A constant uphill climb.
This is the journey undrafted free agents have to take to reach success in the NFL. 253 players were drafted last month, but the majority of rookies who will participate in training camps this summer did not hear their name called.
One of the players who did not get selected in the 2017 NFL draft was Appalachian State linebacker Kennan Gilchrist, a three-year starter and all-Sun Belt Conference player who was signed by the Dallas Cowboys to a three-year, non-guaranteed contract worth a total of $1.67 million. (Over the Cap)
At 6’2, 225 lbs., Gilchrist has the look of a safety more so than a linebacker, which consistently shows up at the point of attack, but on the other hand, he is always flying to the football. This has a lot to do with his natural athletic ability to change direction and quickly close on a ball carrier in space. There are times where he lets blockers get into his frame and struggles to disengage, but more often than not, Gilchrist wins those battles because of pure hustle and effort. One of my favorite things about Gilchrist’s tape was that he jawed and talked trash to nearly every player on the opposing team each game, showing the confidence and passion of a player who wants to tear somebody up. If Gilchrist is not giving 100 percent on each snap, he is giving 110 percent. That is the way he is wired, and I am not sure that is a teachable trait. With his status as an undrafted free agent, Gilchrist is going to need something to catch the coaching staff’s eye in order to stick around, and I think his endless and relentless motor will be his calling card. Whether it is chasing down a ball carrier from across the field and/or making a touchdown-saving tackle, Gilchrist will undoubtedly garner the attention of one coach in particular: Rich Bisaccia, the special teams coordinator.
Sure, Gilchrist may have the explosiveness and sideline to sideline range to be a potential contributor as either a weak-side or strong-side linebacker in this scheme, but it is his special teams potential that should have people buzzing around the organization. Other than his gifted athleticism and competitive toughness, Gilchrist is an extremely reliable open-field tackler. He times his wrap up well and consistently brings the ball carrier to the ground. From the tape I watched, it was hard to find a missed tackle on this player’s resume. Gilchrist may take an unconventional path to the football sometimes, but he finds a way to get the job done regardless. This description of a player has to be in Rich Bisaccia’s dreams. A player who can quickly race down the field with plus athleticism and effort, but also rarely miss tackles in space? Yeah, if Kennan Gilchrist is going to make this team, you can be sure Bisaccia stood on the table for him.
So where does our favorite Appalachian State linebacker fit on the Dallas Cowboys’ 53-man roster? There are a number of routes for him to get on there, but first, let’s start with the basics. The Cowboys carried seven linebackers on their roster last season: Sean Lee, Anthony Hitchens, Damien Wilson, Mark Nzeocha, Andrew Gachkar, Kyle Wilber and Justin Durant. Two of those players in Gachkar and Durant are no longer on the team. That leaves the team with six returning players because of the expected debut of Jaylon Smith, who missed all of last season because of the tragic leg injury he suffered in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. This means only one spot could be available on this linebacker depth chart for an outsider to break through the cracks. The outsiders include other undrafted free agents like Lucas Wacha, Joseph Jones and Darnell Leslie. There is a chance this team tries to bring in another veteran, but for the time being, that is the competition for Gilchrist. If Dallas decides to go short on linebackers and keep only six, Gilchrist’s next route is to beat out veteran special teams ace and SAM linebacker, Kyle Wilber. Wilber does a lot of valuable things in both special teams and the run game that won’t be televised or highlighted by the broadcast booths, but these coaches know just how valuable a versatile player like him can be. With that being said, Wilber is an unrestricted free agent in 2018, and the Cowboys are going to have to soon find his replacement. Wilber’s mainstay position has been the SAM linebacker spot, but with Damien Wilson and Mark Nzeocha expected to see an increase in snaps this upcoming season, he is going to have to prove his special teams value yet again to keep his job over these hungry undrafted free agents, especially Kennan Gilchrist.
How the linebacker group shakes out in training camp is going to be one of my favorite storylines of the summer, but in all reality, the final spot on that depth chart is going to be decided on special teams. If Gilchrist can show his versatility to play either outside linebacker spot with his burst and finishing ability, that would be great for his outlook, but the real test is if he can win over Rich Bisaccia, and my early prediction is that he has a good chance of doing so.