Although it was Jason McCourty who saw primary action opposite Stephon Gilmore in the Super Bowl, undrafted free agent cornerback J.C. Jackson played a large role in the Patriots’ championship run a season ago. This is not unlike the story of 2014 undrafted free agent cornerback Malcolm Butler, whose last-minute heroics sealed that season’s Super Bowl for the Patriots.
But hey, that’s Bill Belichick, right?
Well, yes and no. Despite his unceremonious departure from Cincinnati, Vontaze Burfict was one of the best linebackers in the league not long ago. He was an undrafted free agent for the Bengals in 2012. So the Patriots do not have a monopoly on finding talent after the draft.
This year the Bengals brought in an impressive group of rookie free agents. Which of them has a chance of making the final roster and could any be the next UDFA-turned-NFL star?
Stanley Morgan Jr. - WR - Nebraska
It was a huge surprise when Morgan went undrafted, as most thought he would go pretty quickly on Day 3 thanks to his overall talent. Morgan has excellent hands and can adjust to make plays on poorly thrown balls. He is also great after the catch, where he demonstrates speed, agility, and strength to rack up additional yardage. In his last two seasons at Nebraska, Morgan had 131 receptions for nearly 2,000 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Morgan has a surprising ability to high point balls despite being only six-feet tall. This clip shows him leaping over a Michigan defensive back to make a big time catch downfield.
He shows his speed on this play against Wisconsin, taking a medium range reception and turning it into a 85-yard touchdown.
How about that downfield blocking pic.twitter.com/rl2qfgqN2N— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) June 2, 2019
This is just a sample of Morgan’s agility. Notice how he makes the sure catch and is able to transition quickly to become a runner. This is a big part of what makes him so good after the catch.
Something that was really surprising on Morgan’s film was how difficult he is to tackle. He is only 6-0 202, but it often takes multiple defenders to bring him down. Here is just one example.
Stanley Morgan Jr. does not go down easy pic.twitter.com/AHigOdCKyC— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) June 2, 2019
Damion Willis - WR - Troy
While Morgan is a bigger name who had a lot of pre-draft buzz, Willis may actually have more potential to sneak onto the Bengals roster in 2019. The JUCO transfer made an immediate impact at Troy and in his senior season had 876 yards and 10 touchdowns on 56 receptions. At 6-3 204 Willis is not the quickest player, but when he opens up he can get separation down the field.
Willis could be a great addition to this Bengals team as a deep threat with great hands. Don’t just watch the clip below, click on the link to the original Twitter post and look at the whole thread, There are 7 clips, and every single one of them is a circus catch. To be honest it was difficult to trim the list down to 7. Check it out.
Bengals UDFA and former Troy WR Damion Willis ridiculous catch thread pic.twitter.com/jcRdGFyTPf— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) May 28, 2019
Ventell Bryant - WR - Temple
Another receiver! Bryant is another skilled pass-catcher with good size and natural hands. He also runs good routes and is surprisingly shifty for being 6-3 209.
In this first clip, he demonstrates not only a great stutter move, but an excellent adjustment to make the catch in the end zone. Bryant had 51 receptions for 690 yards and 3 touchdowns last season.
This is earlier in his career when he wore what one of my former players would call “a much heavier number.” Despite this gross jersey number, he makes an excellent adjustment to catch the ball that is thrown high and behind him.
Jake Dolegala - QB - Central Connecticut State
A Western New York native, Dolegala had an injury in high school that limited his college options. After a year of prep school, he ended up at D-1 FCS Central Connecticut State, but if you’re down (which of course I am) you just call is “Central”.
A four-year starter at Central, Dolegala threw for 2,221 yards, 16 touchdowns and 6 interceptions completing 61% of his passes in his senior campaign. At 6-7 242, he has the desired size and build. He has a strong arm and is accurate from the pocket, but struggles with accuracy when he is on the move. This is a shame because he is pretty athletic and can create time with his feet.
This is an excellent touchdown pass by Dolegala. He puts the ball on the receiver’s back shoulder where there is no risk of an interception.
Back shoulder throw by Central Connecticut QB Jake Dolegala pic.twitter.com/DQkH2UX6el— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) May 28, 2019
Dolegala struggled against Syracuse and seemed shook mentally. It is difficult to say whether this was a result of the pressure of playing a bigger opponent or the pressure that was consistently placed on him by that opponent’s pass rush as is seen below.
Sterling Sheffield - LB - Maine
Sheffield is another FCS player and a very interesting prospect at linebacker. He is 6-0 225 and has nice burst to his game. He is a fierce competitor who is good against the run and in pass coverage, but is best as a pass rusher. Sheffield may be able to help the Bengals out in this area situationally, but his best chance of making the roster is on special teams.
His motor and athletic profile project him as a potential special teams stud.
In this first clip, he comes off of the edge and dips his inside shoulder below the block of the full back. This is excellent technique and leads to a sack for the Black Bears.
In this clip Sheffield is spying the quarterback. When he starts to scramble, Sheffield shows great burst to break on him and bring him down for a loss.
Nice burst by Sterling Sheffield pic.twitter.com/Cw24YGYOnX— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) May 28, 2019
Noah Dawkins - LB - The Citadel
It is hard to find film on Citadel linebacker Noah Dawkins, almost as if it was locked in a fortress of some sort. The 6-1 227 linebacker made plays all over the field. In 2018, he led his team in sacks with four and had two interceptions in one game against Wofford.
One of those interceptions turned into a pick-six, which is shown below.
Pick 6 for Citadel LB Noah Dawkins pic.twitter.com/6ZUGUZAdks— Matt Minich (@CoachMinich) May 29, 2019
Curtis Akins - LB - Memphis
Akins is better against the pass than he is against the run which is a unique quality on this team. He seems to be able to stick with receivers and running backs in coverage, but needs a lot of work. He needs to improve his man technique, ball skills, and quarterback reads. If he is able to do this, his talent as a pass defender will make him standout.
Akins moves well and has good size at 6-1 235. Here he matches up with the inner most receiver in the trips formation, making a quick tackle on the out route.
Jordan Ellis - RB - Virginia
Ellis had 215 carries for 1,026 yards and 10 touchdowns for Virginia last season. The 5-10 229 running back has excellent vision, good burst, and breaks tackles.
He shows all three in this clip.
Darrin Hall - RB - Pitt
Technically, Hall was a waiver claim. He was originally signed as an UDFA by the Browns, but they promptly cut him. Hall averaged a whopping 7.5 yards per carry in 2018. He ran the ball 153 times for 1,144 yards and 10 touchdowns.
He is 5-11 225 and has demonstrated some speed and power, but it is his jump-cuts that stand out on film. His speed and agility are showcased in this clip.
Tyree Kinnel - SAF - Michigan
The 5-11 207 Kinnel is a versatile player who has the speed and range to play the deep middle safety position, but struggles in man coverage.
He is a skilled tackler who rallies to the ball making him excellent against the run. This clip is a great demonstration of that talent. He scrapes over the top and makes an excellent tackle on the edge.
Anthony Chesley - CB - Coastal Carolina
Chesley is a raw player, but has the athleticism and intelligence to develop into a quality NFL corner. At 6-0 188, he is physical and has good ball skills.
In this clip he lets the traffic sort out in front of him before breaking on the dig route and making a play on the ball.
Keaton Sutherland - OL - Texas A&M
Sutherland played collegiately under the Bengals’ new offensive line coach, Jim Turner. This certainly played a key role in the signing. The Bengals had better information on the player than any other team in the NFL and thought it was worth it to give him a shot.
Sutherland is 6-5 316 and played guard for the Aggies. He is strong but will need to play with better leverage to become relevant in the NFL. His poor leverage hurts him as both a run blocker and a pass protector.
He struggled against top competition, but as the right guard on this play against Alabama he had a solid down block before the defender managed to break free.
As the left guard on this play, Sutherland shows good footwork. Because he is playing too high, he gets pushed back, but he is able to recover and keep the pocket clean.
O’Shea Dugas - OL - Louisiana Tech
Dugas played tackle in college, but based on his film he should probably play guard in the NFL. At 6-4 330 he struggles in pass protection. He is better as a run blocker, but leans too much.
In this clip he shows a good kick step, but the edge rusher quickly gets to his hip.
Top five most likely to make the cut
This is an impressive group of UDFAs. Although it was Stanley Morgan Jr. who got the most attention pre-draft, I think Damion Willis has the best chance of making the Bengals final roster. He has great hands and could provide another deep threat. He may be trying to beat out Josh Malone for the final receiver position and the two can play similar roles.
Morgan is the second most likely to make the cut. He can do some special things after the catch and may be very useful in a slot role. Oddly enough, based on his play style, I think he is more comparable to Tyler Eifert than any of the receivers currently on the roster. Which would make him valuable as injury insurance for Eifert.
The next most likely is Sterling Sheffield. He can do so many things, that he would make a great moving piece for defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo. He could be an excellent situational pass rusher and may be able to fill in for Carl Lawson if his injury persists. His relentlessness will also serve him well as a likely special teams star and may push the team to move on from Hardy Nickerson.
Keaton Sutherland is the fourth most likely to make the squad. He knows the expectations of offensive line coach, Jim Turner, who obviously saw something special in him that made him want Sutherland here in Cincinnati. He has some raw skills, but needs to play with better leverage. I do wonder how much a raw player can improve when his NFL coach has already coached him.
Rounding out my top five is Tyree Kinnel. Kinnel is not great in any one area, but does a lot of things well. This is somewhat similar to Clayton Fejedelem. If, like Fejedelem, he can carve out a role on special teams, Kinnel could be a Bengal this fall.
My honorable mention is Jake Dolegala. Dolegala is a big, athletic player with a lot of raw talent. The Bengals may try to stash the young quarterback on the practice squad see how he develops over the course of the season.
What UDFA do you think could be a future star?
This poll is closed
Stanley Morgan Jr