NFL News & Analysis

12 UDFAs to watch in NFL training camp: Bryce Ford-Wheaton, Ivan Pace Jr. and more

2MDM8TT West Virginia's Bryce Ford-Wheaton in a NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021 in College Park, Md. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)

WR Bryce Ford-Wheaton, New York GiantsThe West Virginia product could carve out a rotational role in a new and improved receiver room.

• LB Ivan Pace Jr., Minnesota Vikings: Pace posted an elite 93.0 defensive grade, supplemented by 50 run stops and 46 total pressures, in 2022 at Cincinnati.

• CB Kahlef Hailassie, Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs' defensive back room might not have room for a UDFA, but Hailassie could sneak his way onto the team as a special teamer before making an impact at cornerback.

Estimated Reading Time: 9 mins

Every year, hundreds of players go without hearing their names called on NFL draft weekend. But the dream does not end there, as teams work to fill out their rosters with a crop of hungry and eager undrafted free agents.

Below are some of the UDFAs who are favorites to generate significant buzz as the offseason progresses and potentially carve out a role on their respective team's 53-man roster. This list is certainly not all-encompassing; there will undoubtedly be others who make a name for themselves this summer.

FB Hunter Luepke, Dallas Cowboys

A true Swiss Army knife offensively, Luepke lined up all over the formation for North Dakota State in 2022, from tailback to tight end to wide receiver. He averaged 6.5 yards per carry on 98 attempts on his way to nine rushing touchdowns while adding value through the air to the tune of 14 yards per catch on 14 receptions. That production was good for an 86.9 overall grade prior to his missing the Bison’s last five games with a shoulder injury.

Luepke profiles as a fullback/H-back for the Cowboys, offering a high run-blocking floor with receiving upside due to his soft hands and good movement skills in open space, as well as a short-yardage, change-of-pace back — something the Cowboys lack after releasing Ezekiel Elliott.

WR Bryce Ford-Wheaton, New York Giants

One of the more notable players to not hear their name called on NFL draft weekend, Ford-Wheaton instantly pops on his 2022 film due to his explosiveness and body control downfield. While he ran a limited route tree at West Virginia and lacks some creativity after the catch, he showed strong hands, converting more than 50% of his contested targets into catches, and brings suddenness at the top of his routes to create additional separation.

The Giants' receiving corps has improved, at least on paper, from this time last year, and Ford-Wheaton’s athletic profile and untapped potential as a route runner provide a ceiling for him to develop into a rotational piece.

TE Christian Sims, Los Angeles Rams

The slightly undersized Sims, aligning primarily as a move tight end and from the slot, fits a profile that Rams head coach Sean McVay has tried and failed to fill multiple times over the past several seasons. Sims generated success at the intermediate level in college by finding soft spots against zone coverage and showcased solid ball tracking and body control to adjust to passes outside his frame. Bowling Green also made a concerted effort to get the ball in his hands as much as possible due to his 5.9-yards-after-the-catch-per-reception average.

Sims will likely never be an above-average run blocker from an in-line position, as he often lunges into contact. And even college edge defenders were able to stall his leg drive once engaged. However, his soft hands, fluid movement skills and creativity after the catch give him an opportunity to flash in NFL training camp and the preseason, while his special teams experience will only help his case in making the roster.

IOL McClendon Curtis, Las Vegas Raiders

After three years of Curtis earning solid grades, including an 85-plus overall grade the past two seasons and a 90.9 pass-blocking grade in 2022 after not allowing a single sack while splitting time between left tackle and right guard, it was a bit of a shock for many to not hear the Senior Bowl attendee’s name called on Day 3.

He dominated lower-level competition with his frame and tenacity but struggles to fully utilize that advantage, and his lower-half flexibility leaves a lot to be desired, limiting his scheme versatility. However, Curtis' untapped potential due to his length and competitiveness, paired with landing in a weak Las Vegas interior offensive line room, gives him the opportunity to compete for a primary backup role this offseason.

IOL Emil Ekiyor Jr., Indianapolis Colts

A three-year starter for the Alabama Crimson Tide at right guard, Ekiyor posted zeros in the “sacks allowed” column in each of the past two seasons and allowed just eight total pressures in 2022 on 393 pass-blocking snaps. While he may not possess the ideal measurables for an NFL guard, his strong punch and hand usage, paired with light feet and good balance, should translate to pass-protection success against most NFL interior pass rushers.

Ekiyor’s struggles mirroring speed rushers, especially on inside counters, and his lack of lateral agility to make a consistent impact on reach blocks and in space will be worth monitoring through training camp, but a path to develop into a reliable backup is certainly not out of the question due to his technical floor and experience.

DI Jonah Tavai, Seattle Seahawks

Despite two years of great pass-rushing production, Tavai went undrafted but landed on a Seattle team with a history of identifying and developing undrafted talent. Following a 2021 season in which he posted 61 total pressures and a 14.7% pass-rush win percentage, Tavai elevated his game in 2022 to rack up 69 total pressures on a 22.4% win percentage, which included 12 sacks and 11 quarterback hits from a multitude of alignments across the defensive front.

Utilizing his lower center of gravity and efficient footwork, to go along with solid lower-half flexibility to corner against interior pass protectors, Tavai won primarily with his motor and quickness in the Mountain West but possesses the requisite hand usage and leverage to continue to develop his pass rushing repertoire. With names such as Mario Edwards Jr., Myles Adams and Forrest Merrill providing depth on the Seattle front, Tavai could carve out a role as an interior pass-rush specialist.

DI Jerrod Clark, Los Angeles Chargers

A hulking presence on the interior at 6-foot-4 and 337 pounds, Clark did not post gaudy numbers in his three years as a starter on the Coastal Carolina defensive front but showed consistent improvement year to year as a space eater and pocket pusher from the interior, capping out at a 79.5 defensive grade last season.

Despite his frame, Clark shows a solid first step and good pad level to win the leverage battle at the point of attack, with the necessary strength and length to split combo blocks or disengage and swallow ball carriers. Clark steps into a Chargers defensive interior that has added talented bodies yet has struggled mightily against the run over the past couple of years, a facet that may see him pop this summer from a zero- or one-technique alignment.

EDGE Eku Leota, Carolina Panthers

In five games in 2022, Leota posted an 82.2 pass-rush grade after notching four sacks and four quarterback hits on a solid 17.8% pass-rush win rate. Possessing an NFL-ready frame, Leota shows solid first-step quickness from both a two- and three-point alignment with adequate ankle flexion and a few two-hand swipes and dip moves to corner off the edge.

Leota has mostly feasted against lesser competition, and almost half of his college production came in either unblocked or cleanup situations. But if he can round out his pass-rush arsenal with an inside counter and sustain his play strength and block shedding against the run, Leota may find himself as a training camp riser among a mostly underwhelming edge rushing group in Carolina.

EDGE Zeke Vandenburgh, Miami Dolphins

After two years of relatively solid grading at Illinois State, Vandenburgh exploded in 2022 with 13 sacks and six quarterback hits, as well as proved solid against the run with 25 run stops on his way to winning the 2022 Buck Buchanan Award for Most Outstanding Defensive Player at the FCS level. Despite lacking top-tier measurables for the position, Vandenburgh overwhelmed FCS offensive linemen with his first-step quickness, hand usage and red-hot motor.

Transitioning from lower levels of competition to the NFL is particularly tricky to project, especially for undersized edge defenders, but Vandenburgh’s competitiveness and tenacity both against the run and the pass, evident immediately upon examination, along with special teams experience give him a fighting chance to stick behind Bradley Chubb, Jaelan Phillips and Andrew Van Ginkel. Whether he can make an impact on first through third down will likely hinge on his ability to build out his frame and pass-rushing repertoire.

LB Ivan Pace Jr., Minnesota Vikings

A 2023 NFL Draft Twitter darling, Cincinnati Bearcat Ivan Pace Jr. seemed primed to hear his name called in what appeared to be a weaker off-ball linebacker class. Despite his somewhat diminutive stature for the position, he posted an elite 93.0 defensive grade, supplemented by 50 run stops and 46 total pressures, in 2022. Pace consistently made his presence felt as a gap plugger and blitzer, showcasing a great feel for navigating traffic and working off blocks with good change of direction and contact balance.

While Pace lacks coverage instincts and sideline-to-sideline athleticism, there is certainly a role in the Vikings' linebacker room behind Brian Asamoah, Jordan Hicks and Troy Dye for a physical sparkplug with a nose for the football.

CB Starling Thomas V, Detroit Lions

A first-team All-Conference USA cornerback, Thomas feels like one of the easiest inclusions on this list. Landing in Detroit gives him an opportunity to stick as a core special teamer with the potential to provide depth both at outside cornerback and in the slot. Thomas’s explosiveness and long speed stand out as he mirrors receivers downfield with relative ease or quickly recovers from off coverage before showing good instincts and timing to play through a receiver’s hands to force incompletions at the catch point, as evidenced by his 17 forced incompletions in 2022.

If he can play a bit more under control at the catch point and parlay some of those ball skills into turnovers (zero interceptions in 2022) during summer camp, he may be a roster lock behind Emmanuel Moseley, Cam Sutton and former UDFA success story Jerry Jacobs.

CB Kahlef Hailassie, Kansas City Chiefs

While the Chiefs' defensive back room doesn’t seem to have much room for a UDFA to stick, much less make an impact, Hailassie plays with such clear competitiveness on the outside. Possessing solid measurables at 6-foot-1 and 193 pounds, Hailassie boasts an elite 6.68-second three-cone time and good coverage instincts, which show on film as he closes on the ball from off coverage. He needs to be more calculated in some of the risks he takes, as his eyes can get stuck in the backfield. He could also stand to clean up his tackling mechanics (11 missed tackles in 2022), and he may not have the long speed to carry receivers man to man on crossers or downfield.

Hailassie is a natural playmaker who understands how to play through a receiver’s hands at the catch point (13 forced incompletions and two interceptions in 2022) and is not afraid to mix it up in the screen and run games. Whether it is in Kansas City or elsewhere, he should find a roster spot as a gunner/vice on special teams with the upside to develop into a solid rotational cornerback.

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