As we enter training camp, those with the longest odds of making the roster might see a bleak, overwhelming hill ahead of them. After all, most rosters have more spots available on the offensive line and in the secondary.
The Vikings, on the other hand, have nine offensive linemen who have started 16 consecutive games and a tenth earning first team rotation in Zac Kerin and five cornerbacks who either started last year or were drafted in the first two rounds in the past two years. A final cornerback is their starting punt returner, and he’s one of the league’s best.
Undrafted free agents often receive the smallest amount of attention but can end up making enormous impacts on the roster. Aside from the fact that they’ll often compose the core of the special teams unit, like Adam Thielen does, they populate critical parts of the offensive and defensive units.
The Vikings have an undrafted free agent starting fullback in Zach Line and an undrafted free agent starting safety in Andrew Sendejo. People are familiar with the stories of potential Hall-of-Famers Kurt Warner and James Harrison, but acknowledging the roles across the roster that UDFAs fulfill is a big part of understanding what they do.
For long stretches of time over the past two years, the best interior defensive lineman was backup defensive tackle Tom Johnson, undrafted out of Southern Miss. While many people argue Joe Berger was the best offensive lineman last year, I think it was undrafted (from UCLA) free agent Mike Harris. The touchdown leader from 2014? An undrafted free agent from Utah, Matt Asiata. The tenth offensive lineman in the first-team rotation is undrafted Zac Kerin and the Vikings’ league-leading punt returner, Marcus Sherels, had to sign with a team after the draft as well.
It is difficult, but not impossible, for undrafted players to make an impact.
Fighting for starting jobs right now are undrafted safety Anthony Harris and undrafted linebacker Emmanuel Lamur.
Even if they aren’t expected to start year one, who are the undrafted free agents worth keeping an eye on with the Vikings?
In one sense, all of them are worth noting—undrafted free agents tend to be unpredictable, after all. But the ones that captured my eye are those that are fighting for a spot that seems open and have at least one skill they can rely on as a trump card.
Jhurell Pressley, RB New Mexico
If you’ve followed my work in the past, you know that I’m pretty excited that the Vikings signed the New Mexico running back. Let’s talk balance, awareness, power and speed.
That run is not too dissimilar from one of the greatest runs Vikings fans have had the privilege to see
The former New Mexico back has this ability in spades. Pressley demonstrated quite a bit of this throughout his final season at New Mexico, but there are some serious issues in his evaluation. First, he only had 147 carries (the exact same number of carries as the other “starting” running back on the roster, Teriyon Gipson, as well as the quarterback, Lamar Jordan). Second, he comes from a difficult to project system, full of option runs and pistol sets (even pistol sets with lead backs).
The scouting report on Pressley in my training camp guide emphasizes his athleticism—and it is indeed impressive on the field and in the gym—but his quick decisionmaking, steady hands (both in terms of securing the ball in the air and preventing fumbles) and keen vision are worth a look as well.
He may be too quick to bounce the ball outside, but it could be the product of the awful offensive line he worked with. While he shows impatience determining whether or not to stick to the design of the play, he shows excellent patience once there, allowing blocks to develop and running at different speeds.
Pressley showcases power when he wants to, but may be a little to hesitant to commit to contact and if anything holds him back, it will be that hesitancy.
He’s being showcased because there may be a running back spot open in 2017 because of Adrian Peterson’s contract and age, and he may earn a practice squad spot to compete for a role in 2017, or compete directly with Matt Asiata for the third running back spot, which is by no means sewn up.
C.J. Ham, RB Augustana
It’s another running back!
Matt Asiata’s impact in 2014 is easy to understate because he didn’t have many highlight runs and his yards-per-carry isn’t that impressive. But that glosses over the fact that he was one of the most consistent and reliable running backs in the NFL over the past two seasons. Asiata rarely got stuffed in the backfield or only at one yard from the line of scrimmage.
He ranked sixth in Football Outsiders’ success rate metric in 2014, and over the past two years ranks third.
So, it’s not as if Asiata needs to be replaced.
But teams are always looking for options for players at the bottom of the roster, and sacrificing consistency for upside is not unusual in the NFL.
But Ham might provide the best of both worlds; as a young running back who provided his team with unusual reliability. While he doesn’t have incredible workout numbers, his ability to consistently generate positive yardage for a team running a pro-style system is noteworthy.
Unlike Pressley, Ham demonstrates more advanced RB running skills, like pressing lanes and intuitive ballhandling—skills that seem unlikely to show up with a Division II prospect that didn’t get much, if any, draft love.
Asiata made the roster by showcasing excellent vision and by being assignment-sound in every circumstance despite his athletic limitations. The same could be true for Ham, but he might also offer more overall upside.
Keith Baxter, CB Marshall
The Minnesota Vikings don’t have room for an undrafted rookie cornerback.
With Trae Waynes, Mackensie Alexander, Captain Munnerlyn, Terence Newman and Xavier Rhodes, they have five players that either started last year or were drafted in the first two rounds in the past two years. Add punt-returning maven Marcus Sherels, and it’s difficult to see how the Vikings could have room for another.
But Terence Newman’s age and Captain Munnerlyn’s contract—as well as the ever-present threat of another punt returner—could mean there are two or three spots open in 2017 for any enterprising DB talented enough to earn a practice squad spot and take that open position a year from now.
Keith Baxter might be that player.
A long, tall and rangy corner with 4.39 speed, Baxter fits the Mike Zimmer mold for what the raw tools of a cornerback should be. Baxter has a fluidity that Rhodes and Waynes don’t, too, which allows him to look natural in the hip pocket of receivers.
As an example, he was only targeted three times against the most prolific offense in the country—Western Kentucky—and only gave up 50 yards with no touchdowns lining up against two receivers who averaged 91 yards and a touchdown (each) in other games.
It’s why tight end Tyler Higbee’s best game came against Marshall; quarterback Brandon Doughty didn’t feel comfortable going to his primary read if Baxter was in coverage and moved on in his progression to the tight end.
Baxter played in multiple coverages at Marshall, contributing in press-man, press-bail, off man, hook/curl zone, quarters, cover-3 and so on.
He has his problems—his technique leads to a lot of false steps and he can lose coverage at the stem a lot as a result. Patience at the line of scrimmage is an issue.
His strength and leverage in press is pretty poor, and he has issues getting off blocks in the run game. When he does, he has poor tackling angles. He’s a little too physical at times in coverage, and it’s led to flags. He can freelance outside of his assignment and expose other members of the secondary, too.
But the other side of that is a player who has both instinct and intelligence—a natural feel for what a receiver will do and a textbook understanding of what the defense should do. He has fantastic physical upside as well as great mental traits worth developing but is lacking in technique and, in some cases, strength.
He almost certainly won’t make the roster this year, but he has the capability to stick around and that makes him well worth watching.