Undrafted free agents have a hard road to the NFL. You often see it mentioned that there are more undrafted free agents in the Hall of Fame than there are first-round picks, but don’t let that fool you. There are 32 first-round picks in every NFL season while there are thousands of undrafted free agents.
The odds are slim that a UDFA will ever see an NFL field, so finding one that not only plays a significant portion of your season but ends up starting for your team is great value, even if their actual play isn’t exemplary. That brings us to our next player up for review, former Southeast Missouri State standout cornerback Mike Ford.
Expectations before 2018
A superb athlete from a small school, Ford’s tape made it clear there was going to be a little bit of a learning curve to his transition into the NFL. The game is a lot faster at this level, and even if he was explosive enough to get moving and fast enough to roll with pro players, his level of competition was such that the jump to the next level was a high one. You could clearly see the potential, and with enough coaching, this was a guy who had a shot at contributing, if not right away.
Actual role in 2018
2018 stats: 7 games (4 starts): 24 solo tackles, 25 total, 1 pass deflection
PFF grade: 49.0 (not enough snaps to qualify for rankings)
With no expectations to see the field, Ford would start the year on the practice squad. It was the appropriate and expected place for a raw prospect to hone his skills without the pressures of having to start... oh, crap, no! The Lions secondary was getting shredded every week and Darius Slay was basically flying solo out there! The Lions defensive dysfunction was brutal and when the team’s plan to utilize declining starter Nevin Lawson wasn’t working, they turned to 2017 second-round pick Teez Tabor. In Pokemon terms, it was the opposite of whatever Super Effective is.
The Lions signed Mike Ford to the active roster in early November and threw him straight into the fire only four days later. I wouldn’t classify his play as ‘good’, and if you were to argue that he wasn’t even a competent starter, I probably wouldn’t passionately defend his play against it. It was, however, an improvement over Tabor and a stark one. Ford’s reaction speed was slow but his feet weren’t and that was enough to keep him on the field seeing snaps.
Outlook for 2019
Contract status: Signed through 2020 season
The Lions made cornerback one of their priorities this offseason, signing Justin Coleman as free agency started and drafting Amani Oruwariye in the fifth round. With Darius Slay starting and Coleman’s contract signalling a starting gig in the slot, Ford is left to fight for the job he vacated in 2018 starting outside. Veteran Rashaan Melvin, Tabor, Oruwariye, and Ford are all fighting for the same starting job, but there’s still a shot at a depth role if Ford is unable to win back his old job.
It was reported that Mike Ford was seeing some work at safety during minicamp and OTAs. That may seem like a bad sign to some, as it’s the team’s most crowded position on defense, and Ford would have a next to zero chance of making the roster even as a depth safety, but we all know how head coach Matt Patricia values versatility for his players. Almost all of the team’s safeties can play some cornerback and each of the corners are expected to understand what’s going on behind them.
Ford will have to build on his play from 2018 to make the roster a second time (or first time if we’re talking about coming out of the preseason), but he possesses all of the physical tools to challenge receivers in the NFL. I like his chances even with a crowded group of corners.