Friday, October 22, 2021

Why we should be talking about Miami’s UDFA’s

UDFA’s are the lottery tickets of the NFL draft prospect. They cost a fraction of the value of a drafted player, in most cases have lower expectations, yet when it comes to training camp, have that golden opportunity to make an impression to earn a spot in the 53.

While last year’s 2020 class failed to make much of an impact, you only have to go back one extra year, to 2019 to see how undrafted players can become relevant. From that year alone, Miami found game day reps, and a handful of starts from the likes of Shaq Calhoun, Patrick Laird and more notably, Nik Needham and Preston Williams. Any these names may not be Dolphins anymore, or may not be for much longer, but they all came in and worked their way to game day.

This year was like no other. With Covid-19 circulating the world and affecting all walks of life, this limited the amount of scouting that teams could do on guys further down the draft pecking order. With much less tape and fewer reports, teams took varied approaches. Either sign loads of them and see if any can surprise, a model taken by the Bears who picked up 15 players, or just take a few and rely on the drafted guys and trust the reports you do have.

Miami took somewhat of the second approach, picking up 5 UDFAs in the draft aftermath. Since then they have also picked up Trill Williams off waivers from the Saints to add to this group. With a mixed bag of free agents that include people Coach Flores has seen personally, Basketball converts and that waiver pickup I look at profiling these guys to see if and where they could potentially find a role.

Robert Jones, Guard, Middle Tennessee State

I start with Robert Jones, who while playing some tackle at Middle Tennessee is very much suited to guard at the NFL Level. With some thinking Jones could be a 6th or 7th round selection this year, Jones was a victim of a deep offensive line group that pushed him out of the draft and into the greatful palms of the Miami Dolphins.

Miami moved quick to put an offer in for the lineman, with Coach Flores and his staff seeing exactly what he is all about during their time coaching the senior bowl. Throughout the draft process the Dolphins were linked with selecting players from the Senior Bowl, but with a lot of those rumours proving inaccurate, Jones DID get a chance.

He suits Miami’s current type of lineman, at 6”4 and over 300lbs, he has that large frame that the coaching staff line, he boasts above average footwork, good movement across the line and a good post-snap reaction time. Big, good movement, quickness, exactly what Miami like in their interior linemen. He does have work to do on his agility, after questions were raised from his agility drills, but Miami trust their staff with developmental aspects such as this.

Jones has all the tools to mount a roster push. Has the key traits Miami enjoy, has versatility to play a couple of positions along the line, he loves football and is joining a group of young, developing linemen to work alongside.

Miami have put a lot of draft capital into the offensive line, with 4 of the 5 projected starters having been drafted in the last 2 years and 3 of them taken in the first two rounds so it may not be that easy to force his way into the starting group. However, with players rumoured to be moving around the line and swapping positions for this year, it is far from settled.

There is depth there too, with DJ Fluker and long time Dolphin and previous UDFA Jesse Davis able to cover multiple positions. Behind them however, roster spots are currently filled with the likes of Adam Pankey, and with improvement still needed to be seen from Michael Dieter, there are places at the lower end of the depth chart that Jones could stake a claim for.

Carl Tucker, Full Back/Tight End, Alabama

Tucker is one who I think has a genuine shot at making one of those final roster spots. His versatility is an obvious bonus and I shall pick through that shortly, but an underrated aspect of this signing is the fact he comes from Alabama. This is a school that Miami have close ties to, from ex head coach Nick Saban to recent draft picks Tua Tagovailoa and Jaylon Waddle.

The reason I count this as a factor is because of just how much they have scouted Alabama players. They have seen the Crimson Tide play A LOT in recent years, their scouting reports will be thorough and trusted, and therefore if they believe Tucker is worth picking up, that is based on plenty of information.

Tucker has played some TE, and while I don’t believe that is where he will make an impact, it does demonstrate he has the ability to catch the ball and be a factor as a blocker. This plays into his hands in trick plays and in the Tagovailoa favoured RPO offense.

More likely for me is his familiarity with the full back position. A position that isn’t as popular as it once was, Coach Flores has a history of running plays with Full Back assignments. Chandler Cox is the most recent full back to play in Aqua, but his time in Miami has come to an end and so if the 2021 offense has need for a full back, Tucker could be a prime candidate.

With the Running Back room far from settled, with Myles Gaskin seemingly RB1, and Malcolm Brown and Salvon Ahmed battling for the RB2 slot there has not been the clear upgrade that many fans wanted. Gaskin has well earned his place, but Ahmed, Brown & Patrick Laird all still have points to prove, meaning that an RB4 slot could leave room for a full back.

He could also make a significant impact on special teams and did so at Alabama. We know Miami sign players with specific special teams duties in mind. Players like Mack Hollins, Clayton Fedelejem and Cethin Carter are all evidence of that, and it is not dissimilar to approaches taken by the New England Patriots where Coach Flores learned his craft. Tucker could be special teams pick up who could also impact certain offensive plays. All this combines for me to feel he has a good shot at the later roster spots.

Trill Williams, Cornerback, Syracuse

Williams wasn’t actually a Miami pick up, as he initially signed his UDFA deal with the Saints, but some contract movement backfired. The Saints waived him, with the full intention of re-signing him, allegedly with contracts already drawn up. Miami had other plans and made their claim and he finds his way to South Beach.

A cornerback who had day two draft grades a year ago, a couple of injuries saw him slide down the board and end up undrafted. However, he has all the traits Miami would look for in an undrafted free agent, and on paper looks a better prospect than Nik Needham did when he signed his UDFA deal two years ago. It could well be Needham looking over his shoulder as Williams stakes a claim for a roster place.

A quick online search of his name and you find two of his most famous plays, two plays that have gone viral and been seen around the world before we even knew his name. The plays are eerily similar, one from high school and one from Syracuse where he goes to meet an opponent on a clear offensive drive, before ripping the ball out of their possession and returning it to the other end of the pitch himself.

Both plays demonstrate, speed, desire, hunger, aggression, athleticism and an impressive ability to see potential plays that others may not contemplate. With Coach Flores history with coaching defensive backs, it may not be that much of a surprise to see him make the roster.

Jibri Blount, Tight End, North Carolina Central

One of the easiest and most difficult player to profile. Simply because, he has no football profile. Blout comes out of North Carolina Central as a Basketball player, converted to Tight End. While this isn’t uncommon in the pro game, Blount was a surprise as Miami already have a well stocked and highly productive TE group.

They also drafted Hunter Long in round 3 to add to that and had recently inked Carl Tucker to a UDFA deal who also has TE experience. With Blount having no college football snaps to his name, it seems like a pickup that didn’t need to be made.

That said, Coach Flores is building a team of high energy, high impact athletes. The organization trust their coaching staff and will take chances on players with high level athletic abilities believing they can coach and refine the technique aspects.

Coming in at 6”5, 245lbs and known for running the boards hard and strong rebound ability, it is easy to see why his frame and ability to ‘see ball, get ball’ could appeal to the athletic traits this staff like. He also comes with pedigree, as the son of 5x pro bowler, 4 time superbowl winner and hall of famer Mel Blount. With that athletic skill set and sporting pedigree, Miami obviously see Blount as a risk worth taking.

In terms of role, its not hard to predict little to no immediate impact. Miami already have a stacked TE group, but two of which are out of contract in a years time. This aligns perfectly for Blount, who can sit on the practice squad, learn the game and the position, and if progress is made the Miami hope it can be, he will be ideally place to challenge for a roster spot in 12 months if Gesicki & Smythe move on to pastures new.

Jerome Johnson, Defensive Tackle, Indiana

The defensive prospect from Indiana measured in slap bang in the prototype category that Coach Flores loves for his position groups. At 6”2, 296lbs and with an 81 and a half inch wingspan, he is the exact build that this staff look for for their DTs. He also has a trait that Flores will fall in love with immediately; Discipline. Johnson is unlikely to give away many penalties, or forget or mis-remember his assignments. This is something that is crucial to a Brian Flores defense and could really work in his favour.

However, there are a lot of DTs in the mix in Miami. When you look at Christian Wilkins who is looking like a cornerstone of Miami’s future at the moment and with Raekwon Davis really starting to impress towards the end of last season, then Johnson is a long way from that. You then look at the next level of depth and see veterans Zach Sieler, Adam Butler and John Jenkins as well as 2nd year players like Jason Strowbridge, drafted last year and 2020 UDFAs Johnathon Ledbetter and Benito Jones.

Now these guys will be spread across the front line of our defensive seven, not all directly blocking Johnson’s path, they all provide higher level competition than Johnson is used to. With questions over his NFL readiness in terms of his speed both physically and in reading plays as they happen plus a more average athletic profile than Flores usually likes in his starter, it feels like a safe prediction to suggest that Johnson will ultimately find his way to the practice squad this year.

Jaytlin Askew, Cornerback, Georgia Tech

Askew could suffer from the waiver claim of Trill Williams as he bids for a roster spot. The 5”8 defensive back was picked up for two main reasons, his natural athleticism and his high football intelligence. I have spoken on this staff’s love for natural athletes, and they also like high intelligence guys who can learn playbooks, but read plays in game, analyse and respond quickly. Those are the traits that they will be hoping Askew can bring.

That said, there is a lot of traffic in his way for meaningful snaps. With Xavien Howard and Byron Jones the locked in starters, with Noah Igbinoghene a 2020 first round pick and free agents Justin Coleman and Jason McCourty sat behind them, there is not much room at cornerback.

Throw in Nik Needham and Jamal Perry who have both seen plenty of the field in recent times, plus the threat of Trill Williams as discussed above it is most likely that Askew finds his way onto the practice squad for 2021 as he waits for an opportunity.

Summary

After looking at each of these prospects, I don’t see any of them coming in and becoming immediate starters, but there is definite potential for one or more of them to earn a roster spot and make an impact on game day. Miami’s approach of quality over quantity with this class of UDFAs is clear, and each one has been picked up for specific reasons and with specific upside that the Dolphins hope to draw on. As with all Miami fans I will hope that whichever of these guys does get to suit up on game day, has the ability to make us a better football team. Good luck to each of these guys, we’ll all be rooting for you.

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