Following the 2019 NFL Draft, the Eagles have agreed to deals with more than a dozen undrafted free agents. In the past, some UDFA’s have gone on to develop key roles on the team. This year, there are a few players the Eagles have signed that could do the same.
The most notable UDFA in recent history to make an impact with the Eagles is Corey Clement. Clement caught four passes for 100 yards in the Eagles’ first-ever Super Bowl victory, including a 55-yard catch-and-run, and a 22-yard touchdown that, at the time, gave the Eagles a 10-point lead.
However, the list goes beyond just Clement. Ever since 2016, these are just a couple of UDFA’s the Eagles have signed and have gone on to earn a role on the team: Josh Adams, Tre Sullivan, and Cameron Johnston.
Adams, for the latter part of 2018, developed into the Eagles’ starting running back. Adams ran for 511 yards and three touchdowns on 120 carries, including a two-game span where he took 42 carries for 169 yards and one touchdown. Adams eventually lost that role due to fumble issues, but after receiving high praise from head coach Doug Pederson this offseason, Adams should be back in the fold again next season.
Sullivan played 12 games for the Eagles in 2018, including one start. In those games, Sullivan had 17 tackles, 10 of which came in the teams two playoff games. In the upcoming season, Sullivan is set to be the fourth safety in a secondary that is consistently rotating safeties.
In his first season as the Eagles’ starting punter after the departure of Donnie Jones, Johnston had a stellar season. Johnston averaged 48.1 yards per punt on 61 punts, including 24 punts that landed inside of the 20 and a season-long 68-yard punt. Johnston was especially efficient, landing 39.34% of his punts inside of the 20, and had just 11.43% land in the endzone for touchbacks. Johnston was unanimously voted by Eagles Nation as the teams Special Teams Player of the Year.
The Eagles had a solid 2019 NFL Draft, selecting Andre Dillard, Miles Sanders, JJ Arcega-Whiteside, Shareef Miller and Clayton Thorson. However, some of their UDFA’s have a chance of not just making the roster, but making an impact as well. Here are those four players.
LB TJ Edwards, Wisconsin
It was a bit of a shock that TJ Edwards went undrafted. Edwards was seen as being as high as a fourth-round talent, but instead, he will join the Eagles as an UDFA. The Eagles’ linebacker issue is a bit blown out of proportion, but his addition will help solidify that position.
In 2018, Edwards had team-highs in: tackles (113), tackles for a loss (11.5), and interceptions (3). Edwards also had 3.0 sacks and 5 pass breakups. Obviously, leading your team in that many stats as a linebacker is impressive, and makes it even more shocking that this player went undrafted.
Edwards is seen as an instinctual linebacker who is a sure-thing to make the tackle, and is very versatile in coverage as well. All three of those qualities can be seen in Edwards highlight tape.
Edwards was voted first-team All Big-10 by the media and second-team All-Big 10 by the coaches in 2018. Edwards also earned the following honors as well: Butkus Award finalist (2017), first-team All-America (2017), first-team All-Big 10 (2017), Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic Defensive MVP (2016), and Big Ten All-Freshman (2015).
The main reason Edwards ended up going undrafted was most likely his lack of speed. At his pro day, Edwards ran an underwhelming 4.77 40-yard dash. As we all know, though, tests don’t necessarily define how successful a player will be, and Edwards has recognized that as well prior to the draft.
“I’m not going to wow you in a t-shirt and shorts, but I’ve always been a guy who, when you put the pads on, I’m the best guy out there,” Edwards said. “That’s what I strive to be. It’s one of those things where, I know teams are going to watch the tape and let the chips fall where they may.”
The chips surely didn’t fall where Edwards hoped. However, he not only has a real shot at making the Eagles 53-man roster but earning the starting middle linebacker role with the team as well.
After losing Jordan Hicks in free agency, the Eagles are left with Paul Worrilow and LJ Fort, who signed with the team this offseason in free agency. Both players are primarily depth pieces and special team specialists, but Fort did earn a higher snap count than usual midway through the season with the Steelers last year. Malcolm Jenkins also lines up at linebacker for 40% of defensive snaps, which is actually more than he lines up at safety. Nigel Bradham can also slide into the inside if needed.
The points above are why the middle linebacker need wasn’t as big as it was made out to be, but it is still good to have “the guy” at that position. When the final depth chart comes out prior to week one, it is possible to see Edwards beating out Worrilow, who is coming off of a torn ACL, and Fort, who doesn’t have enough starting-level experience to be a sure-thing to win the job.
Update 5/3: The Eagles signed LB Zach Brown, who is likely to start in 2019. Despite the signing, Edwards still will have a great shot at competing for a roster spot serving as depth.
G Iosua Opeta, Weber State
The contract Iosua Opeta signed with the Eagles is a clear sign that the team has high hopes for him as an UDFA. Opeta signed a deal that has $80,000 guaranteed, with a $55,000 base salary and a $25,000 signing bonus.
Though the Eagles did use a first round pick on an offensive lineman, they still could use depth on the interior part of the line. Stefen Wisniewski is not expected to return to the team for 2019, and Matt Pryor is the lone depth piece behind Isaac Seumalo and Brandon Brooks, who is recovering from a torn Achilles.
Opeta may not necessarily be entrusted as an extra insurance policy right away, but it seems he certainly will be given a shot to earn a backup position at one of the guard spots.
Opeta was a three-year starter at the guard position at Weber State, and his measurables, according to Three Sigma Athlete, tested in the 96.8 percentile, which is fourth among offensive line prospects from this year’s draft.
At the NFL Combine, Opeta had the most reps among all offensive lineman on the bench with 39, and his athleticism was showcased best during his on-field drills in Indianapolis.
In 2018, Opeta was voted second-team AP FCS All-American and was also invited to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.
Considering the lack of depth at the guard position for the Eagles, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Opeta make the 53-man roster. The Eagles learned the hard way the pains of losing an offensive guard to injury; the offense collapsed following Brooks’ achilles tear against the Saints in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Opeta will have a bit of a transition going from a small school to the NFL, but his performance combined with his testing at the combine shows he could be a valuable depth piece with the Eagles.
G/T Ryan Bates, Penn State
Ryan Bates going undrafted was another surprise. Bates was ranked as the 9th guard in this years class according to PFF, and he also has experience playing both tackle positions and center as well.
Bates started 35 games at the college level and was voted third-team All-Big 10 twice. Bates has decent size at 6’4 and 306 pounds as well, which measures up well with the NFL standard.
There are some concerns about Bates’ physicality and quickness in the run game, but his former offensive line coach cooled those concerns.
“He never got beat at Penn State. He played a lot of left tackle,” said Mike Carey. “He stoned that great pass rusher from Kentucky (Josh Allen) every single time in the bowl game.”
Carey also says Bates’ durability and intelligence will allow him to succeed in the NFL, and he may be best fit for the center position.
If Bates pans out to be a sufficient backup center, there will be no complaints from the Eagles or Jason Kelce. Kelce was forced to play through a grade 2 MCL tear, a broken foot and a broken elbow last season, in large part because the Eagles didn’t have a capable backup at his position.
Bates being able to play tackle would also give the Eagles some flexibility on the trade market as well. Halapoulivaati Vaitai is entering the last year of his contract and has been mentioned in multiple trade rumors. With Jason Peters likely to retire after next season and Andre Dillard set to replace him, Vaitai doesn’t have much of a future in Philadelphia, except for the fact that he is a needed depth piece. Bates, who has proven he can play tackle, would allow the team to move on from Vaitai while maintaining that depth.
Versatility is a great thing in the NFL, and Bates’ is what will give him his best shot at making the Eagles 53-man roster. Between being able to line up at center, guard, and tackle, it would be in the Eagles’ best interest (if Bates proves worthy enough) to retain him as a plug-and-play piece.
WR DeAndre Thompkins, Penn State
DeAndre Thompkins was listed as a wide receiver above, but his true value to the Eagles would likely come through the return game. In his four seasons at Penn State, Thompkins took 66 punts for 675 yards, which is 10.23 yards per return. Thompkins returned two of those punts for touchdowns. Along with his success at the collegiate level, Thompkins also ran a 4.33 40-yard dash at his pro day.
In 2018 for the Eagles, DeAndre Carter led the team with 10.3 yards per return on punts, but he was eventually cut and signed with the Texans. Darren Sproles ranks second with 8.3 yards per return on punts, but he is unsure if he will return for the 2019 season. After Sproles, Corey Clement is next with 2.8 yards per return, but he is coming off of a season-ending knee injury, and after that is Golden Tate, who averaged 2.6 yards per return, but he signed with the Giants this offseason.
The Eagles did sign DeSean Jackson this offseason, who has experience returning punts, as Eagles fans know, but at age 32 and considering his injury history, it’s unlikely he is assigned to be the teams main punt returner.
The Eagles pride themselves upon being great in every facet of special teams, and returning punts is one of the most important parts of that. With no other clear-cut option to return punts, Thompkins has a shot to make the roster as a return specialist.
Photo: Dylan Buell/Getty Images