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Four Titans’ UDFAs To Watch

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Which UDFAs have the best chance at sticking on the Titans final roster?

NCAA Football: Navy at Temple Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The Tennessee Titans opened rookie mini-camp last Friday. The veterans then joined the rookies for workouts on Monday in advance of the team’s first set of OTAs on May 21st, 22nd, and 24th.

With only four draft picks this year, the Titans may have a bit more room than most years for one or more of the team’s undrafted free agents or try-out players to find a spot on the final 53-man roster.

So which players have the best shot at sticking around?

Akrum Wadley, RB, Iowa

The UDFA with, in my opinion, the best chance of making the roster is Iowa’s 5th-all time leading rusher, Akrum Wadley. Wadley was expected to be drafted somewhere between the 4th and 7th rounds, but a subpar athletic profile may have contributed to Wadley’s fall in the draft.

Despite the less-than-stellar combine scores, Wadley was extremely productive for Iowa, taking over lead back duties as a senior and finishing his career with 2,872 yards on 536 carries (5.4 career YPC) with 28 touchdowns.

Wadley also contributed as a receiver and playmaker out of the backfield, accumulating 761 yards on 71 catches for a healthy 10.7 yards per reception and 7 more touchdowns. He got a chance to return 9 kicks as a senior and was extremely productive, including setting the Iowa school bowl record for kick return yards in his final game, in which he returned 5 kicks for 171 yards as part of a Pinstripe Bowl MVP performance that saw him produce 283 all-purpose yards and a touchdown... and a Hawkeye win.

Wadley runs with excellent vision and patience, he has good (not great) burst and good (not great) lateral agility, with missed-tackle-forcing open-field abilities and a shifty, one-cut running style reminiscent of DeMarco Murray. I would love to detail his list of awards and accolades, but the list is so long, I’ll just leave you with the link and let you read for yourself.

Wadley will need to prove he’s capable in pass protection. While he showed willingness as a pass blocker, he was essentially limited to cut-blocking his opponents. With the right coaching, he should be able to grow into a serviceable blocker.

The tough running back will absolutely need to improve his ball security if he wants to make the team. In the 8 games I watched, he fumbled 3 times. Luckily, “ball security” is a lot more coachable than something like “elusiveness” or “vision.” At his size (5-10, 194lbs), concerns about his ability to carry a full workload will probably never go away, but he shouldn’t really be asked to ever be a feature back in the NFL (which also could’ve contributed to his going undrafted).

With Wadley’s kick return abilities and the possibility of new additions taking over David Fluellen’s role as a gunner (like Dane Cruikshank), Wadley could make the team as a dual-threat #3 back with a similar skill-set as Dion Lewis, adding both depth and playmaking ability.

Deontay Burnett, WR, USC

If Wadley is the one I think has the best shot to make the roster, Deontay Burnett is the Titans UDFA that I am most excited about. Sam Darnold’s favorite target was nursing a hamstring injury throughout the draft process and was unable to participate in the explosive testing drills at the combine after leaving school early for the NFL.

He participated in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, and broad jump at a pro day event, but did so with his hamstring at what he estimated was “about 80 percent” healthy. Thus, he didn’t record very athletic numbers (4.70-40, 30.5” vertical). In my opinion, he looked much faster on tape than he tested, and as with Akrum Wadley, the poor athletic score and smaller stature could’ve been big factors in his going undrafted.

Burnett could bring potential playmaking ability from the slot to the Titans, providing competition and depth for Taywan Taylor. Although a bit undersized at 5-11, 186lbs, Burnett is a good route-runner and was extremely productive in USC’s prolific offense, racking up 1,114 yards on 86 catches with 9 touchdowns as a junior (his final season).

In addition to his route-running, Burnett has impressive ball skills and a remarkable ability to adjust to off-target passes (not that he’ll need to in Tennessee, wink wink). He’s adept at finding the soft spot in zone coverage from the slot position, and he was proficient in the screen game and at picking up yards after catch. He could stand to improve his blocking abilities quite a bit, and he had a few too many concentration drops in the games I watched despite the aforementioned impressive ball skills. He’ll never be a contested catch/jump ball receiver, but he has a shot to be an effective weapon in the screen game and as an underneath relief option with the ability to occasionally take the top off a defense.

While highlight videos never provide the complete picture for a player (as they ignore the flaws), you can get a sense of Burnett’s playmaking ability from his highlights:

Ultimately, what will make or break it for Burnett is the same for nearly all the UDFAs, and that’s the ability to contribute on special teams. Burnett’s size may limit his effectiveness as a gunner, and the team already has options at returner. I’d like to see Burnett make the team as a high-upside stash (read: 5th wide receiver) over someone like Michael Campanero, but I think Campanero will offer so much more than Burnett on special teams. For that reason, Burnett may be destined for the practice squad, unless the team elects to keep six wide receivers (and doesn’t sign a veteran before September).

Sharif Finch, OLB, Temple

Sharif Finch, a 6-4, 240lbs defensive end/outside linebacker from Temple, signed with the Titans as their highest paid 2018 undrafted free agent, perhaps hinting at his market around the league.

Finch was smart to come to Nashville, where he has a legitimate chance to make the roster simply because of the lack of edge rusher depth currently on the team. Behind incumbent veterans Derrick Morgan and Brian Orakpo are second-round pick Harold Honor Landry, former second-round pick Kevin Dodd, and former seventh-round picks Aaron Wallace and Josh Carraway. Although he has as much upside as anyone from the 2018 draft, Harold Landry is still an unproven rookie. Kevin Dodd has never looked like the player from that 2016 Week 2 game in Detroit, Aaron Wallace is coming off a serious back injury that caused him to miss the last 14 games of the 2017 season, and Josh Carraway has played all of two special teams snaps in his career.

Erik Walden was not retained after last season, and while he could still be brought back (or another veteran edge rusher be signed sometime before September), as it currently stands, Sharif Finch is already, at worst, the seventh OLB on the team. The Titans kept 6 outside linebackers last year before Aaron Wallace was placed on IR, so there’s a chance if Wallace isn’t the same coming back from injury, or if Finch proves himself more capable than Dodd or Carraway, that he could make the team as a depth edge rusher.

Where Finch could really make a difference is on the line on special teams, having finished his career leading all active FBS players with 5 career punt blocks. Finch needs to get stronger at the point of attack, but he has a surprisingly well-developed array of pass rush moves and demonstrates excellent hand usage. Even if he is only ever a special teams contributor and situational pass rusher, he could carve out a defined-but-limited role with the team. Finch totaled 13.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks as a redshirt senior.

Our old pal Will Lomas wrote an athletic profile-based assessment of Finch here (7.0-second 3-cone drill, 4.65 40-yard dash), and you can read about his career achievements on the Temple website here.

After wearing #56 for his first four seasons (including a medical redshirt in 2016), Finch was awarded #6 in his redshirt senior year. Temple does a special thing where single-digit numbers are given only to the toughest players, as voted by their teammates. I recommend checking out Finch’s “highlights” below, where he shows off that diverse pass rush skill-set (h/t @WurthDraft).

(The video is slightly confusing because it goes back and forth between Finch’s time as #56 and #6.)

Damon Webb, S, Ohio State

Continuing the UDFA superlatives (so far we’ve had most likely to make the roster, most exciting, and highest paid), Damon Webb, safety out of Ohio State, is the UDFA that I’m rooting for the hardest to make the team, mostly because his father direct messaged me on Twitter shortly after he signed with the Titans to make sure I knew what kind of player our fanbase was getting (click that link for the screenshot lol).

In all seriousness, Webb could fill a potential depth role in the safety rotation and should be able to contribute on special teams. Don’t rule out the Ohio State connections with Coach Vrabel and especially Coach Coombs, who not only coached him at Ohio State but actually played a big role in recruiting him to Columbus in the first place.

Webb began his career as a cornerback but moved to safety upon the arrival of Greg Schiano, where he ended up starting as a junior and senior. In 2017, Webb led the Buckeyes with 5 interceptions. Despite his limited athleticism, Webb plays fast and aggressive, which allows him to make up for some of that lack of speed.

With Webb, it may simply come down to a numbers game. The team has two entrenched starters and traded up for Dane Cruikshank after signing Kendrick Lewis. What Webb can offer on special teams may be the deciding factor, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t at least make the practice squad. He’s certainly a player I’ll be keeping my eye on during the preseason.

Honorable Mentions:

Ethan Wolf, TE, Tennessee

Local product Ethan Wolf has good size and athleticism with the ability to contribute as both a run blocker and pass catcher. He’ll have to beat out one or two guys to make the team.

Rico Gafford, CB, Wyoming

Rico Gafford ran the 40-yard dash at his pro day, with unofficials times ranging from 4.19 to 4.26. While the accuracy of pro day 40s has always been called into question, one thing that’s certain is that Gafford can fly.

Rico Gafford highlight reel.

Joseph Este, CB, UT-Martin

Joe Este was the first tryout player that was announced to have been signed onto the 90-man roster. As OilerFan34 pointed out in the comments the other day, Este adopted his two elementary-aged nephews and helped rescue his mother from homelessness. I recommend reading this article about his emotional journey to the NFL. The Titans have turned what was the league’s worst secondary two years ago into a now crowded room, but maybe Este can find a spot on the practice squad.

It’s always a long shot for any UDFA to make an NFL team, but given the Titans’ draft situation and the production these guys accumulated in college, they may have a better opportunity than is typical for undrafted players.

Which guys are you most excited for?