Just because you go undrafted doesn’t mean you can’t make an impact in the NFL. Just last year, we saw the quintessential example with James Robinson going from relative unknown to fantasy football darling in the span of a few weeks in September. One of the biggest fantasy surprises in recent memory, Robinson went on to finish as fantasy’s No. 7 back with a hearty average of 17.9 PPR points per game.

To be fair, Robinson’s 2020 campaign was an anomaly. But it isn’t outlandish to think that an undrafted rookie free agent could surface on the fantasy radar. Phillip Lindsay did it. And perhaps more famously, Arian Foster went undrafted in 2009 and put up an All-Pro season in 2010. He was also an elite fantasy option for the better part of five years from 2010 to 2015.

While the deck is certainly stacked against the undrafted rookies, there are a number of interesting names in this year’s class. Let’s take a look at the top candidates and see if we can find anyone who can be this year’s James Robinson.

Javian Hawkins, RB, Atlanta Falcons

With just Mike Davis and Qadree Ollison on the roster heading into the draft, the Falcons surprisingly did not select a single running back with their nine picks. However, Arthur Smith and company did sign Javian Hawkins and Caleb Huntley. Of the two, Hawkins seemed to draw the most attention from the fantasy crowd, but it seems like a stretch to consider him a viable candidate to take over in the Falcons’ backfield.

Hawkins is an extremely fun player to watch and certainly earned his nickname of “Playstation” in his time at Louisville. However, at just 5-foot-8 and 183 pounds, he’s extremely undersized for early-down work in the NFL. Sure, Warrick Dunn had similar measurables, but he was also a premium player who was the exception, not the rule. Hawkins isn’t Dunn, and that isn’t a knock on Hawkins. He’s still very capable of making the Atlanta roster, but his role figures to be more that of Tarik Cohen or Nyheim Hines where he’d contribute more in the passing game as a player who can make plays in space.

Verdict: Unlikely to be this year’s James Robinson.

Caleb Huntley, RB, Atlanta Falcons

The aforementioned Caleb Huntley was the other back the Falcons signed right after the draft. In many ways, he’s the polar opposite of Hawkins. Huntley is a bigger back (5-10, 210), but also lacks the speed an explosion we see out of Hawkins. He did show the ability to carry a big workload in 2019 with 26.7 rushing attempts per game for Ball State.

While that ability as an early-down runner might help him compete with Ollison for early-down backup duties, Huntley showed very little in the passing game at the college level. He profiles as an early-down plodder, which doesn’t exactly jump of the page for fantasy purposes. Huntley has the look of a practice squad player who may surface eventually due to injuries but isn’t likely to be a factor for Atlanta in 2021.

Verdict: Not this year’s James Robinson.

Jaret Patterson, RB, Washington Football Team

It was a minor surprise Jaret Patterson went undrafted while inexperienced players like Kene Nwangwu and Jake Funk ended up being selected on Day 3 of the draft. Of course, those guys check the height and weight boxes along with being freakish athletes. Patterson, on the other hand, was one of the shortest backs in this year’s class at just 5-foot-6. To be fair, he does have stocky build at 195 pounds. And unlike Nwangwu or Funk, Patterson has a lengthy college resume that includes an eight-touchdown game in which he also rushed for over 400 yards. Simply put, he’s a darn good football player who would have been a Day 2 candidate if he was four inches taller and 20 pounds heavier. 

Of course, Washington isn’t exactly the best landing spot for Paterson. The Football Team depth chart seems fairly set with Antonio Gibson inked in as the top option. The good news for Patterson is that there isn’t much behind Gibson. J.D. McKissic figures to remain in his passing-down role. From there, Patterson will compete with Peyton Barber and Lamar Miller for backup duties to Gibson. He has a good shot at beating them out.

Verdict: Gibson blocks his path to be this year’s James Robinson, but Patterson is still intriguing.

Stevie Scott, RB, New Orleans Saints

Admittedly, Stevie Scott was my pre-draft favorite for this distinction. He figured to go undrafted following a lackluster pro day and an overall “meh” college career. That said, he did score 10 rushing touchdowns in each of his last three seasons at Indiana and comes with NFL size at 6-foot and 225 pounds. He also flashed the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.

Unfortunately, his path to any sort of role in the short-term is blocked in New Orleans with Alvin Kamara locked in as the lead back and Latavius Murray in backup duties. Of course, Murray is entering his age-31 season, and Scott’s size could bode well for him emerging in that role in this offense in the future.

Verdict: Scott’s path to be this year’s James Robinson is also blocked, but he could emerge as a sneaky No. 2 option in the future.

Beyond these four players we also have guys like Rakeem Boyd, who signed with the Lions. Boyd’s poor testing numbers and backslide in production don’t paint the most favorable picture. Deon Jackson has speed for days and good size at 5-foot-11 and 218 pounds. However, he’ll start out buried on the Colts depth chart if he makes the roster. Likewise, Trey Ragas has essentially no shot for an immediate role with the Raiders in 2021.

So there you have it. James Robinson’s 2021 campaign was rare to say the least, and we should really view it as the exception and not the rule. Of this year’s crop of UDFA running backs, Patterson is arguably the most appealing, but he didn’t enter a situation like Robinson did last year. Leonard Fournette had one foot out the door, and we simply can’t say that about Gibson in Washington. Of course, players do get injured. So it’s wise to keep an eye on all of these guys in redraft leagues and be prepared to stash them in deep dynasty formats.