The Buffalo Bills currently have 89 players on their roster, and 21 of those players are NFL rookies. Since the team only made six selections in the 2017 NFL Draft, that means 16 of those rookies are of the undrafted variety.
While not exactly commonplace, it’s not unheard of for undrafted players to become solid NFL players. Jason Peters and Fred Jackson are two examples of UDFA signings to star for our very own Buffalo Bills; however, there are far more instances where the signings don’t work out quite to that degree.
The Bills’ 16 UDFAs did not hear their names called on draft day, but what are their chances of making the 53-man roster in September?
Nigel Williams—DT, Virginia Tech
Williams does have one thing going for him—his name—but it will take more than that to crack the roster at what appears to be one of Buffalo’s stronger positions. Kyle Williams is 34, and Marcell Dareus is prone to doing stupid things, but those two men should anchor the position for the majority of the season. Adolphus Washington (who was deactivated for the final game of the 2016 season due to poor effort in practice) and Jerel Worthy appear to have the inside shot as the two primary backups inside.
After a productive sophomore season at Virginia Tech, the 6’2”, 297-pound Williams struggled with injuries as a junior and a senior, only managing to play in 14 games over the two-year span. His path to the roster includes an incredible camp and some things going his way that would actually be detrimental to the team as a whole (an injury to Kyle Williams, for example).
Greg Pyke—G, Georgia
Zach Voytek—G, New Haven
Admittedly, I know next to nothing about either of these players. My feeling that their spot on the roster falls more under the realm of “camp body” than it does serious competition has more to do with the players ahead of them on the depth chart. Assuming that the Bills keep seven linemen on the 53-man roster, six of those players are near locks already (LT Cordy Glenn, guards Richie Incognito, John Miller, and Ryan Groy, center Eric Wood, and G/T Dion Dawkins). That leaves one spot, probably for a tackle. If the buzz about Jordan Mills is to be believed, then he is the most likely candidate to make the roster out of camp, and he may even retain his job as the starting right tackle.
This would put Pyke and Voytek in a fight with Seantrel Henderson, Vladimir Ducasse, and Patrick Lewis for a potential spot as the 8th lineman on the roster. Pyke is a massive man at 6’6” and 325 pounds, and Voytek is no mighty-might, either (6’5”, 305 pounds). One may make the practice squad, but I would be stunned if either made the final roster.
Anthony Harrell—LB, Georgia Tech/Florida
Abner Logan—LB, Albany (MD)
The battle that both of these men has on their hands was discussed by Jeff Hunter in articles earlier this week, so I’ll keep it brief. Both Harrell and Logan are behind Reggie Ragland, Preston Brown, Gerald Hodges, Lorenzo Alexander, and Ramon Humber at the position, as well as fellow rookies Tanner Vallejo and Matt Miliano. Barring something miraculous, neither will be on the 53-man roster in September.
Hey, You Never Know
Jordan Johnson—RB, Buffalo
This isn’t merely throwing a hometown kid a bone; there is a legitimate possibility that the 6’0”, 230-pound Johnson makes the team as the fifth running back on the roster. The top four spots in the offensive backfield are all but settled (LeSean McCoy, Jonathan Williams, Patrick DiMarco, and Mike Tolbert). The team could choose to keep only four, as those four are the only ones who would be active on game days anyhow. Tolbert’s ability to play both running back and fullback make it possible, but the team would then be one injury away from catastrophe in the backfield.
(Truthfully, this group is already a LeSean McCoy injury away from being well below-average. It’s too bad they didn’t have a top-notch backup already on the roster capable of filling in at a moment’s notice...).
Jeff Hunter profiled Johnson in the first installment of his “90 players in 90 days” series. While he may begin the year as a practice squad player, it would not surprise me at all if he were to be elevated at some point in the year due to an injury at the position.
Greg Mabin—CB, Iowa
Marcus Sayles—CB, West Georgia
The defensive backfield is a spot on the roster where depth is essential, and the Bills don’t seem to have much of it. With Ronald Darby and rookie Tre’Davious White set to play significant time, the team has little in the way of proven depth beyond that point. Kevon Seymour and Leonard Johnson seem to have the edge inside leaving one or two roster spots up for grabs. Veteran Shareece Wright is a name to watch, but the great likelihood is that at least one of the Bills’ UDFAs at the corner position will make the final roster.
NFLdraftscout.com lists Mabin and Sayles as the 50th and 51st (respectively) corners in the 2017 draft class. As Jeff Hunter noted in his profiles of Mabin and Sayles, the former has better size, but the latter has better statistical production to his name. At 6’2” and 200 pounds, Mabin is significantly larger than the 5’10”, 175-pound Sayles. Mabin did not work out at Iowa’s pro day due to a foot injury, but Sayles impressed onlookers with his athleticism at West Georgia’s. His 40” vertical would have been second among all corners at the combine, and his 4.5 second 40 yard dash would have put him right in the neighborhood of Buffalo’s first round pick, who ran a 4.47.
This will be an interesting position to watch. Mabin has the ideal frame for a Cover 3 corner in the scheme Sean McDermott runs, but Sayles has the ability to contibute on special teams.
Brandon Reilly—WR, Nebraska
Daikiel Shorts—WR, West Virginia
The wide receiver position on the Bills’ roster is like the Island of Misfit Toys in the classic Christmas film Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. After Sammy Watkins and Zay Jones, there are no guarantees on the roster. There are the big-bodied veterans (Andre Holmes and Rod Streater), the smaller types (Rashad Ross, Brandon Tate, Corey “Philly” Brown, and Walter Powell), the project question-marks (Dezmin Lewis and Jeremy Butler), and the undrafted rookies noted above.
Assuming that the reports out of camp are correct, Holmes seems like the safest bet to make the roster from the gallimaufry. After that, anyone’s guess is just that—a guess.
If it were me making the decisions, Streater and Tate would be the fourth and fifth receivers, leaving room for one more. Powell’s suspension puts a damper on his chances, and Brown’s best in is his familiarity with McDermott from their days together in Carolina. The perpetually-underwhelming Lewis has the size, but has done nothing over the last two years to separate himself from an otherwise-nondescript group of receivers, so I’m not holding my breath.
Enter the undrafted rookies. The hyper-athletic Reilly ran well at his pro day (his 4.47 in the 40-yard dash is just a tick under Zay Jones’s 4.45) and put up 18 bench reps, which would have been good for third had he been invited to the combine. His 32” vertical is nearly equal to that of Mike Williams (32.5”), and all of his short-sprint and agility times match up favorably against other, more well-known prospects. Playing in an offense heavily tilted towards the run, he did not put up big numbers, catching 70 passes for 1,275 yards and six touchdowns on his collegiate career.
Then, there is the productive Shorts, who did a great job during his college career in a more pass-happy offense. Playing primarily from the slot, the 6’1”, 202-pound Shorts caught 176 passes for 2,246 yards and 14 touchdowns as a Mountaineer. Shorts is a solid if unspectacular athlete, and Reilly beats him in every measurable category but one—his vertical leap (he out-jumped Reilly by 1 whole inch).
The ability to contribute on special teams will probably play a tremendous part in who will make the back end of the roster. It’s quite possible that one of these two players is the last receiver to make it, and if not, they may find their way onto the practice squad. If I had to rank them, I’d take Reilly first and try to stash Shorts. His athleticism is too impressive, and his experience in a run-first offense implies that he’s accustomed to blocking downfield often.
So You’re Saying There’s a (Good) Chance!
Marquavius Lewis—DE, South Carolina
A quick look at the Bills’ roster is all that’s necessary to notice that the defensive end position is one that is severely lacking in depth. Aside from Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson, the Bills only have one other player (Ryan Davis) at the position who has registered statistics in an NFL game.
One possibility is that some of the linebackers (Lorenzo Alexander and Eddie Yarbrough, for example) could slide down to the end position in passing situations. However, there is no way that the team breaks camp with only three defensive ends on its 53-man roster.
Lewis is not particularly strong (21 bench reps at his pro day), quick (4.68 20-yard shuttle time), or agile (7.6 3-cone time), but he is a strong run defender. His statistics don’t jump off the page, but Pro Football Focus graded him highly for his efforts in 2016. His 77.7 overall grade is above-average, and his 86.5 grade against the run ranked him third among draft-eligible defensive ends.
This lack of eye-popping athleticism combined with solid on-field play suggests that the young man has a great motor, which is a great trait to have at any position, but is doubly important as a member of the defensive line.
While the “Bills Today” article linked above projects Lewis as a defensive tackle at the NFL level, his size (6’3”, 270 pounds) translates fairly perfectly to a 4-3 defensive end in the NFL. At a position where the Bills need a ton of help, he has a great chance not only to make the roster, but to jump into the rotation at defensive end.
Austin Rehkow—P, Idaho
Colton Schmidt was bad in 2016. Like, really, really, bottom-of-the-league bad in virtually every measurable category for punters. Schmidt’s 42.4 yards per punt average was worst in the NFL among qualified punters. 20 of his 75 kicks were downed inside the 20 yard line (for reference, Atlanta’s Matt Bosher had 21 such kicks—in only 44 attempts). His 38.1 net yards per punt average was second-worst in the league, as well.
So it makes sense, then, that the Bills brought in competition for their incumbent punter. Rekhow was a duel kicker-punter for the Vandals, and as a junior he excelled in both roles. He was 23-for-27 on field goals, and averaged 45.9 yards per punt in 2015. As a senior in 2016, he remained excellent on field goal attempts (hitting 26 of 29 tries), but he regressed as a punter, averaging only 41.6 yards per punt. Similarly, his performance as a kickoff specialist regressed, as well, as he hit 41 of 73 kickoffs for touchbacks in 2015, but only 25 of 80 in 2016.
If Rehkow regains his 2015 form, Schmidt will be hard-pressed to keep his job. The team would save very little by cutting Schmidt (the savings from his 1.15 million dollar cap hit would largely be offset by the $600,000 in dead cap from cutting him), but it may be worth it in the long run. I expect this to be a battle.
B.T. Sanders—S, Nicholls State
If the wide receiver position is the Island of Misfit Toys, the safety position is like the toy chest at Sid’s house. Aside from free agent additions Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, the Bills have two players—Colt Anderson and Shamiel Gary—with NFL game experience. Bradley Sylve is listed as a DB on the team’s official roster, but he probably profiles best as a cornerback (if healthy, his pedigree is far better than the majority of the players at corner for the Bills, and he may actually stand a chance...but I digress).
Sanders had a solid, if unspectacular, career at Nicholls State. The 6’0”, 195-pound safety started 33 games in college, and it would have been more had he not missed the final three games of his senior year due to injury. He had 254 tackles over his four-year career, and led the team with two interceptions as a sophomore in 2014.
At a position of desperate need, it seems more likely that the team would add a veteran (Corey Graham, perhaps?) to the fold after the conclusion of training camp rather than taking a risk on an undrafted rookie; however, a strong performance from Sanders plus a lack of proven depth in front of him could lead to a surprise spot on the 53 if all breaks his way.
Jason Croom—TE, Tennessee
Keith Towbridge—TE, Louisville
This is the position that I feel is most likely to include an undrafted player come September. There is one player who is all but guaranteed to be on the roster (Charles Clay), and another who is a good bet to be on it (Nick O’Leary). After Blake Annen was released, some hope emerged that the Bills would add veteran free agent Gary Barnidge; however, that signing has yet to materialize.
Croom is a converted wide receiver who missed two years (2012 and 2015) due to injury during his collegiate career. At 6’4” and 246 pounds, he ran a 4.69 second forty-yard dash (which would have been 10th among tight ends at the combine), put up 23 reps in the bench press (2nd), had a 34” vertical (7th), had a 120” broad jump (10th), ran a 7.33 three-cone drill (3rd), and ran a 4.4 second 20-yard shuttle (6th). He is a fantastic athlete who could be a deadly weapon as a receiver in two-tight end sets. His efforts during rookie minicamp even garnered some praise, and the team website wrote about his physical skills in May, as well. His is a name to watch closely as the offseason progresses.
Towbridge is another solid athlete with a limited collegiate resume in terms of statistics. At 6’3” and 262 pounds, he is a solid specimen who should hold up better as a run blocker than the lighter Croom. With only 21 receptions over his four-year college career, it’s hard to say what his ability as a receiver is.
Barring a veteran addition, it’s a near-certainty that at least one of the two undrafted tight ends will be on the 53-man roster. The early leader is Croom, but his injury history plus Towbridge’s prototypical size for the position makes the Louisville product a strong possibility, as well.
In the end, it seems unlikely that most of the players discussed above will make the final roster. However, the Elias Sports Bureau mentioned that, as of 2016, there were as many undrafted free agents (481) in the NFL as there were first- and second-round picks, so it isn’t out of the question that a few of these players will make the roster.
I would put Croom as my most likely to make the final roster, followed by Lewis, with a strong nod to Sanders, Rekhow, the corners (I’d give a slight edge to Mabin over Sayles based solely on size and scheme, but neither would surprise me), and the receivers (I’d rank Reilly over Shorts based on athleticism).
Who are your dark-horses to make the final roster, Bills fans?