It’s been almost a week since the conclusion of the 2021 NFL Draft, where young talent enters the league in bounds. Every year, thousands of prospects hit the open market, going undrafted and taking their career into their own hands. Some may become accountants, lawyers, coaches, and occasionally a practice squad player. Often referred to as ‘Roster Fodder’, it’s tough to crack into the league as a UDFA. Occasionally, a diamond shines out of the rough; an average of 12-15 young players make a 53-man roster somewhere in the league every season. And some make more of a career out of it than most. You may remember being wholly invested in the plight of rookie TE/FB Reggie Gilliam in 2020, now seemingly a lock to make the roster yet again. Let’s revisit some notable names from our recent UDFA classes.
2020 – FB/TE Reggie Gilliam, OL Trey Adams, RB Antonio Williams
We saw a wealth of talent go undrafted in 2020, as Gilliam actually made the roster and caught a TD early in the season. He’s a project, and we all know how much McDermott and Beane love projects.
OL Trey Adams was a highly valued draft prospect before his ACL tear and ultimately decided against playing football. He retired in April due to health concerns.
We’re all familiar with RB Antonio Williams, who tore Miami’s starting defense to shreds (with a playoff berth on the line for the Dolphins and surrounded by second-stringers) with Matt Barkley at QB last December. His lone practice-squad call-up was memorable, but expect him to fight tooth-and-nail for a roster spot in 2021.
2019 – QB Tyree Jackson, CB Cam Lewis, LB Tyrel Dodson, K Chase McLaughlin
The Tyree Jackson era may have been brief, but he failed to make the roster and wound up in the XFL during its 2020 iteration (and subsequent collapse). He might have disappeared already, but there was serious support for him to back up a then second-year Josh Allen, or even take over for him.
CB Cam Lewis sat on the Bills’ practice squad in 2019, but having earned numerous reps from call-ups due to Buffalo’s CB health issues to start the season, Lewis was signed to the active roster. He played well until he was placed on IR in late October, but is still under contract and could make the roster as a depth piece in 2021.
LB Tyrel Dodson was virtually unheard of by Bills fans until his signing in 2020, largely due to being brought in as a UDFA and buried by a six-game suspension. He was on the practice squad for the rest of 2019, but made 2020 gameday appearances similarly to Cam Lewis amongst our LB core as Edmunds and Milano battled injuries. He is still under contract.
K Chase McLaughlin has been highly effective as a kicker, but only on teams where they have someone better. Having lost the position battle in Buffalo to Stephen Hauschka, Chase got involved with four more teams in 2019, three more in 2020, and ultimately appears to have won the Jets starting job.
2018 – WR Robert Foster, OL Ike Boettger, CB Levi Wallace
Who in Buffalo could ever forget WR Robert Foster becoming rookie QB Josh Allen’s favorite deep threat? That throw against the Jaguars will forever live on in our minds (you know the one). But, despite the outrage of fans, Foster found himself behind two new Bills in 2019: John Brown and Cole Beasley. The story of his rookie year was a good one as fans saw him cut, re-signed to the practice squad, and promoted again on track to a great all-around season. He has since been on the Packers’ practice squad, the Washington Football Team’s main roster, and signed with Miami in March.
OL Ike Boettger was cut by the Bills before his rookie season, and picked up off waivers by the Kansas City Chiefs, before being cut and promptly picked up again by Buffalo. He saw limited action his rookie year but has since become a valuable and versatile depth piece for McDermott and the Bills OL unit. He signed his tender in April, returning to Buffalo for 2021.
The last notable 2018 pick-up, CB Levi Wallace hit our practice squad as a rookie; he eventually earned his way onto the roster with the departure of CB Philip Gaines. Wallace went on to have a decent season and was deemed PFF’s highest-graded rookie CB for the year. He won the starting job in back-to-back seasons (2019-2020) and lost playing time to veteran additions during both years. Coming back for one more season in 2021, Wallace plans on taking a Lombardi with him wherever he ends up next.
2017 – TE Jason Croom
Jason Croom was another fan favorite in Buffalo, as we always seem to root for the underdogs. He didn’t play as a rookie, spent on the practice squad, injured, or unemployed, but made an impact in 2018. You may remember, dear reader, the 26-yard TD he caught in Minnesota during the first win of the JA17 Era. Having bounced around up and down from practice squad to roster, he is currently in Philly vying for a spot on the main 53.
2016 – DT Justin Zimmer, LS Reid Ferguson, FB Glenn Gronkowski
Justin Zimmer may not be a name that you’d heard much of until this past season, where he forced a game-saving fumble against Cam Newton and the Patriots. However, Zimmer’s career actually started in Buffalo where he was brought on as a UDFA in 2016 but cut before the regular season. He joined the Saints later that year, but couldn’t make an NFL roster; He opted for the CFL instead. After a brief stint with the Montreal Alouettes, Zimmer toured the Falcons and Browns before fate brought him back to Buffalo.
LS Reid Ferguson is a man of the people and a damned good snapper. He spent his rookie season on the practice squad, but earned the starting job in 2017 and hasn’t missed a game (or a target) since.
FB Glenn Gronkowski is on this list for one reason and one reason only: his name. Brother to Rob Gronkowski, Glenn played in one ineffective game as a Bill before spending a year on the practice squad in New England. His career ended there.
2015 – None
Believe it or not, for most NFL teams this is the norm. These UDFA guys are fun to root for against all odds, but if a player isn’t drafted, they rarely even get a chance to make it in this league. A majority will never get an offer from a team, and if they do, the average career of a UDFA is about 2 months. This is the harsh reality of an NFL career. Furthermore, this is a prime example that the talent we see today is the true cream of the crop.