clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Four UDFA additions that Titans fans are sure to fall in love with this preseason

New, comments

Nobody loves an underdog like Titans fans.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Kansas State Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Before we get started it should be noted that none of these undrafted players are “officially” part of the team just yet. Their contracts won’t be finalized until they pass a physical and that’s not scheduled to happen until May 10th when the rookies report to minicamp per Jim Wyatt.

So before you get too attached, keep in mind that the players that are expected to sign could always decide to change their mind, like Kennesaw State receiver Justin Sumpter did yesterday.

It’s relatively rare, but it does happen. With that as a caveat, let’s talk about a few of the guys that have been reported as likely UDFA additions to this point.

There is one offseason tradition that never fails to show up when preseason football kicks off: Titans fans falling irrationally in love with undrafted free agents and other roster longshots. Whether it’s Biren Ealy, Michael Preston, Cody Riggs, or Alex Tanney, there is always at least one underdog story that fans rally around and root for. Last season, there were several, led by receiver Deontay Burnett, running back Akrum Wadley, and pass rusher Sharif Finch. Most of the time, these preseason crushes go nowhere, but every now and then you get a Sharif Finch.

Who will be the underdogs that capture the hearts of Titans fans this year?

Alex Barnes | RB | Kansas State

This is a guy that I’ve been a fan of well before he ended up in two-tone blue. My interest in Barnes goes back to watching him play against my beloved Longhorns over the past couple years. He only put up relatively pedestrian numbers against Texas each of the past two years — 13 carries for 57 yards with an 11 yard reception in 2017 and 19 carries for 80 yards and a touchdown in 2018 — but I found myself rooting for Kansas State to do anything but hand it to #34 when I was watching the games.

Barnes is an incredibly explosive athlete as evidenced by his 38.5-inch vertical jump and 126-inch broad jump at the combine. He’s also almost comically strong for a 6’-0”, 226 pound running back, putting up a combine record 34 reps on the bench press (excluding fullbacks).

His 40 time isn’t fantastic at 4.59 seconds, but neither was the time for James Conner (4.65 seconds) or Jordan Howard (4.59 seconds), two backs that I think Barnes compares very closely to stylistically.

From a production standpoint, Barnes was pretty effective at Kansas State, particularly during his final season in Manhattan when he totaled over 1,500 yards from scrimmage in just 12 games.

[EDIT: I had a mistake here copying over data from Sports-Reference.com on the original version of this article that had mistakenly listed Barnes’ final year at just 819 yards rushing.]

The tape for him is also very good. He shows that power that his athletic testing reflective and is extremely competitive fighting for yards after contact. He’s certainly not afraid to drop the shoulder on a defender as he shows here.

Barnes is a no non-sense, north and south runner who could really thrive in a one cut zone blocking scheme. He shows outstanding burst out of his cuts — part of the explosive athletic traits that showed up in his testing numbers — and that is often the trademark of a great zone runner. You can see that burst here as he starts horizontal, makes one cut and slashes upfield. From there, he lowers the boom once again and then fights for more yardage at the end of the run.

Barnes isn’t going to be confused with LeSean McCoy, but he’s got enough wiggle to his game to make guys miss in space and create big plays as he shows here.

Despite his thick frame, Barnes does offer some real ability as a pass catcher as well. He caught 20 passes in 2018 for 194 yards and showed some ability as a downfield receiver, not just a check down target. Here, he’s sent on a wheel route from the backfield — a design that’s become very popular in the NFL in recent years — and he makes a fantastic one handed grab and somehow holds on through a big hit from the safety.

The weaknesses to his game that led to him being available after the draft include a lack of homerun speed, limited ability to make defenders miss in tight quarters, and a little bit of an upright style.

Barnes has a real chance to push David Fluellen out of the RB3 job this summer. His physicality and strength will lend itself to special teams and make him a nearly ideal backup running back with upside to become more. He’s definitely a player to watch in camp and in preseason action.

Anthony Ratliff-Williams | WR | North Carolina

Ratliff-Williams was recruited to UNC as a 4-star dual threat quarterback originally, but with Marquise Williams and Mitchell Trubisky in the QB room, they decided to give ARW a look at receiver. He stuck there and after learning the position for a couple seasons, he became the Tar Heels leading receiver each of the past two seasons.

It should be noted when you look at ARW’s stats that North Carolina’s QB situation in the post-Trubisky era has been abysmal as the combination of Chazz Surratt and Nathan Elliott just haven’t gotten it done. Still, Ratliff-Williams has produced back to back 600-plus yard receiving seasons in one of the most anemic passing attacks in NCAA football while also being one of the most dangerous kick returners in the country. ARW was mostly an outside vertical receiver at North Carolina and I would suspect that is where he will line up for the Titans as well.

ARW was one of the biggest combine snubs in the draft class, but we got to see a little bit of his measurables at the UNC pro day where he ran a 4.46-second 40, jumped a 35-inch vertical, and recorded 14 reps on the bench.

The tape shows a guy who is ultra competitive at the catch point and while he’s still raw as a receiver, he’s got some physical tools to work with that appear to be NFL level. Concentration drops were an issue at times, but there is no doubting that Ratliff-Williams has strong hands. He shows that on tape frequently. Here is one example as he goes up and Mosses this poor corner for a big play down the field.

ARW makes a habit of making these types of plays, in part because he was saddled with terrible quarterback play over the past two seasons.

The other strength that ARW features is his ability after the catch. North Carolina frequently tried to get the ball in his hands via screens, reverses, and even as a wildcat quarterback because of his ability to create explosive plays like this one out of nothing.

There are certainly some drawbacks with ARW. He’s only been playing wide receiver for a couple years and his route running and the nuance of playing the receiver position often leaves a little to be desired. As I mentioned above, he also had some struggles with concentration drops during his career, being credited with a drop rate of 10.6% over his college career per PFF charting.

However, it’ll only take one eye-popping Randy Moss style catch during preseason to earn the love of Titans fans everywhere. I think he has a chance to sneak onto the back of the wide receiver rotation thanks to his ability to contribute on special teams and physical gifts. He’s far from a finished product, but there are tools here for the Titans coaching staff to work with. This is a good read on ARW if you want to learn more about him.

Hamp Cheevers | CB | Boston College

Cheevers would make this list just based on name alone, but he also checks a couple other popular boxes for preseason crushes. He’s undersized at 5’-9” and 169 pounds (everyone loves the little guys) and was ultra-productive in college, tying the NCAA high for interceptions in 2018 with seven. That’s a recipe for a preseason crush if I’ve ever seen one.

Cheevers allowed the lowest passer rating against of any cornerback in the draft class that saw at least 40 targets in his direction. Quarterbacks were just 34 of 74 (46%) for 430 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions when throwing into his coverage in 2018, good for a passer rating of just 38.7 according to PFF charting. In 2017, he was even better, allowing just 9 catches on 20 targets (45%) for 125 yards, zero touchdowns, and 2 interceptions for a passer rating of 26.0. That’s pretty dominant coverage numbers.

His combine testing is part of the reason that he ended up falling out of the draft. NFL teams don’t really love ultra small corners to begin with, but they like them even less when they aren’t great athletes either.

His tape, however, shows a guy that has great instincts and good cover skills. Here you can see those instincts at work leading to one of his seven interceptions on the season. He reads the quarterback’s drop and jumps the hitch route to make the easy pick.

Here’s another example. This time he anticipates the slant and drives on it to cause the incompletion.

There are pretty obvious reasons for why Cheevers went undrafted. His size and athletic profile don’t meet many of the threshold limits that NFL teams put on draftable prospects. He’s also a suspect tackler in run support.

That being said, it’s hard to ignore his play on the field at Boston College. It will be interesting to see if he can translate that to the NFL level. If he can even come close to doing that, he’ll be a shoo-in for the 53 man roster this fall.

Derick Roberson | EDGE | Sam Houston State

As a Texas fan, Roberson has been on my radar since he committed to the Longhorns as a top 100 recruit out of high school. Things didn’t work out for him in Austin, but after landing at FCS powerhouse Sam Houston State, he blossomed into one of the nation’s best pass rushers in 2018, collecting a whopping 15 sacks, 20.5 tackles for loss, and 5 forced fumbles in just 11 games.

Roberson checked in at 6’-3” tall and 247 pounds while running a blistering 4.58-second forty at his pro day this spring which give him pretty close to ideal measurables for a 3-4 outside linebacker. While there are certainly caveats about the level of competition he faced at SHSU, the production and the tape that I could find (there isn’t much out there) are impressive enough to make him intriguing, especially combined with his pedigree a former top recruit.

Sam Houston used Roberson as an interior pass rusher frequently in the tape that I could find, often with great success. He showed good timing with his hands and was frequently able to get quick wins with a swipe move that you can see below.

Here it is again on the opposite side later in the same game.

Roberson’s athleticism off the edge made him a tough block for the tackles on the FCS level as you can see here. Again, notice the hand usage as he goes with more of a club-rip around the edge here.

IF Roberson makes the team he’s unlikely to vault to the top of the Titans depth chart at edge rusher, so he’ll likely be well served to excel in the kicking game. Luckily for him, that’s something he did at Sam Houston despite being their best overall defender. This is obviously a busted play due to a bad snap, but you can see his speed as he pursues the punter downfield and then hammers him to free the ball up for his teammate to recover. If he can be a difference maker on special teams, that would go a long way towards helping him secure the fifth or sixth spot at outside linebacker on this roster.

Roberson’s weaknesses include not having enough sand in the pants as a run defender and a tendency to fall in love with that swipe move instead of building combinations off of it. That, combined with the fact that he was a one year wonder against a lower level of competition, are the factors that kept him from hearing his name called.

The reason that he left Texas in the first place also might have had something to do with his status as a UDFA. His departure from the Longhorns had little to do with his ability — he was able to get on the field as a true freshman and recorded a couple sacks — but a lot to do with his inability to stay on the field. A shoulder injury cost him much of his freshman year and then a serious car wreck gave him a severe concussion that had many questioning whether he would play football again. During his time on the shelf, he was passed on the depth chart by Charles Omenihu (5th round pick of the Texans) and chose to transfer to find more immediate playing time.

The Titans would like to believe that the talent and athleticism that once made Roberson a top 100 recruit in the country has just finally been unlocked after a couple years of good health and development at one of the best FCS programs in the country. I think there is a real possibility that could be the case. If nothing else, betting on productive, athletic pass rushers after the draft is usually good business. That’s how the Titans found Sharif Finch last year. Can they get lightning to strike twice in consecutive years? We’ll find out this summer.

Which reported undrafted free agent addition are you most excited about watching in preseason action?