Undrafted free agents can still make it in the NFL, but let’s not act like it isn’t an uphill battle from here. The odds are slim for all of these players to make it at the next level, but there is no question that some spots are better than others.
Here are five players that not only have the ability to make an NFL roster, but also landed in favorable situations to have an impact this season and possibly beyond.
1. Cole Hikutini, TE, San Francisco 49ers
Two factors contribute to Hikutini making this list. First, he was an early fourth round grade on my board, and he fell due to a recent knee injury that left him unable to impress scouts at his workout, which was just a week after he started running again.
NFL teams didn’t think the uncertainty was worth a flier, so Hikutini is an undrafted free agent. But Hikutini impresses on tape, showing clean routes and enough speed to threaten the seams of a defense. He’s not an overwhelmingly powerful blocker but he is effective and run behind heavily at Louisville. Hikutini’s ability to play in-line, as a wing or flex will add to his value, as he battles for a spot amidst a crowded but unimpressive group behind Vance McDonald.
Garrett Celek and Blake Bell will be his top competitors, as fellow rookie George Kittle is likely a lock to make the final roster after being a fifth-round pick.
2. Joe Mathis, EDGE, Houston Texans
A powerful edge defender who was in the top 100 of numerous boards across the landscape of draft media analysts, Mathis was dropped from teams’ boards after they received a poor medical report on his foot. The injury, coupled with Mathis’ unimpressive workout (to be fair, he had just returned to running), past history at Washington and limited production due to an injury that cut short his senior year all buried his ability to get drafted, but Mathis has plenty of talent if he can stay healthy.
He has experience playing from a two and three-point stance, which he’ll need to do in Houston’s hybrid defensive fronts. Remember, Houston lost their #3 edge rusher in John Simon this offseason, and failed to replace him.
Mathis’ ability to convert speed-to-power and set a dominant edge against the run should win him a spot over Brennan Scarlett and Tony Washington, but only if his foot checks out.
3. Sojourn Shelton, CB, Arizona Cardinals
Shelton is 5-foot-9, 177 pounds, and that’s basically why he is an undrafted free agent. He’s a tenacious cover man who will scrap at the catch point and has the feet to mirror-and-match receivers throughout the route tree. His football IQ is excellent, especially in zone coverage where Shelton’s instincts help him jump routes and make plays on the ball.
The Cardinals don’t have a set-in-stone starter opposite Patrick Peterson, and while Budda Baker will likely start in the slot, Shelton could be the fourth cornerback off the bench if he can beat out Brandon Williams or Justin Bethel.
The Cardinals prioritize guys who can play over guys who were drafted high, and Shelton can play and will work his tail off on special teams.
4. K.D. Cannon, WR, San Francisco 49ers
He’s heralded for his deep speed but after watching Cannon on tape, the thing that really stood out to me was how fast he gets on top of corners off the snap. His speed isn’t build-up, as Cannon is able to access his burst immediately, forcing corners to open up and creating separation on comebacks and curls. His route-running needs a lot of work and development, but there is typically a premium placed on vertical ability like Cannon’s.
After Pierre Garcon, every receiver spot in San Francisco is up for grabs. There’s a glut of average talent behind the veteran receiver, and if Cannon can prove himself in camp, he might even go from undrafted free agent to wearing a hat on game days.
5. Jeremy Cutrer, CB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Cutrer has the length, intensity and click-and-close ability to be a very enticing corner if he can add some weight and refine his technique. His backstory is crazy, and the adversity of being an undrafted free agent will be absolutely nothing to him.
The Jaguars have Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye in the starting lineup, but after that no roster spot is guaranteed. Cutrer has the tools and mentality to work his way into the mix if the team is patient with his development.