2017 NFL camp, preseason standout players for every team: Undrafted free agents are king

By Howard Balzer, The Sports Xchange   |   Aug. 23, 2017 at 8:45 PM
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If you entered the NFL as an undrafted free, there is a good chance you will find your way onto this list of players that have opened eyes during the preseason.

In this team-by-team analysis of training camp surprises by correspondents for The Sports Xchange, there are 17 undrafted rookies from this year and another seven from 2016.

Overall, there are also 12 wide receivers.

So, jot these names down and see how many manage to be on opening-day rosters or at least survive on a practice squad.

NFC EAST

DALLAS COWBOYS

--QB Cooper Rush: The undrafted rookie is making a bid for a roster spot, if not forcing himself into the conversation for the No. 2 job because of the disappointing play of Kellen Moore. In three preseason games, Rush has completed 26 of 38 passes for 283 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. "I'm just glad to see Rush taking advantage of his opportunities out there," said Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones. "We wouldn't want to get ahead of ourselves, in any way here. We have a lot of confidence in Moore."

NEW YORK GIANTS

--FB Shane Smith: Smith, an undrafted rookie free agent out of San Jose State, is looking to bring back some of the old-school style fullback play to the Giants offense. In his early opportunities, he's done just that, squaring up on his blocks and driving open holes for the running backs. In the preseason opener against the Steelers, Smith was the lead blocker on starting running back Paul Perkins' longest run of the night, a seven-yard gain over the left guard. In addition to getting his opportunities on offense, Smith has earned first-team snaps on special teams as a core special teamer, and has looked solid in those roles. With all that said, the Giants did sign fullback/tight end Rhett Ellison to presumably be their lead blocker this year, so there is no guarantee that Smith is going to earn a spot on the 53-man roster. However, he's done everything possible to make the decision a hard one for the coaches.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

--RB Corey Clement: An undrafted free agent from Wisconsin, Clement has taken advantage of the absence of Wendell Smallwood, who has a hamstring injury. Clement had a 6-yard touchdown run and a 24-yard run Thursday night against Buffalo. The most likely scenario is Smallwood makes the team and Clement is put on the practice squad. But given the way he's played in the preseason, if the Eagles release Clement, there's a good chance someone else will sign him.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

--DL Anthony Lanier: He put in a solid, if workmanlike, effort against Green Bay on Saturday and that has him in the mix for a 53-man roster spot. That's not a total surprise. He had a strong training camp in 2016 and made the roster last season, appearing in four games before a late-season leg injury led to injured reserve and an early end to his rookie campaign. But the Redskins brought in two free agents on the defensive line (Terrell McClain, Stacy McGee) and drafted Jonathan Allen in the first round so a roster spot is far from guaranteed. Lanier, an undrafted college free agent from Alabama A&M, has primarily been on the field in nickel packages. He's been more consistent in practices this summer, but hasn't flashed like he did a year ago. Lanier might need a splashier performance in Saturday's game against Cincinnati to push him over the top.

NFC NORTH

CHICAGO BEARS

--WR Tanner Gentry: He is an undrafted free agent from Wyoming who has made a habit of beating the reserve Bears secondary for passes all over the field. He has shown a special knack for getting behind the secondary deep on passes from Mitchell Trubisky. His production in two preseason games has been solid, with three catches. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound receiver faces a crowded battle for a roster spot, and will need to prove he can play special teams to make it. He has so far outplayed 2016 seventh-round pick Daniel Braverman and a handful of other holdover receivers.

DETROIT LIONS

--S Charles Washington: A year after he made the practice squad as an undrafted rookie, Washington has a chance to make the Lions' 53-man roster as the fourth or fifth safety. Washington missed the start of training camp for personal reasons, but has worked primarily with the second-team defense (and occasionally with the No. 1 unit) in recent weeks. Glover Quin and Tavon Wilson are locked into starting jobs, Miles Killebrew has played in dime packages and Don Carey is expected to man a special-teams role, but Washington is the top backup option at free safety and insurance in case Wilson faces NFL discipline for a legal matter. Ultimately, Washington will have to earn his roster spot on special teams, and the Lions are giving him a long look on both the punt- and kick-cover units.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

QB Taysom Hill: The Packers' No. 4 quarterback was expected to be just a camp body, but the former BYU standout has become a real contender to make the 53-man roster. In Green Bay's first preseason game, Hill had a perfect passer rating of 158.3. In the Packers' win over Washington, Hill had a 23-yard touchdown run with 6:16 left that provided the winning points in Green Bay's 21-17 victory. "Taysom played very well," head coach Mike McCarthy said. "I feel like I've said that seven times already, but he played very well. We had to go to a four-wide-receiver personnel there at the end just because we were short in the tight-end position, so I give those young guys a lot of credit because we ran base concepts and they were able to handle it, and the most responsibility falls on the quarterback and he did a very good job managing that particular drive and obviously versus the pressure defense there, the five-man pressure, he came out and made the big run for a touchdown."

Hill took a two-year church mission coming out of high school, and redshirted in 2015 after suffering a Lisfranc fracture. Therefore, Hill will turn 27 later this week. Hill's age -- and inability to throw with accuracy downfield -- turned off many scouts and were major reasons he went undrafted in April. But Hill is a terrific athlete with 4.44 speed in the 40-yard dash and has thrown the ball better than expected this summer.

"I think playing quarterback here just allowed me a great opportunity to develop under Aaron (Rodgers) and learn from him and it's a great system," Hill said. "These guys know what they're doing, they know how to develop quarterbacks. I think coach McCarthy has been deemed that -- a guy who develops quarterbacks -- so I was really excited about that opportunity."

Green Bay has rarely kept three quarterbacks under McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson. And even if the Packers keep three this season, Joe Callahan remains ahead of Hill for the time being. But if Hill continues to shine, he's optimistic things will work out just fine.

"I've been in quarterback competitions before and I would say at the end of the day, whether this sounds cliche or not, the competition is with yourself," Hill said. "You go out and try to be as good as you possibly can and if it doesn't work out in Green Bay the hope is that you get good tape out there that other teams see and you have an opportunity to play other places as well. But that being said, I've loved my experience here and I want to do everything I can to stick around this organization."

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

--LB Ben Gedeon: The rookie fourth-round draft pick has forced himself into the competition at weak-side linebacker in the base defense. That's where Chad Greenway played before retiring after 11 seasons. Because the Vikings play so many nickel packages, the winner of this battle will play only about 40 percent of the snaps. But it's still an important role. The assumption was the competition would come down to Emmanuel Lamur, a veteran who came over from Cincinnati before last season, and Edmond Robinson, who had been a backup on the strong side. But Gedeon is a feisty, active competitor who plays fast and makes tackles.

NFC SOUTH

ATLANTA FALCONS

--S Quincy Mauger: He made a spectacular interception in the fourth quarter against the Steelers on Sunday at Heinz Field. "What a great play by Jack Lynn going after him," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. "It was a really good stop and then Mauger getting his hands right underneath it." Lynn, an undrafted linebacker from Minnesota, flushed Pittsburgh quarterback Joshua Dobbs out of the pocket on one play. Dobbs tried to flip a pass outside to a receiver. But Mauger swooped in and got both of his hands under the ball for the catch, which was upheld after a review.

"Jack Lynn did a great job of getting the quarterback out of the pocket," Mauger said. "Everybody on the back end did their job of plastering their man and being able to affect the quarterback by just sticking to their man. He just threw the ball up there."

CAROLINA PANTHERS

--FB Alex Armah: A sixth-round draft pick out of West Georgia, Armah has turned some heads during training camp and in the preseason matchups. His touchdown in the second preseason game should provide a dose of confidence. Armah appears to be continuing to adjust to the professional level, so early indications suggest that he could be ready to help the team. It would be a welcome addition because of the departure of FB Mile Tolbert.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

--DE Al-Quadin Muhammad: He entered training camp as an intriguing prospect, but a long shot to make the roster. Halfway through the preseason he has been impressive, including having 1.5 sacks in a 13-7 victory at the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday night. Muhammad, 6-foor-4, 250 pounds, was considered a talented player coming out of Miami, but he had a very limited career, missing two of his last three seasons because of being suspended and later dismissed. The Saints thought enough of Muhammad's skills and their pass-rushing shortcomings to use a sixth-round draft choice on him. Suddenly, it would not be surprising if Muhammad earns a spot on the opening-day roster.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

--WR Bernard Reedy is making a real run at the fifth receiver spot and as a kick returner after another solid performance Thursday. Reedy is battling for the position with veteran Josh Huff. On Thursday, Reedy had two punt returns for 19 yards and returned a kickoff 29 yards.

NFC WEST

ARIZONA CARDINALS

--WR Chris Hubert: He was among those singled out by head coach Bruce Arians as a player who has improved his stock in training camp. That's important for Hubert because Arians has largely been disappointed with the majority of his receivers for the last two weeks. Called "Little Smoke" not because he reminds anyone of teammate John "Smoke" Brown, but because his father, Wayne, goes by the nickname "Smoke," Hubert has flashed a handful of times in preseason games and certainly in practices. "He's quick. He's quick and he's fast," Arians said. "A lot of times (on Saturday vs. the Bears), we had some running plays called and they stacked it up, so we threw it out to him and he made the first guy miss. Those are cheap yards, but they're good yards."

LOS ANGELES RAMS

--WR Josh Reynolds: A rookie from Texas A&M, Reynolds has made an immediate impact upon returning to practice last week, including catching the game-winning touchdown pass from Sean Mannion Saturday against the Oakland Raiders. The 6-foot-4 rookie has a basketball-type build with deceptive speed and great hands. The Rams receiver population is deep, but Reynolds is making noise.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

--FS Lorenzo Jerome: The undrafted player from St. Francis (Pa.) began camp as a longshot to make the team as a cornerback. Saturday, he was the starting free safety, having taken advantage of injuries suffered by projected starter Jimmie Ward and his chief backup, Jaquiski Tartt. Jerome has been so good, some have speculated Ward will return from his hamstring injury as a cornerback, a possible replacement for struggling Rashard Robinson. As camp ends, Jerome's versatility is seen as an asset the club would love to have at its disposal this season.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

WR Kasen Williams: The former University of Washington star seemed to be the forgotten man in the wide-receiver battle early in training camp. The third-year pro appeared to be at the bottom end of the depth chart with several returning contributors and draft picks seemingly in better position to make the roster. However, after four catches and 119 yards against the Los Angeles Chargers and two catches for 28 yards and a touchdown against Minnesota, Williams is firmly in the thick of the fight for a 53-man roster spot. Williams also made a tackle on special teams against the Vikings, which is critical for back-end roster spots.

AFC EAST

BUFFALO BILLS

--DE Eddie Yarbrough: He couldn't even make his way onto the field for the Calgary Stampeders of the CFL during a six-week stint in 2016. But the 260-pounder signed with the Bills in April, he made a little noise in the spring work, but then really hit his stride once camp began and it now seems likely that he'll earn a backup job in head coach Sean McDermott's defense. In the preseason opener against the Vikings, he had three tackles, a sack and two quarterback hits, and then in the second game against the Eagles, his lone tackle was for a loss, he broke up a pass, and he had a quarterback hit.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

--DT Davon Godchaux: Godchaux, the rookie fifth-round pick from LSU, has turned heads by beating out incumbent DT Jordan Phillips for the starting job, and playing an aggressive, physical style. He takes on double teams, is barely moved, and seems to have decent athleticism. It remains to be seen whether Godchaux can truly help improve a run defense that was 30th in the NFL last season, but it appears coaches think he's a better solution than Phillips.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

--LB Harvey Langi: An undrafted rookie linebacker out of BYU, Langi has taken advantage of the Patriots' serious lack of depth on the defensive edge with an abundance of reps with the first-unit defense. Though Langi is very much a work in progress as a pass rusher, it appears he's going to be given every chance to earn a key role on the defense to begin his career in New England. The Patriots have a history of undrafted rookies evolving into key contributors and Langi could be well on his way to adding his name to that list.

NEW YORK JETS

--WR Chris Harper: Only the Jets could have as their surprise a player who didn't record a catch and wasn't even targeted in the second exhibition game. But all the Jets receivers get a pass, pardon the pun, given the poor performance of quarterback Christian Hackenberg. Harper has shown some big-play ability and a decent set of hands during training camp, and that's a pretty good combination to possess when vying for a job with the leanest receiver corps in football. Add into the equation his modicum of NFL experience - he has 14 catches in two NFL seasons with the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers - and Harper has a legitimate shot at grabbing a starting job for Week 1.

AFC NORTH

BALTIMORE RAVENS

--CB Jaylen Hill: The undrafted free agent from Jacksonville State continues to make plays and has helped soften the blow of the loss of fellow cornerback Tavon Young, who is out for the season with a knee injury. Hill had a nifty interception in the preseason opener against the Redskins. Then, he was targeted five times against the Dolphins, but he allowed just one, 2-yard reception. Hill has certainly made a strong case for a spot on the final 53-man roster.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

--DE Chris Smith: A fourth-year player who spent the past three seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Smith hasn't played in more than seven games in any of his first three seasons. But, he's earning a chance to play with the Bengals. He had five quarterback hits and a sack in Saturday's loss to the Kansas City Chiefs and applied consistent pressure.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

--DT Trevon Coley: He caught the eye of Browns head coach Hue Jackson early in training camp and he hasn't slowed. He doesn't get pushed off the line of scrimmage and has a nose for the football as he demonstrated in the preseason opener when he forced a fumble. Coley was signed by the Ravens as an undrafted rookie in 2016. After spending some time on Washington's practice squad last year he was signed to the Browns' practice squad on Dec. 16. Coley, 6-foot-1, 310, won't start but is expected to be part of the rotation.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

--CB Mike Hilton: The undrafted free agent was cut by the Jaguars and Patriots last year, but it's looking like he might have found a home with the Steelers. Hilton, a 5-foot-9 slot corner out of Ole Miss, has taken advantage of an unexpected opportunity. After rookie third-round pick Cameron Sutton and Senquez Golson, the Steelers' 2015 second-round pick, were injured, Hilton became the top backup behind William Gay in the nickel package. Hilton has showed an ability to play tight man coverage and play well in run support. Most important, he's played well on special teams, something a reserve defensive back must do in order to make the 53-man roster.

AFC SOUTH

HOUSTON TEXANS

--WR Riley McCarron: Nicknamed "The Iowa Flash" by head coach Bill O'Brien, the undrafted free agent is a shifty slot receiver and kick returner. McCarron has to stay healthy, though, to make the team. He keeps getting banged up. McCarron has good speed, running the 40-yard dash in 4.36 seconds, but is undersized (5-foot-9).

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

--Rookie WR JoJo Natson: He may only be 5-foot-7, but the Akron alum plays a lot bigger. He has opened a lot of eyes since the start of training camp. Natson is making a strong push to be the Colts' primary kickoff returner. Small and tough to tackle in the open field, he has also impressed as a receiver. Natson is one of several good rookie receivers on the roster.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

--WR Keelan Cole: An undrafted free agent, Cole started training camp well down on the team's list of wide receivers, but has gradually worked his way up the depth chart through his solid play the first couple weeks of training camp. With injuries to normal starters Allen Hurns and Marqise Lee, Cole was inserted into the starting lineup for the Tampa Bay game. He continued to look strong as a punt returner with a 31-yard return in the second quarter that gave the Jaguars possession on the Buccaneers' 23-yard line. In the preseason opener, Cole came up big when he caught Chad Henne's throw from the 3-yard line in stride and outraced all Patriots defenders to complete a 97-yard scoring play. Cole now appears to be a lock to make the team's 53-man roster as both a receiver and returner.

TENNESSEE TITANS

--S Denzel Johnson: With Curtis Riley out, Johnson, an undrafted rookie from Texas Christian, got lots of snaps with the second unit on Saturday against Carolina and acquitted himself pretty well. He could be a practice-squad candidate.

AFC WEST

DENVER BRONCOS

--RB De'Angelo Henderson: He has been more than just a potential back-of-the-roster running back; the sixth-round pick looks like he could start at some point. The Coastal Carolina product leads the Broncos in yardage from scrimmage through two games and has averaged 6.5 yards per carry, racking up 84 yards on 13 carries. His emergence could leave the Broncos with some tough choices at running back.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

--TE Demetrius Harris: The Chiefs entered camp unsure of their depth at tight end behind starter Travis Kelce, but Harris shows signs of finally fulfilling his potential. The club signed Harris as an undrafted free agent in 2013 from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee basketball team. Harris owns just 27 catches for 217 yards and three touchdowns, but now lines up as the team's primary run blocker at tight end and has solidified his role as a pass catcher. The 6-foot-7, 230-pound tight is an easy target to find for quarterback Alex Smith. Harris dropped six passes a year ago on just 31 targets, but head coach Andy Reid said he's shown improved skills at catching the ball in tight spaces. Harris caught two touchdowns against Cincinnati in the team's 30-12 preseason win Friday.

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

--WR Jamaal Jones: The Chargers couldn't wait for their young pass-catcher to hit camp and form a connection with QB Philip Rivers. They just thought it would be top pick Michael Williams. Instead Jones, an undrafted first-year pro out of Montana, continues to flash in practice and games with his acrobatic catches - no matter the quarterback. Jones, who did have a fumble in Sunday's loss to the Saints, leads the Chargers with six catches for 59 yards. While Williams waits for his back to heal, Jones has stepped up.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

--LB Nicholas Morrow: He is a 6-foot, 216-pound linebacker from Division III Greenville who started against the Rams, got considerable time, and broke up a pass late in the game that he nearly intercepted. With rookie second-round pick Obi Melifonwu injured, Morrow has a chance to stick as a hybrid lineabacker safety in sub-packages. A defensive back in college, Morrow could be of service on special teams and passing downs.

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