In a world of top-dollar contracts and star-powered draft picks, the undrafted free agent can often seem like a footnote on a roster. The Cinderella story that gets told each season after a breakout game before turning our attention back to the regular roster. But in a sport predicated on injury and depth, having access to quality talent can make or break a team.
It’s a lesson the Jacksonville Jaguars have benefitted from in recent years under head coach Doug Marrone. Either through rookie signings or bringing in veterans who had already risen from their undrafted status to become big names, the Jaguars' success and hardships have been shaped by undrafted rookie free agents in Marrone’s tenure.
In 2017, Marrone’s interim tag was removed and the Jaguars had arguably their best season in years, if not franchise history. Whether coincidentally or not, it was also the season most heavily influenced by UDFA’s in the past three years. There were 27 on the roster over the course of the season, with 15 of those 27 signed in 2017 alone. Eight were promoted or signed during the season once play had already begun.
Older veterans like Barry Church and Abry Jones were experienced enough at that point to have outgrown any stigma around the label. And corner A.J. Bouye came to Duval as one of the most sought after free agents on the market following his four years with the Houston Texans. And it’s really that synopsis that encapsulates how free agents helped give Jacksonville an edge as they won the AFC South division.
There’s little question it was the defense that drove the run to the AFC Title Game. On that defense, both safeties were UDFA’s; Church and Tashaun Gipson. Then there was Bouye who started opposite Jalen Ramsey at corner.
Bouye was third in the league that season with six interceptions. Church and Gipson were 14th and 15th respectively with four apiece. Gipson set the tone for the defense that season, picking off Deshaun Watson in the season opener. Gipson and Church both helped give the Jags a crucial AFC win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, nabbing three interceptions off of Big Ben Roethlisberger (he threw five total that day) in Week 5.
It was the latter half of the season though that the Jags undrafted free agents had some of their biggest—and most impactful—moments. Jaydon Mickens was promoted from the practice squad to the 53-man roster on October 21 as a wide receiver, although he was primarily used for punt and kick return.
Two weeks later, against the Cincinnati Bengals, Mickens returned a punt 63-yards for a touchdown in the win. In Week 15, Mickens returned a 72-yarder to the 1-yard line, setting up a touchdown against Houston in the playoff-clinching win. He added two touchdowns as a receiver as well in that win.
There are countless other examples of UDFA’s changing the Jaguars path that fateful season. Like in Week 10, when Bouye returned an interception 51 yards, setting up a game-winning field goal by newly acquired free agent placekicker Josh Lambo. That 30-yard game-winner against his former team in overtime was the first of several walk-offs to come for Lambo.
Or when Keelan Cole led the NFL in Week 15 with 186 yards and a touchdown in the AFC South-clinching win over Houston.
Then there’s Corey Grant. The undrafted free agent running back had been with the Jaguars since 2015. He’d made the 53-man roster in training camp and finished the 2017 regular season with 30 rushes for 248 yards and two touchdowns. Grant gave the New England Patriots a glimpse into his speed in the pre-season, breaking off a 79-yard touchdown that had Matt Patricia shaking his head in disgust. It was the postseason though where Grant made waves. The first half of the AFC Title Game, the Patriots had no answers for Corey Grant. He worked on bleeding them to death with small paper cuts, to the tune of three receptions for 59 yards (19.67 average per reception).
The Patriots won the game but Corey Grant was still haunting New England Head Coach Bill Belichick the following September.
"Very productive player in the kicking game, and they use him on a lot of their gadget-type plays – reverses and fake punts and so forth," Belichick said at the time.
"He’s been very productive on those. And then offensively, he’s fast. He’s gotten out in space against us several times."
The Jags weren’t able to replicate their same success in 2018, going 5-11 and missing the postseason. Marrone and staff used the season though to continue building with UDFA’s that could be cornerstone’s on a roster. Over the course of the season, 33 undrafted free agents played roles on the Jags roster. 10 were promoted during the season and 22 of the 33 started either long term or when filling in for injured players.
Six offensive linemen that started at different times that season all began as UDFA’s (two of them saw playing time following injuries to other starters). One of those was Andrew Norwell. The guard began his NFL career with the Carolina Panthers in 2014. By the time he arrived in Jacksonville in 2018, the former UDFA was signing as the highest-paid guard in the league.
By the time 2019 rolled around, the Jaguars active roster boasted 23 free agents over the course of the season. Eight were promoted or signed in season and 12 started over the course of the season—including three at linebacker (Austin Calitro, Joe Giles-Harris and Donald Payne) as the unit was decimated by injuries.
Many of the names on the roster began to change but the formula Marrone had found to work in 2017 remained the same; namely, use underrated free agents in the secondary.
At corner, Bouye was joined by second-year UDFA, Tre Herndon (55 tackles, 3 INT). The Vanderbilt alum made the roster as the fifth corner in 2018 and proved his worth by the time someone needed to stop in for Ramsey in 2019. Once Ramsey was officially traded to the Los Angeles Rams, Herndon had earned the starting role outright.
That meant both corners were UDFA’s, while the safeties looked different to a degree. Church and Gipson were both with new teams but Jarrod Wilson—originally signed in 2017—was named the new starter alongside 2018 draft pick Ronnie Harrison. Wilson finished with 79 tackles, two interceptions, four passes defended, one forced fumble and two quarterback hits.
Fellow UDFA Andrew Wingard started at both strong and free safety, filling in for injuries during the season. Wingard put his head down and forced coaches to play him on special teams as well, becoming the only 2019 UDFA to make the 53-man opening day roster.
The Jaguars' roster still boasts some of those undrafted free agents that rose above their station to become vital parts to past—and ideally future—success. They’ve drafted and signed others to take over the reins in areas where UDFA’s were being used to plug holes, like at linebacker.
Now with a season on the horizon that is marred by uncertainty, it will be the undrafted free agents who suffer the most from lost practice time and preseason games. But history shows they will also be who the Jacksonville Jaguars turn to during what looks to be a season riddled with illness and lost starters.