In recent years, the Jacksonville Jaguars have been forced to rely on—and find some success with—undrafted free agents. Injuries, trades or just lack of depth has forced the front office to promote UDFA’s from the practice squad.
But then there are also the Cinderella stories; the guys who maybe started at a smaller school and didn’t receive as many eyes. Or the ones who saw a final year in college go by the wayside but still have talent left to give.
The Jaguars have used a combination of both over the years. Some of those numbers were explained in a research piece we published here in July”
“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 began.
“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 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.”
As the deadline to make cuts for a 53-man roster races towards the NFL, those UDFA’s are spending every last moment to make their impression on coaches. Running back James Robinson in particular has received praise from teammates this week.
But without the advent of preseason games in 2020—which are typically where those unsigned guys earn their spots—they are at distinct disadvantage as opposed to past years.
For guys like safety Andrew Wingard (signed and started in 2019), the preseason games were everything. Which means working one’s self onto the roster without them proves even more. But the loss of them—while praised by most players since they can lead to unnecessary injuries—will change the landscape of teams in Wingard’s opinion.
“The preseason games were basically how I made the roster,” Wingard told Jaguar Report.
“It’s gonna be really, really hard for guys this year and it's actually a really—it’s a really crappy situation, it really is for a lot of these guys because a lot of them are not gonna get that shot. And they're gonna have to do everything in their power just to show them as much as they can in these practices.
“It's also going to hurt a lot of vet’s just because you know they're gonna come and say, ‘Well, you know you're in your fifth year but you know we want to get a look at these rookies to see, you know what they can do in practice.'
“So it's gonna be, it's gonna be a really challenging year for an undrafted guy to make the team. And I would say, like I think if an undrafted guy makes the roster this year it’ll be doublely impressive, if they make the team without playing any games. So, it will be interesting to see what happens but I feel for the guys. Because I was in their shoes is but I definitely wasn't in their shoes in a time like this so they’re just gonna have to put their nose down.”
The Jags brought on 18 undrafted free agents initially and are currently carrying 13 on the roster. In an effort to get down to 53 men, pure numbers indicate a swatch could be cut. However, the NFL and NFLPA have agreed to increase the practice squad to 16 players for the 2020 season meaning that a good portion could be signed onto that squad. If that happens, Wingard sees it as a positive step for this fall.
“Guys that make the practice squad this year, I consider that the same thing as making the roster, because you just bought yourself more time to show what you can do and eventually probably get called up because you know the most inevitable thing in this league every year is injuries.”
In the meantime, the biggest thing every former UDFA agrees on is paying attention to detail. It’ll be what sets guys apart from others and what forces coaches to keep someone around.
Safety Tre Herndon (signed in 2018/started in 2019) isn’t too far from having made that transition. He took over the starting role at corner following the injury and then trading of Jalen Ramsey. With the memories still fresh of that grind, he’s passing on lessons to the other UDFA’s around him at camp—two of whom are corners; Luq Barcoo and Amari Henderson.
“I just try to tell those guys, on and off the field, run, run, run. Just run full speed in all the drills, look at the guys ahead of you to make sure you don’t make the same mistake they do. Just trying to not really focus on being perfect but high effort and just jumping in there whenever you can and getting your reps in so coach can notice that you’re giving that effort and you’re trying to make a name for yourself.”
Adds defensive lineman Abry Jones (signed and promoted 2013/started 2016), “practice is everything. They film everything from individual to team reps. So I feel like as an undrafted guy you just have to take advantage of all that.
“You have to be a real classroom guy- take the proper notes, being able to answer the questions coaches ask you. Even without preseason games, we’re going to have practices and the depth chart is going to shuffle around. When you get your chance you have to take advantage of that. You can move up on the depth chart just because you know how to run a certain play over somebody, so that’s one of the things.”
Without preseason games and with decisions possibly being made off of the practice squad into the season, it is those meetings that could be the biggest difference.
“I’ve just been talking to a couple guys and undrafted guys about just being on the details of things,” explained defensive back Jarrod Wilson (signed & made roster in 2016/started in 2018), “little things as far as being on time to meetings or a couple of minutes early. It’s a saying I heard a long time ago that you’d rather be seen than heard, especially when you’re a younger guy. So just show up, be ready to work and always just paying attention to the details. That will kind of give you a leg up on anything because that may not be the case with everyone.”
Being heard at times however can be helpful explains Wingard.
“Coaches ask a lot of questions in meetings and even now those coaches probably didn't put that much, you know, weight into that question. But now when they're sitting in those meetings, if a coach ask you a question and you get it wrong, you know, that's holds a little more weight this year because there's just not that much time we get on the field.
"Guys who know this stuff and guys who have run this stuff before are definitely going to be at a huge advantage this year. You know, that's just how the cards are dealt. Life is not always going to be fair, so again it's going to be, it’s going to be a crazy.”
Wingard and Jones are currently at two different points of the UDFA journey. Wingard is going into his second year, looking to continue to carve out a place on this roster, forcing coaches—as he says, to proclaim, “‘we can’t lose this guy.’ They're gonna sit in there and they can say all these good things about you and stuff like that but at the end of the day, what's gonna get you on that roster is not ‘oh this guy can do this he can do that.’ It has to be these coaches saying ‘we can’t lose this guy.’”
Jones is in his eighth year and is the longest tenured player on the Jaguars roster. He’s proven the Jags can’t lose him, especially this season when unbelievable attrition has hit the defensive line before the season can even get started. But both—along with Wilson and Herndon—still remember what it was like to fight and claw onto a roster. As such, they refuse to be stingy with any advice.
Explains Wingard, “the guys that were here last year with me gave me that knowledge and I'm not gonna hold anything back to try to, you know, better myself. I'm all in for all these guys and give them the benefit of the doubt.”
“Another key part, for these young guys to make the team, is going to be on the shoulders of us older guys,” adds Jones.
“We have to acknowledge that this is a team game, that we need everyone on this team, and we can’t just be trying to shun out the young guys to try to keep a job. We need to teach them and bring them along as fast as they can because we have some great talented rookies that we need to play.”