In another strange year where the player evaluation process was changed significantly because of coronavirus, the three football-playing service academies did not see anyone taken in the first seven rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft, but five were signed as free agents in the hours immediately following. The Air Force gets inter-service bragging rights this year, tallying three players signed to Army and Navy’s one.
To the casual football fan, undrafted free agents are a mere footnote — but that’s a mistake. Some of the greatest players in the league’s history were undrafted. In fact, 14 players taken first overall in the draft are now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, against 17 undrafted free agents. That may be a bit misleading, since the undrafted free agents greatly outnumber first overall picks, but it just shows how important it is not to overlook players because they weren’t drafted. For every John Elway or Bruce Smith, there is a Warren Moon or John Randle.
If you choose to follow these players and end up finding their names in the list of cuts during training camp, bear in mind even that doesn’t mean the end. 2010 West Point graduate Alejandro Villanueva, who was a wide receiver for the Black Knights, was cut by the Bengals after signing as an undrafted free agent trying to play tight end. He then fulfilled his active duty military requirement, serving three tours in Afghanistan as a Ranger. In 2014, he attempted to catch on as a defensive lineman with Philadelphia, but was cut again. Finally, four positions and four years later, the Steelers finally found him a home at left tackle, where he not only made the team, but was named to two Pro Bowls over the last seven years and just recently signed with the Ravens.
Undrafted or not, service members have made significant contributions on NFL rosters, and a few have been stars. Count out the names below at your own peril:
Jon Rhattigan: Linebacker, Army – Signed by Seattle
Jon Rhattigan was at the heart of a defense that helped Army win some ugly, hard-nosed games this year on their way to a 9-3 record and one of the most successful years in recent program history. Rhattigan didn’t see significant playing time until this season, playing behind current Chargers’ linebacker Cole Christiansen in his first three years. He made the most of the time he had, though, being named Second Team All-American by USA Today, Third Team by Pro Football Focus, and was a Bednarik Award (nation’s best linebacker) semifinalist. He led the Black Knights with 78 tackles, including nine for a loss. He had two fumble recoveries and two interceptions, including Army’s first pick-six since 2017.
Rhattigan is a throwback kind of player that, despite all his accolades, might be a victim of today’s pass-heavy NFL. At 6’0″, 236 pounds, and running a 4.77 40-yard dash at his pro day, his measurables aren’t ideal, and he may have a hard time staying on the field in passing situations in lieu of modern-day coverage linebackers. What Rhattigan does have, however, is heart and a nose for the football. If there is any position on the field a player can get away with less athleticism and rely more on football IQ and toughness, it’s inside linebacker. He has a chance to make Seattle’s roster as a special teamer and maybe a two-down linebacker later down the road.
Cameron Kinley: Defensive Back, Navy – Signed by Tampa Bay
Cameron Kinley was a starter at corner all of 2019 and 2020 for the Naval Academy. Kinley recorded 26 tackles, including one for a loss in last season’s disappointing 3-7 campaign. He had a key interception in the first victory of the year over Tulane. Tulane was already leading 24-0 and looked to extend the lead before the half, but Kinley came up with the pick deep in his own territory. Navy stormed back in the second half for a 27-24 victory.
Kinley certainly has the intangible qualities teams look for, such as the leadership chops displayed by being the Naval Academy class president for 2021. He says his goal is to be president of the United States one day.
Kinley has his work cut out for him, as he joins the defending champs and their very capable defensive backfield that helped shut down the most explosive offense in the league in Super Bowl LV. His 4.52 40-yard dash and 33-inch vertical leap are average by cornerback standards. However, he has excellent size, and fluid hips that might make him a valuable press-man cornerback (6’2″, 204 pounds). His intelligence and willingness to stick his nose in and defend the run might make him more versatile and make the Bucs take a look at him as a safety as well.
George Silvanic: Defensive Tackle, Air Force – Signed by Los Angeles Rams
Silvanic, a defensive lineman freshman through junior year, was listed as an offensive lineman for all of 2020, until he was switched back two weeks before Air Force opened their season October 3rd against Navy. Changing positions is a tough ask at any level, let alone FBS college football, but Silvanic was up to the task. He ended up second on the team in tackles (34), and lead the team in tackles for loss (4.5) and sacks (2.5) in their COVID-shortened six-game slate. He racked up 11 of those tackles in the heartbreaking 10-7 loss to Army.
Silvanic’s willingness to do what was best for the team, as well as his production, may have been attractive to the Rams. At 6’5″, 286 pounds, Silvanic did not show the athleticism or explosiveness at his pro day you’d want to see from an interior lineman that is under 300 pounds. So while he likely won’t be a disruptive pass-rusher, he has the big frame to add some bulk now that he doesn’t have Air Force PT every day, and maybe be a capable run stuffer or even a two-gap end in a 3-4 defense.
Parker Ferguson: Offensive Tackle, Air Force – Signed by New York Jets and
Nolan Laufenberg: Guard, Air Force – Signed by Denver
One of the unfortunate realities of being an offensive lineman (but perhaps more appreciated by service members) is that they are often evaluated by their effectiveness as a unit rather than as an individual. Such is the case here. Ferguson and Laufenberg, forming the left side of the Falcons offensive line this past season, will be lumped together, not for lack of respect for their individual accomplishments (they were both First Team All-Mountain West, and Laufenberg was a Second Team AP All-American, for what it’s worth), but only because they achieved what they did together.
Albeit in only six games, the Air Force Academy, behind Ferguson and Laufenberg, led the nation in average rushing yards per game (305.7), and led the Mountain West Conference in third-down conversion percentage (48.5) and average time of possession (32:30).
Much of that, however, is a product of being on a team that only threw the ball 61 times in six games. Coming from a college-style, run-heavy offense won’t do them many favors in today’s NFL. Ferguson was a tackle for the Falcons, but lacks ideal size and arm length (6’3″, 306 pounds, 32 7/8″ arms) to counter freakishly athletic pass rushers, so the Jets might consider giving him reps at guard. Playing inside would take advantage of the run-blocking prowess of both of these players without exposing them to dominant edge players like TJ Watt and Myles Garrett.