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Free Agents: A Backdoor Into The NFL

Duke didn’t have a sensational draft, other than Daniel Jones, but free agents can still work their way into the league.

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Georgia Tech v Duke
DURHAM, NC - NOVEMBER 18: T.J. Rahming #3 of the Duke Blue Devils makes an acrobatic catch against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets during their game at Wallace Wade Stadium on November 18, 2017 in Durham, North Carolina.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Last month’s NFL draft was a good-news, bad-news kind of weekend for Duke football.

On the plus side of the ledger, Daniel Jones was picked sixth by the New York Giants, While not a universally-acclaimed pick, it did make Jones Duke’s highest pick in the regular portion of the draft since Mike Junkin went fifth in 1987.

But Jones was the only former Blue Devil to hear his name called. Even two-time All-ACC linebacker Joe Giles-Harris was ignored.

Within hours of the end of the draft, we started hearing about free-agent signings. Giles-Harris signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Tight end Daniel Helm signed with the L.A. Chargers, wide receiver T.J. Rahming with the Washington Redskins, wide receiver Johnathan Lloyd with the L.A. Rams and tight end Davis Koppenhaver with the Green Bay Packers.

The technical term is Undrafted Free Agent.

A quick route to obscurity?

Actually, no. Statistics and definitions are inexact but one 2017 Bleacher Report study showed that 17 percent of NFL players who played at least 40 percent of their team’s offensive or defensive snaps were UFAs.

Certainly, David Cutcliffe’s Duke program has had success with UFAs. Prior to the 2019 draft, Cutcliffe had four Duke draft picks, Sean Renfree, Ross Cockrell, Jamison Crowder and Laken Tomlinson. Renfree didn’t play much but the other three are all active and have had productive NFL careers, with Cockrell missing all of last season with the Panthers after suffering a preseason leg injury.

But a full dozen Duke UFAs have played in at least one regular-season NFL game since Cutcliffe took over.

In fact, the most successful Duke player in the NFL over the last decade was undrafted.

Cutcliffe inherited linebacker Vinnie Rey when he took over prior to the 2008 season. But Rey played two seasons for Cutcliffe, leading Duke with 98 tackles in 2009. He was selected second-team All-ACC that year.

But Rey barely hits the tape-measure at six-feet even.

Not what sets NFL hearts aflutter.

So, no draft.

But he’s been timed at 4.58 for the 40-yard dash and has a nose for the football.

Rey signed with Cincinnati shortly after the 2010 draft. He showed the kind of persistence needed to stick as an undrafted player. Cincinnati waived him, signed him to the practice squad and then activated him, all in the span of a couple of months.

This is important. Almost any UFA is going to have to work his way up to make an actual game roster. And there are no guarantees. Former Duke offensive tackle Takoby Cofield spent two seasons on the Washington practice squad without ever being activated.

Cofield played last season for Saskatchewan in the Canadian Football League.

Rey also excelled on special teams, a common way for young players to make a positive impression.

Rey completed his ninth season with the Bengals last year and is currently a free agent. Through last season he has 497 tackles, six sacks, five interceptions and one touchdown.

No other Cutcliffe-era Blue Devil UFA has matched Rey. But Thad Lewis threw for 1,296 yards, running back Juwan Thompson has a Super Bowl ring for the Broncos--he did not play in Super Bowl 50--and tight end Cooper Helfet had 25 NFL receptions.

Safety Matt Daniels and defensive end Kenny Anunike had briefer NFL careers.

What have you done for me lately?

Matt Skura has the best chance of matching or exceeding Rey’s career. The 2015 first-team All-ACC center, Skura was waived twice by the Baltimore Ravens before starting all 16 games for them last season at center.

The Ravens re-signed Skura last month.

His college line-mate Lucas Patrick also followed the waiver/practice squad/active roster-road for Green Bay, where he played 12 games last season at guard, with two starts.

Thomas Hennessy is the long snapper for the New York Jets. Can he match snapper Patrick Mannelly’s 16 years in the NFL? Check back around 2032.

Three more Blue Devil UFAs have more problematic futures. All-American safety Jeremy Cash has converted to an NFL linebacker but injuries have savaged his pro career. He currently is a free agent.

Wide receiver Max McCaffrey (San Francisco) and cornerback Breon Borders (Jacksonville) played late last season but face competition to keep their spots.

So, that’s your dozen. Will that number increase this fall and, if so, by how much? Patience, perseverance and adaptability will no doubt help determine that. But the opportunity is there.

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