The majority of NFL enthusiasts realize that the whole pre-draft prospect evaluation process is anything but an exact science. Proven by all the undrafted free agent longshots scattered on NFL rosters around the league.
The Pittsburgh Steelers franchise has enjoyed more than their fair share over the years, with Hall of Famer Donnie Shell being the ultimate overachiever.
Which raises a valid question, and the focal point of this article.
Why do the multitude of professional personnel around the NFL paid to do this one thing, talent evaluation, end up getting it wrong so frequently?
The question came to mind a while back as I was reading a report that the Steelers were placing recently signed free agent running back Jeremy McNichols on season-ending injured reserve, and signing free agent running back Major Teague III, a rookie free agent from Ohio State, to fill the empty spot on the training camp depth chart.
I thought about how the Steelers were forced to replace a proven third down back possessing NFL experience with a unproven rookie free agent. I immediately surmised that transaction likely improved the odds of current camp sensation Jaylen Warren working his way onto the final roster.
Then it hit me.
What do all three running backs have in common, besides competing for an opportunity with the Steelers?
All three runners were undrafted.
The possible reasons a talented running back like Warren went undrafted are numerous.
For starters, Warren was easy to overlook, both literally and figuratively. Not only was he a one-year wonder with the Oklahoma State Cowboys, but the youngster is vertically challenged. In other words, he's short, measuring in at 5'8" and 215 lbs. He ran reasonably well when tested, clocking in with a 4.55 forty, but his explosive numbers were pedestrian. Many scouting reports mentioned he was a one-speed runner who lacked an extra gear, with marginal elusiveness. He is a strong momentum runner, but he needs the hole to be there to hit top speed running downhill. Although he is obviously strong and well built, his evaluations were underwhelming, to say the least.
Truthfully, the evaluations explain why Warren went undrafted, but he has multiple attributes that are impossible to measure during pre-draft workouts and testing. Those overlooked and underreported intangibles are the precise reasons that he is a real threat to not only earn a surprise roster spot, but actually contribute this season for the Steelers.
It's impossible to adequately gauge a prospect's determination, competitiveness, and preparedness during the pre-draft testing process. Each has been revealed at training camp through his superior conditioning achieved by his offseason work ethic, preparing preemptively for this very opportunity. It is evident in the intensity demonstrated during each training camp carry or task.
All of these attributes have been on full display for Warren during the first two and a half weeks of the 2022 Steelers Training Camp, to the point Mike Tomlin himself noticed and has felt compelled to mention him on multiple occasions without prompting.
Tomlin likes to remind the Steelers ravenous fan base that one man's misfortune is another man's opportunity. Sometimes that opportunity can be golden.
Warren's odds of earning a roster spot remain in the longshot category at the moment. He is looking up at Benny Snell and Anthony McFarland Jr. on the depth chart, but seems to be closing the distance on the frontrunners on a daily basis.
Snell has the proven experience of a couple of 90 yard games with the Steelers already on his resume, accomplishing both behind an anemic offensive line, to say the least. That would seem to give him a leg up on the competition, but his roster spot is anything but secure.
Snell fancied himself a closer when he first entered the NFL, a grinder who could get the tough yards needed to accumulate first downs, extend drives, and possess the football. Maybe Snell could showcase that as of yet unseen ability behind a fully functional offensive line, something that the Steelers have lacked during his tenure.
Even if the Steelers offensive line makes significant strides this season as hoped, Warren has a few noticeable advantages over Snell as they battle for a roster spot and playing type. Warren possesses better speed and elusiveness, and is a far superior receiver. That makes Warren a true third down, change of pace backup for stud starter Najee Harris.
Anthony McFarland Jr. has the speed and athleticism advantage in the competition, but has shown zero durability thus far in his NFL career. Warren definitely has the physicality advantage in their comparison. McFarland has enjoyed an impressive camp thus far, but can he stay healthy enough to remain on the field, where he can realize his potential? If it's going to happen for the young man, it needs to happen now.
Warren has already surpassed Mataeo Durant, another UDFA runner, on the depth chart, and the aforementioned Master Teague is still trying to find his footing so he can hit the ground running.
The bottom line is this: Just because a player goes undrafted doesn't mean they lack NFL caliber abilities. That is true at the running back position more so than any other. There are multiple qualities a running back must possess to be successful at the highest level. Some of them are impossible to measure during the pre-draft evaluations and testing. Some perceived limitations turn out to not be limiting at all.
Jaylen Warren may just be the Steelers latest perfect example.
One thing is for certain. This is shaping up to be the most exciting and intriguing preseason for the Steelers in decades.