Kurt Warner. James Harrison. Dick “Night Train” Lane. Antonio Gates.
Over the years, there have been several undrafted free agents who have left indelible marks on the game of football. Despite not being seen as worthy enough of an NFL Draft selection, these players have overcome the odds and have gone on to become successful NFL players.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to take a look at 10 of the undrafted free agents that the Chicago Bears signed this offseason to try and determine who stands the best chance of making it to the 53-man roster. We start this week with a player who has already surpassed the expectations of many: wide receiver Matt Fleming.
Fleming comes from Division III school Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois. He finished up the 2017 season with 45 receptions for 731 yards and 10 touchdowns in 10 games. After not having a touchdown in his first two weeks of the season, Fleming scored at least one touchdown in every week after that point. He attended Simeon Career Academy in Chicago for high school.
The 6’0”, 180-pound wide out is also quite the accomplished track star. In high school, Fleming was a two-time All-American in track and field. He participated in the Division III track and field championships last spring, finishing second in long jump and winning as a part of Benedictine’s team in the 4 x 100 relay. He was also a Division III All-American track and field athlete in 2017.
Fleming will turn 22 years old this season. He had one year of collegiate eligibility remaining, but he decided to declare for the NFL Draft a year early. He majored in criminal justice in college.
Fleming participated in the Bears’ rookie minicamp in April and was eventually signed to a contract. Head coach Matt Nagy complimented the undrafted free agent in a press conference after the camp.
“There’s a few guys [who stood out],” Nagy said. “I think the one kid that stood out was Matt Fleming. Not a real big kid, but he made his assignments, did his job, made some nice catches.
Since Fleming comes from a small school, there aren’t any cut ups of him available online. However, there are some highlights from his junior season on his Hudl page.
One thing that’s apparent on film is Fleming’s straight-line speed, which shouldn’t be surprising given his track and field background. His Hudl page states that he ran a 4.39 40-yard dash, a timing made evident by his breakaway speed. Once Fleming hits the open field, there aren’t many players who can catch him. This speed also makes him a dangerous deep threat who can take the top off of defenses on go and fade routes.
Fleming has experience lining up in the slot and on the outside, which gives coaches a little bit of versatility when plotting where to line him up. Although his speed and lack of bulk makes him a more attractive option in the slot, he has the physicality to make catches in tight coverage and can high point the ball fairly well. He’s also a decent and willing blocker who gives his all and gets inside leverage on his defenders.
Fleming has fluid hips, which aids his route running and his ability to pick up yards after the catch. When his route running is at its best, it looks more like a Division I player’s route running than a Division III player’s route running. He can sell double moves well and is good at changing direction quickly. He also excels at maintain possession on sideline passes and can toe drag well. Benedictine also used him on jet sweeps, which allows him to get in space and utilize his speed and elusiveness.
However, the fact that the only form of film available of Fleming is his highlights makes it tough to get an entirely firm grasp of his skill set. There are some times on his highlights, though, when some questionable decisions appear. For one, his decision making in regards to his cuts is inconsistent. He tries too hard to make a big play by “dancing” in the open field instead of aggressively running up the field, which causes him to lose a few yards off of what could often have been a bigger play than it ended up being. He also has a tendency to make body catches on short passes like slants and screens that will need fixing in the pros.
Fleming’s route running can look good at times, but there are some cases when he doesn’t look so sure in his movements. His hip movements look sharp at one point, but they lack sharpness at other points. He doesn’t consistently display body control when running routes that aren’t vertical routes, either. That worked a bit at the Division III level, but it will have to change if he wants to carve out a career for himself in the NFL.
Chances of making the 53-man roster
Considering all of the talent that the Bears added at wide receiver this offseason, the odds of Fleming making the 53-man roster are very slim. The jump from lining up against Division III cornerbacks to lining up against NFL cornerbacks will likely be a big one, as it tends to be for a lot of undrafted rookies from small schools, and Fleming isn’t refined enough for his game to translate to immediate success. However, Fleming has the athleticism to make it onto the practice squad and will definitely be a sleeper worth monitoring throughout training camp and the preseason.