Build through the draft. Develop your own homegrown players.
This ideal that every NFL team should strive for isn’t limited to draft selections. The initial rush post-draft of guys gone by the wayside looking to prove themselves, are where many organizations fill their depth chart, and at times - transform a winning culture. Yes, the overlooked, the “junk” not worthy of seeing their name called, are in ways just as crucial as your top flight players. Undrafted free agents are the spine where, somehow, your scouts’ job is never quite over.
These are the unheralded who rise through the ranks that at starts of seasons and that are only known by respective teams’ coaching staffs and personnel departments until they make a splash.
It’s now officially year three of the rebuild by general manager Ryan Pace in Chicago, so I thought it would be fair to take a look at how he’s done with very specific gems in this team building niche. Where does Pace’s rolling of the dice with guys looking for a shot compare to other NFL teams last season attempting to employ the same model? More specifically and the focus here is, how have his primary successful undrafted free agents that actually stuck to the team in both seasons progressed? We’re purely talking about the guys who have blossomed to have a huge role with the team.
For comparison in league-wide purposes, a few weeks back Silver & Black Pride did an insightful and interesting analysis on this subject for the Raiders and every other NFL team on this subject. There were some fascinating tidbits to touch on from said piece before we analyze the progress of some of Pace’s undrafted players to this stage.
First and unsurprisingly considering their recent established stability, the Seahawks enjoyed the most amount of starts by undrafted free agents (71), had the most overall on their roster (18), and the fourth most games played (148). Those 71 starts were by far the most in the league by a sizable margin to the Texans’ 48 at second.
Seattle has their core of players such as Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas, and Michael Bennett, and after that? Well, they’re tinkering and looking for a quality mix of guys that fell under the radar.
This doesn’t necessarily correlate to success by itself. This kind of analysis isn’t done in a vacuum where you can pick and plug as the primary reasons for how a team came to win. But, the top six teams leading in undrafted free agent starts last season, which included the Super Bowl champion (Seahawks, Texans, Giants, Packers, Steelers, and Patriots) all had winning records. If you extend it farther than that, sans for Tampa Bay, each of the top 10 had a winning record including the Falcons, Chiefs, and Cowboys as well.
Suffice to say, there is some method to the madness. These are valued extra undrafted assets to uncover
And roster churn and constant transaction is good while evaluating, even if you’re an established contender. You never know the kind of player you will find outside of the standard draft model. The only aspect of your team that doesn’t change are your core pieces. The Seahawks and general manager John Schneider have perfected this plan recently. Before them, New England has been doing it for years while letting premium talent that mostly peaked, walk or be traded away too (Jamie Collins and Richard Seymour, to name a couple).
If you want to follow the current NFL “gold standards”, you find undrafted free agents that are coachable and can become worthwhile professional talents.
For the Bears, they tied for ninth most in the NFL with 29 starts from their undrafted free agents on the roster in 2016. Considering Chicago only had seven guys that fit this description that’s an impressive feat for Pace. Spinning the wheel for a rebuilding team can’t hurt. Obviously, the aforementioned analysis does not include 2015.
Although, given the track record of the successful teams noted, Pace may do well to play around more in this undrafted aspect. Roster dealing is a different subject, but every asset at hand can help. You never know who will contribute meaningfully.
Let’s take a look at the performance of three former and now rising Bears undrafted free agents through the Pace era.
Cre’Von LeBlanc: Acquired in 2016
After being picked up Chicago from New England this past late preseason, injuries eventually forced LeBlanc into duty. Fast forward through some growing pains in the early months and LeBlanc began to show out towards the end of the year. LeBlanc brings a necessary physicality to the position and shows tremendous discipline in coverage even if not the most naturally talented cornerback. This is a young player that relentlessly dedicates himself to his craft.
To his credit, LeBlanc even showed the penchant for a secondary dearth of takeaways in taking back the only pick-six of the John Fox era to this point against the Lions.
LeBlanc’s noted promise may have been more likely due to the lack of relative secondary talent on the team, so he sticks out more, but you can’t let what he did go unnoticed. 44 tackles, two interceptions, and leading the Bears with 10 passes defended for a guy with no expectations is something to be ecstatic about.
The 22-year-old likely fills in as more of a slot or nickel cornerback moving forward and that’s okay. Depth is always appreciated and LeBlanc is still an NFL caliber player. Make no mistake, this was a terrific late August addition to the roster by Pace.
Cameron Meredith: Acquired in 2015
You may not remember, but Meredith played a huge part in the Bears’ 18-17 comeback win over the Chiefs in 2015. That day, Meredith had a crucial four receptions for 52 yards as Chicago was missing Alshon Jeffery and Eddie Royal. After that short little spurt though, Meredith was nowhere to be found the rest of the season, and was buried on the depth chart.
2016 was much kinder in that respect as with the void left behind by a Kevin White injury, Meredith enjoyed an up and down season that reflected his experience. Still, one could conclude that what Meredith did as the number two receiver by default, was mostly bright.
Partly due to Jeffery’s four game suspension, Meredith led the Bears in receiving yards and receptions with 888 yards and 62 catches, respectively. Its clear that with the opportunities he did receive had him make the most of them.
What Meredith particularly did well and bodes well for him as a primary option for whomever is the Bears quarterback, is his polished and tight route running. It’s the best trait of his game as a possession receiver. Pro Football Focus even named Meredith their best at executing the difficult double move in the 2016 season.
Here’s an example of that general beautiful technique that Meredith perfected. Note the patience and awareness.
Now, there was a stretch where Meredith did disappear in the mid-season before capping the year with two 100-yard games in the last month. A string of games with only three total receptions as he was in lost in the shuffle in late October and mid-November. That can be chalked up to growing pains and on the absence of Alshon Jeffery while learning. Nevertheless, the ability to adapt and eventually break though again should be commended.
If the Bears can continue to get this kind of production from their number two or number three receiver (depending on belief in White), then the offense will be in great shape.
Bryce Callahan: Acquired in 2015
A rising name that has popped up aplenty of late is Callahan’s. Much like LeBlanc, Callahan plays with an edge and uses his work ethic to the best of his ability. What differentiates the two, is that Callahan is a little more athletically gifted while having less fortune health-wise.
In two seasons, Callahan has missed 12 games due to injury, which isn’t a productive way of sticking around long-term with a team. Any time he has made progress, injury derails it, and he gets thrown for a loop. What makes him such an asset with his diminutive size at just 5-foot-9 is also a detriment to his career prospects. Callahan has immense promise even as a nickel corner in exercise, but if he can’t stay on the field, he won’t reach his potential. This is a defender you could count on with responsibility, but only in theory for now.
How Callahan deals with injuries moving forward will be the determining factor in discovering all of the talent that lies within on a consistent basis. If he should put it all together, just lie in wait for the flourish.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.