Undrafted Free Agents Who Can Make Roster
After the off-season, and before pre-season, there is a period of a few weeks of NFL lull as players frantically scramble to learn, train, produce, and impress their football skills on the coaching staff of each of the 32 NFL teams. And while there is always some room for extremes, the majority of free agents and drafted individuals are certainly considered to be in the lead to earn a roster spot on their respective team. The slope into the NFL is much steeper when you start as an undrafted free agent. But in many cases, the rosters of the best NFL teams come from the ranks of undrafted prospects who took advantage of an opportunity.
When you look at the number and diversity of the post draft signings of the Philadelphia Eagles, you can see a wide array of individuals, some with great stories, some with unique skills, which will certainly complicate the process this year. Each prospect was selected for something special shown to scouts or coaches, and the hope is that spark can turn into a successful NFL career.
We have some time before the season starts, so I’d like to tell the story of this group of UDFA’s and with each story attempt to flesh out the team needs and what we can expect from each player. For this first story, I think it’s important to consider the offensive linemen, as this is one of the most critical needs of the team’s future and was not addressed in the draft.
After the NFL draft, general manager Howie Roseman admitted that the team certainly had interest in an offensive lineman in this draft, but no lineman fell to the Philadelphia Eagles when they were on the board. So the logical step was to sign undrafted free agents in number to give sufficient numbers for training camp as well as improve the likelihood of one or more playing well enough to make the roster. The current roster is loaded with offensive line talent, but three of five starters have crossed over the age of 30, a point where fans and coaches alike begin to observe for signs of aging and decline. I’ve written about the ageless performance of Evan Mathis previously, but eventually, the wear and tear of the NFL career as an offensive lineman will force these standouts to step down and provide an opportunity for a new generation of offensive linemen to assume an NFL career as a Philadelphia Eagle offensive lineman.
The Eagles are no strangers to finding offensive linemen, or starting talent for that matter, from the undrafted ranks. Such names as centers Hank Fraley and Jamaal Jackson, safety Quintin Mikell, and Cedric Thornton have demonstrated that the path to the NFL is not always through the draft. So it’s important NOT to discount the chances of our prospects. Necessity breeds invention, and there is certainly a need for the Eagles to fill the reserve ranks with youth at the offensive line.
Who could that be if it happens in 2014? Well the floor is wide open, and with an eye on youth there is certainly incentive in the decision process to give the tie-breaker nods to the younger guys. They are offensive guard Donald Hawkins, offensive guard Karim Barton, and offensive tackle Kevin Graf. And for the next three months, they are integral parts of the Philadelphia Eagles future offensive line. Nothing will be handed to them, and all have a serious uphill battle to crack the roster. But for the next three months, they have the stage. The scenes that play out this summer will dictate the futures of these three deserving young men. Let’s find out who they are?
OFFENSIVE GUARD DONALD HAWKINS
For the University of Texas offensive tackle Donald Hawkins, football is a career that goes beyond playing. At 6’4″ (some list at 6’5″) and 301 pounds, number 78 is projected at offensive guard for the NFL. He was projected as high as the fifth round in some mock drafts, but fell due to concerns about his overall strength conditioning – he managed just 20 reps at the combine which was last for offensive lineman. But overall strength is just one aspect of an offensive lineman. Hawkins was born in Memphis Tennessee on 22 April 1992, and has been a stand out in the sport throughout his life. Blessed with superior agility and good size, the tackles started 24 of 25 games in his two years after transferring from JUCO Northwest Community College to the Longhorns. Once there, he immediately felt the chemistry with offensive guard and teammate Trey Hopkins, who had signed with the Cincinnati Bengals :
“I think something’s gelling,” Hawkins said. “We got that chemistry together. When we’re rolling, we’re rolling. When Trey and I are next to each other, we roll.”
While he is hopeful of a long NFL career, he’s already got his eye on life beyond the NFL. And with a degree in applied learning and developmental youth/community studies, training camp is as much of an internship for coaching as it is learning a vital role for the Eagles. Hawkins is a long shot, but his strength and conditioning will get a huge boost now in the hands of the Philadelphia Eagles. And whenever you hear the words “surprisingly agile” in the description of a Chip Kelly offensive lineman, you cannot help but smile.