Penn Staters In The NFL: Undrafted Free Agent Recap
The 2015 NFL Draft came and went, and after the dust settled, well over 250 players were fortunate enough to hear their names called. Unfortunately, not every draft entrant was as lucky, but the beauty of the NFL Draft is that the real fun begins after the final selection is made.
Several former Nittany Lions who fell undrafted were included in the post-draft pandemonium that is undrafted free agency, and get the chance to prove their worth and attempt to cement a spot on the final 53-man roster. Take a look at who landed where, and the likelihood of them staying around into the regular season.
DE/OLB Deion Barnes: New York Jets
Fortunately, Barnes — who declared early for the 2015 NFL Draft — was able to find an NFL home despite going undrafted in a pass-rusher heavy draft. Unfortunately, he joins a crowded front seven, headlined by sixth overall pick Leonard Williams. Schematically, the fit in New York makes sense for a player like Barnes, who’s expected to make the switch to outside linebacker at the NFL level. Defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers employs the 3-4 system, meaning Barnes could find a niche as a situational pass rusher in a more reserve role at left or right outside linebacker.
The Jets are pretty stacked at both positions, as Calvin Pace and Quinton Coples have both outside spots locked up, while veteran Jason Babin provides significant depth. If Barnes can tap into that pass-rushing prowess he flashed during his time in Happy Valley, there’s no doubt that he could carve out a role for himself and stick with the team.
RB Bill Belton: New York Jets
Like Barnes, Belton joins a team with plenty of surplus at the position he plays. In fact, the Jets were loaded at running back even before the draft. Throw Zac Stacy — the former St. Louis Ram who demanded a trade after the team drafted Todd Gurley No. 10 overall — into the mix alongside Stevan Ridley, Daryl Richardson, Bilal Powell, and Chris Ivory, and you’ve got one loaded backfield.
However, Belton fits the mold of every single player listed above, in that he can offer value as a change-of-pace ballcarrier. Sure, someone like Ivory or Stacy might carry a larger load, but the team will employ a by-committee approach when it comes to running the football. A situation like this opens up a window of opportunity for Belton. Rather than vie for a backup role on a team with a star runner like Demarco Murray — who will shoulder most of the weight in Philadelphia — Belton can carve a situational role for himself, while showcasing his worth as a reserve runner. Most likely, Belton will be among the handful of players cut during training camp, but you never know. He could just as easily stand out amongst the crowd and solidify a spot.
LB Mike Hull: Miami Dolphins
The AFC East is chock full of undrafted former Nittany Lions, but Hull is a guy that did not deserve to fall completely out of the draft. It was an absolute shame seeing Hull fall undrafted while players that he significantly outperformed in 2014 heard their names called. Regardless, Hull was a hot commodity after the draft, and wound up in a favorable situation in Miami.
The Dolphins employ a prototypical 4-3 defensive system, meaning Hull will return to his familiar spot at middle linebacker. Hull has two situations playing in his favor as he attempts to latch on with the Dolphins. The first is that Miami lacks significant depth in the middle. Former Utah standout Koa Misi is entrenched as the team’s anchor, but after him, the roster is pretty bare. Former Buffalo Bill Kelvin Sheppard serves as the only other viable option in the middle, meaning Hull could easily turn heads in camp and beat out the rest of the field for a spot. The other development playing in Hull’s favor is the looming year-long suspension that the NFL handed down on former No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan. Suspended players do not count against the 53-man roster, meaning a spot might potentially be opened up for a player like Hull thanks to Jordan’s ban.
TE Ross Travis: Houston Texans
Although the Texans only invited Travis to the team’s rookie minicamp, this is an incredible accomplishment for a player who hasn’t laced up pads since the ninth grade, and has been playing basketball his entire collegiate career. At 6-foot-8, Travis has the size and athleticism rarely found in a tight end. He can move much quicker than his size may suggest, and possesses natural basketball tendencies that could translate to the gridiron — think of rebounding like grabbing a jump ball.
If Travis wants to become the next Antonio Gates or Jimmy Graham, he has a long road ahead of him. Before even considering the players he’d have to beat out on Houston’s roster, he first needs to impress Houston’s coaching staff enough to convince them that he’s worthy of a contract. It might be a long shot, but it’s a shot nonetheless.
RB Zach Zwinak: Houston Texans
A season-ending ankle injury derailed Zwinak’s pre-draft plans, ultimately crushing any hope of being drafted. Although he was held out of both the NFL Scouting Combine and Penn State’s pro day, the Texans saw enough in the 240-pound bowling ball to offer him a tryout invitation. He’ll join fellow Nittany Lion Ross Travis in an attempt to woo Texans brass enough to offer him a deal, and hopes to shake off any rust that may have accumulated while he rehabbed his ankle injury. Having his old coach in Bill O’Brien around certainly helps.
OG Miles Dieffenbach: Pittsburgh Steelers
Dieffenbach has had a long road back since tearing his ACL last spring, but his hard work and perseverance culminated in a shot at the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The odds are in Dieffenbach’s favor in Pittsburgh, given the lack of depth at certain spots along the Steelers line. Guards David DeCastro and Ramon Foster have the two starting jobs secured, but depth is needed. Dieffenbach could earn a role at right guard, especially given DeCastro’s injury history. It’s not a sure bet that Dieffenbach will hang around, but he couldn’t have walked into a better situation. If Garry Gilliam could do it last year, Dieffenbach can do it this year.
OLB C.J. Olaniyan: Seattle Seahawks
On a team loaded with former undrafted free agents turned blossoming contributors, Olaniyan could fit in admirably in Seattle. First, he needs to earn a contract, as the team invited him to partake in rookie minicamp. If Olaniyan survives, he’ll have to fend off a bevy of capable pass rushers, most notably Bruce Irvin and Kevin Pierre-Louis. Like Barnes, Olaniyan is expected to make the switch to outside linebacker, which makes even more sense when looking at Seattle’s depth chart — a roster loaded with defensive end talent.
It won’t be easy, but Olaniyan has the skills to stick around. Because he’s a tweener, he faces a greater challenge than a player with a defined role. Olaniyan may fall during camp cuts, but it’s all dependent on his performance in mini camp.
Featured Image: Bobby Chen/OS