When I first started as a scout in the NFL, one of the things that I quickly learned was just how tough it is to make an NFL roster. You start camp with 90 players and by the start of Week 1, that 90 gets cut down to 53 and dozens of players are then out of jobs and their NFL aspirations are in jeopardy. Of course, not all 90 players enter camp on an even playing field and there are truly only about 10 or so open spots on a roster as teams have established players already under contract that are locks to make the team either because of their talent level or because their contract demands that they remain on the roster. So, realistically, you have 47 other players competing for those 10 open roster spots in any given training camp. Again, it's extremely difficult to make an NFL roster.
Another thing I realized when I was learning the ropes of being an in-house scout was that a large percentage of teams' rosters are not first or second-round picks but are late-round draft picks and undrafted free agents. Every year in camp I saw late-round guys and UDFAs come in and ball out and give their best shot to earn a spot on the roster and force a high draft pick or veteran off the team. I vividly remember my time with the Los Angeles Chargers in 2017 camp, and we had a small running back named Austin Ekeler who I had never heard of before wearing No. 3 out of Western Colorado. While Ekeler was unheard of prior to joining camp, all he did was make plays when he got his opportunity. By the end of the preseason, he was just too valuable on offense and special teams to cut. Ekeler is now the Chargers' starting running back and has earned a second contract.
Teams that can find gems in undrafted free agents are usually the teams that compete for playoff spots as it allows you to field a talented team that’s not stretched with cap constraints. One undrafted free agent that I think has a good shot to stick with his club and make the team is former BYU tight end and now Las Vegas Raider Matt Bushman.
Bushman joined the BYU football team in 2017 as a 21-year-old freshman because he had to serve a mission out of high school. While his college career got off to a late start, he certainly made the most of it as soon as he stepped foot on campus. As a freshman, Bushman led the Cougars in receiving with 49 receptions, 520 yards, and three touchdowns. His time as a high school receiver was evident as he displayed very natural hands and ball skills and was a good route-runner almost instantly in his career. Bushman went on to lead the Cougars in receiving as a sophomore and a junior, firmly establishing himself as one of the best pass-catching tight ends in college football and as a legit NFL prospect.
Had Bushman entered the draft in 2020 rather than return to school, Bushman very well could have been an early day three pick as a mismatch receiving tight end who works his butt off in the run game. Unfortunately, due to him suffering a season-ending Achilles injury just weeks before the start of the season, Bushman was forced to enter the 2021 NFL Draft as an old and injured tight end, thus leading him to go undrafted.
Now healthy, Bushman has already started to turn heads during Raiders practices earlier this summer—that same athleticism and natural receiving skills that made him such a productive player early in his career is already translating to the NFL level. Additionally, being 25 may have hurt him during the evaluation process, but his age doesn’t mean a thing as he looks to try and make this football team in camp.
Bushman’s talent alone will keep him in the mix to make the roster, but the Raiders' tight end room has some question marks that could also help Bushman’s case. Obviously, the Raiders are set at the top of their depth chart with Pro Bowl tight end Darren Waller returning as one of the best players in all of football. Behind Waller is third-year tight end Foster Moreau who the team has high hopes for heading into this season as he no longer has to split reps with Jason Witten (who retired). Moreau has some intriguing upside as a pass-catcher but has yet to show he can consistently contribute at the NFL level. The level of talent behind Waller and Moreau is average at best, with players such as Derek Carrier, Nick Bowers, and Alex Ellis rounding out the tight end room. None of those players have the receiving upside as Bushman, and Bushman’s speed should allow him to be a force on kick coverage early in his career, giving him an even better shot at making the roster.
Every year undrafted free agents come in and leave their mark on a football team. Last season, Jacksonville Jaguars running back James Robinson had one of the best seasons for a rusher in all of football last year and made the decision to cut Leonard Fournette a heck of a lot easier for the Jaguars' front office. While your status as an undrafted free agent may work against you as you compete with drafted players in camp, at the end of the day, the team will keep the players they feel will be able to help them win on Sunday. Bushman has the skill set that will set him apart in camp and earn him a spot with the Silver and Black come Week 1.