Local players keep NFL dream alive with free agent deals

Two dozen undrafted North Carolina college products will look to make NFL rosters

Elon quarterback Davis Cheek was signed by the Carolina Panthers, one of several local players looking to catch on with a team after not being selected in the NFL Draft. (Nell Redmond / AP Photo)

The Carolina Panthers traded up in the draft to address their quarterback position, selecting Matt Corral out of Ole Miss to develop behind Sam Darnold, still slotted to be Carolina’s starter.

The Carolina front office hinted that the team might not be done adding to its quarterback depth chart, and it didn’t take long for the Panthers to live up to that foreshadowing. While they didn’t sign or trade for a veteran, Carolina included a quarterback in the group of undrafted free agents, signed in the days following the conclusion of the draft.

Like their first pick in the draft, the Panthers didn’t leave the state to sign their quarterback, bringing in Elon’s Davis Cheek. The second-team All-CAA signal-caller started 40 games in five years with the Phoenix and faces a long road to making the Carolina roster.

Of the nearly two dozen local products that signed undrafted free agent deals this year, there are several who have better odds of making their respective team’s final 53 than Cheek.

Wake Forest’s Luiji Vilain was included on most lists of free agents to watch after the edge rusher signed with the Minnesota Vikings. After the Michigan transfer recorded eight sacks with the Deacons this past season, he was highly sought on the UFA market. According to reports, he earned a signing bonus and guaranteed salary, two promising signs for making the cut.

Two of Vilain’s Wake Forest teammates also found homes after the draft. Wide receiver Jaquarii Roberson signed with the Dallas Cowboys, while defensive back Nasir Greer went to the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Vikings could be a promising landing spot for another player from the state. App State wide receiver Thomas Hennigan signed with Minnesota. The Vikings only devoted one of their 10 picks to the position, so Hennigan will have a shot at landing on the team.

Other Mountaineers who got signed include cornerback Shaun Jolly, who went to Cleveland; receiver Jalen Virgil, signed by the Broncos; and receiver Malik Williams, who went to the Bills. Appalachian State also sent two free agents to the Lions: tackle Demetrius Taylor and receiver Corey Sutton. Taylor has plenty of competition at his spot, but he seems to have the team’s eye and could land on the roster.

Several Pittsburgh Steelers sites like Jordan Tucker’s chance of surviving final cuts. Pittsburgh doesn’t have depth at offensive tackle, and Tucker started 35 games at right tackle for the Tar Heels. The Steelers seem to be interested in his size, at 344 pounds with arm length that captured scouts’ attention.

A pair of Tar Heels will be headed to the Bay Area, as the 49ers signed UNC players on each side of the ball. Linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel has been a leader for the Tar Heels defense and has a shot at landing on the 53. Tight end Garrett Walston will be trying to find a spot on the Niners’ offense.

Two other Tar Heels were signed as UFAs: Cornerback Kyler McMichael went to the Tampa Bay Bucs, and linebacker/pass rusher Tomon Fox went to the Giants, who also selected a pair of UNC offensive linemen in the draft.

In addition to signing Tucker, the Steelers brought in Duke’s record-setting running back Mataeo Durant. According to reports, he signed the largest UFA running back contract in team history, including a $15,000 signing bonus, a sign he might be in the team’s plans.

Duke had one other player signed as a free agent: Cornerback Josh Blackwell went to the Eagles.

Russell Wilson made sure that the Seattle Seahawks were familiar with NC State, and another former Wolfpack standout could be the school’s new representative on the Seattle roster. Linebacker Vi Jones was signed to a UFA contract and turned heads at rookie minicamp, with coach Pete Carroll praising him for “looking the part” of an NFL linebacker.

Wilson’s new team, the Denver Broncos, also found an NC State free agent, signing tight end Dylan Parham. State had three other players sign UFA deals, including two with Baltimore.

The Ravens were impressed with NC State’s offensive skill positions, bringing in running back Ricky Person and receiver Emeka Emezie. Another Wolfpack running back, Bam Knight, found a potential NFL home with the Jets.

In addition to signing NC State players, the Broncos and Jets also were the landing spots for the two ECU defensive backs. Cornerback Ja’Quan McMillan signed with Denver and safety DJ Ford with the Jets.

The Charlotte 49ers had a player sign a free agent contract, with safety Jon Alexander bound for the Bears.