores and a paltry 3.8 yards-per-carry (YPC) average. As a result, he went undrafted despite eye-popping numbers at his pro day. His pro day numbers, had he been invited to participate in the combine, would have seen him atop the entire running back class in vertical jump (42”) and broad jump (142”), 2nd in the 40-yard dash (4.39) and tied for third in the bench press(23), all of that leading to the highest SPARQ score in the entire “stacked” RB class of 2017. While he is still no lock to make the 49ers final 53-man roster, he’s off to a strong start and was reportedly the best rookie during all of minicamp. He has a real opportunity to outplay and surpass fellow rookie Joe Williams, and with an injury plagued Carlos Hyde ahead of them on the depth chart, he could be a sneaky player to stash on your roster.
San Diego Los Angeles Chargers (Western State)
Eerily similar to Breida above, the Chargers’ Ekeler has many of the same athletic traits and build as well. Coming in at 5’9” and 195 pounds, Ekeler hails from a D2 school and went overlooked in the draft until his pro day numbers started opening some eyes around the league. Much like Breida, had he been invited to the combine his 4th best 40 time (4.43) along with his 3rd best broadjump (130”) coupled with what would have been the highest vertical jump in the class (40.5”) would have likely placed him on some NFL draft boards. Despite this, the Chargers running back depth chart is filled with semi-familiar names behind Melvin Gordon, but aside Branden Oliver, there’s nobody that should block Ekeler’s ascension up the depth chart if he lives up to his athletic abilities. He’s got a bit of a harder road ahead of him given the depth chart, but the development of a Danny Woodhead-lite type of player isn’t out of the question for a team that desperately needs a player to fill exactly that position.
TaQuan Mizzell, Baltimore Ravens (Virginia)
Completely unintentionally, guess who else is 5’10” and in the 190-pound range? Yup, the Ravens Taquan Mizzell. Interestingly, Mizzell caught a pass in 43 straight games for the Cavaliers and is the only player in ACC history with over 1,500 receiving yards and over 1,500 rushing yards. It looks as if Mizzell is in a competition for the 4th running back position with Buck Allen behind Danny Woodhead, Terrance West, and the suspended Kenneth Dixon. The Lone bright spot is that with Dixon’s suspension, there is a good chance Mizzell will get 4-games on the main roster to prove himself worthy of sticking with the club. His college numbers weren’t anything amazing, but they were steady and solid and maybe most importantly, he is also rumored to be in the competition for punt return duties. If he can contribute on special teams, he might be able to secure himself a roster spot that way as well. I mentioned above that Austin Ekeler might fill the void left on the Chargers’ roster when Danny Woodhead left. Well, oddly enough, Mizzell might be the guy to fill Woodhead’s role in Baltimore when the 32-year old calls it a career.
Tyler Renew, Atlanta Falcons (The Citadel)
If you’re a college football fan, you might remember The Citadel’s upset of South Carolina in 2015. One of the stars of that game was current Atlanta Falcons UDFA Tyler Renew. Given the depth the Falcons have at running back, it is notable that Renew will be asked to play fullback. The Falcons lost Patrick DiMarco via free agency in the off season and needed to replace him and currently, Renew is only competing with former Seahawk fullback Derrick Coleman for the spot. Falcon’s head coach Dan Quinn does have a history with Coleman, but talent usually wins out. On the plus side, if Renew makes the roster, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, The Falcons used the fullback on 31 percent of their plays last season. Looking at DiMarco’s history with the team, he was primarily used as a receiving threat out of the backfield, so expect the same from Renew if he makes the 53-man roster. He’s also been a tough runner between the tackles, and if he’s on the team week 1, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him get some of the short yardage work to save some of the abuse from taking a toll on the bodies of Tevin Coleman and Devonta Freeman.
De’Veon Smith, Miami Dolphins (Michigan)
I already broke down Smith a bit here, but you could do worse than taking a flier on the Michigan Wolverine in deep dynasty leagues. He’s currently competing with Storm Johnson and Senorise Perry for the 4th (and probably final) running back position on the Dolphins. Let’s address the elephant in the room: Smith is slow. Like, 4.8 seconds in the 40-yard dash slow. Like, 2nd to last at the combine slow. That being said, he was also among the top performers at the combine in the bench press, the 3-cone drill, and the 60-yard shuttle, so he still is athletic despite not possessing blazing straight line speed. I can see him spelling starter Jay Ajayi in short yardage situations and grinding out some tough yards if needed. He’s also a decent receiving option out of the backfield when called upon.
Is anybody from this list jumping off the page as a no-brainer, future Hall of Fame inductee? No, absolutely not. However, they are all talented running backs who for one reason or another went undrafted. Each one has a real shot at making their respective team’s opening day roster and each may have some value for fantasy football going forward. If you’re thin at the position and are looking to fill your taxi squad, these names should be on your radar.
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