As Panthers fans we tend to get overly emotional about the performance of the rookies Carolina selects in the NFL Draft. This is mainly because the Panthers invested an asset in the form of a draft pick to get that player on the roster. If the player doesn’t live up to his draft position then not only does it hurt Carolina’s depth, it means the team wasted an asset that could’ve been used more productively on another player.
But there’s one group of rookies where there’s absolutely no downside: Undrafted free agents.
If they don’t pan out, it doesn’t matter. If they make the roster and contribute at all, they’re found money. Gravy. A free lunch. Getting something for nothing.
Every year hundreds of UDFAs flood training camps attempting to defy the odds and somehow make a 53-man roster. It doesn’t happen frequently, but every so often teams strike gold with UDFA rookies who contribute despite their lack of draft pedigree. This year the Panthers had four UDFA rookies who flashed some potential and could be part of the team’s youth movement. Here’s how their seasons played out:
Sam Franklin, S
Playing time: 14 games, 4 games started, 248 defensive snaps (23%), 156 special teams snaps (37%)
Stats: 23 tackles, 1.0 sacks, 1 tackle for loss, 1 quarterback hit, 1 pass defensed
PFF grade: 55.0
Franklin played for Matt Rhule at Temple and made the Week 1 roster. He only played special teams through the Panthers first five games but then in Week 6 he recorded 23 defensive snaps. He proceeded to start four straight games between Weeks 7-10 and registered 18 tackles, one sack, and a tackle for loss. I gave him two shout-outs in my Plays to Love/Hate columns during that time. First, in Week 8 he had a great pass breakup to prevent a Julio Jones touchdown. In Week 9 he had back-to-back spectacular plays where he dropped Le’Veon Bell for a five yard loss then sacked Patrick Mahomes on the next snap. In Week 10 he suffered an unfortunate ankle injury that cost him two games. He closed out the season playing almost exclusively on special teams. Franklin seems to have rewarded the trust Coach Rhule placed in him in the preseason and he could carve out a bigger role in the future.
Myles Hartsfield, S
Playing time: 16 games, 140 defensive snaps (13%), 253 special teams snaps (60%)
Stats: 14 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 pass defensed, 2 fumble recoveries
PFF grade: 59.6
Hartsfield spent training camp flexing between running back and defensive back and ultimately made the Panthers Week 1 roster on defense. Through the Panthers first six games he was a special teams mainstay but didn’t play any defensive or offensive snaps. In Week 7 he played four offensive snaps at running back and carried the ball twice for two yards. But as the season progressed, Hartsfield started getting some limited defensive snaps. He was given a real chance to prove himself in the Panthers last three games when he averaged 32 defensive snaps per outing. Over those three contests he registered nine tackles with one TFL. While Myles’ stats don’t jump off the page, the Panthers need depth in the secondary and he might be able to provide just that.
Rodney Smith, RB
Playing time: 7 games, 1 game started, 133 offensive snaps (13%), 3 special teams snaps (1%)
Stats: 41 carries, 156 yards (3.8 yards per carry), 1 touchdown; 9 receptions, 59 yards, 1 touchdown
PFF grade: 70.0
While the former Minnestoa Golden Gopher’s 3.8 YPC isn’t spectacular, it’s equal to Christian McCaffrey’s 3.8 YPC this season (in limited action) and was just a whisker behind Mike Davis’ 3.9 YPC. PFF really liked Rodney with a surprisingly high 70.0 grade. He made his debut in Week 10 and immediately appeared as though he belonged in the NFL. He was an okay runner and a capable receiver, and that’s fantastic for a UDFA. If he can be 90 percent next year of what Mike Davis was this year, the Panthers will have found themselves a salary cap bargain.
Joseph Charlton, P
Playing time: 16 games, 124 special teams snaps (30%)
Stats: 45 punts, 46.3 average (No. 12 in NFL), 40.8 net average (No. 15 in NFL)
PFF grade: N/A
When 2019’s starting punter Michael Palardy tore his ACL in July, UDFA Joseph Charlton not only won the job for 2020, he performed quite well. His average punt was 0.3 yards longer than Palardy’s last year and his net punting average was 2.1 yards better. Charlton’s performance this season slightly exceeded the average NFL punter, which is more than any team could hope for from a UDFA. Charlton could be the Panthers punter for years to come.
When adding these four rookies to the Panthers strong 2020 draft class, the team has a host of first year players who gained valuable experience. While the impacts of Franklin, Hartsfield, Smith, and Charlton aren’t on par with those of Derrick Brown, Jeremy Chinn, or Yetur Gross-Matos (when healthy), that’s the wrong comparison. Those guys were first and second round picks. The Panthers top four UDFAs performed more like solid fourth or fifth round picks in their first NFL seasons, and that’s excellent value.
That’s found money.