Finding quality rookie free agents a labor of love for Tony Khan

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- When the 2018 NFL draft finally ended, Tony Khan quickly got on his phone.

The Jacksonville Jaguars' senior vice president of football administration and technology was calling cornerback Tre Herndon and his agent, hoping to convince the former Vanderbilt player to sign as a free agent. Even though it would be an uphill battle to make a roster that already included All-Pro cornerbacks Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye and former first-round pick D.J. Hayden, Herndon agreed.

Herndon eventually made the 53-man roster and has played 33 snaps on special teams, with one solo tackle and an assist in the Jaguars' victories against the Giants and Patriots.

That might not seem like a big deal, but for Khan, the son of owner Shad Khan, it's validation that -- despite being dismissed by many football traditionalists -- analytics can help identify players who might otherwise slip through the cracks. Herndon is the latest example. There are two other players on the roster, plus another now with a rival, that Khan and his analytics team identified and brought to Jacksonville as undrafted free agents who have made the roster and have significant roles.

"He wanted to be in," Khan said of Herndon. "Who doesn't want to be part of the Jackson 5 [the secondary's nickname]?"

Coach Doug Marrone knew nothing about Herndon, other than he was 5-foot-11, 185 pounds.

"Every time he had an opportunity, he showed up," Marrone said. "Then all of a sudden he started showing up on special teams. Then we wanted to see him against better competition and we were able to do that when we practiced against Minnesota and playing in games and playing against our own team. He just kept coming out.

"... He has worked extremely hard. He's very humble, he's very bright. A very bright kid. It's one of those stories where, what happened? Why didn't this kid get drafted?"

In addition to Herndon, running back/kick returner Corey Grant (five carries, six receptions this season) and safety Jarrod Wilson are players Khan targeted and was able to sign as undrafted free agents. Grant signed in 2015 and played in six games as a rookie, 11 games his second year, and every game last season. He has averaged 23.6 yards on 41 kickoffs and rushed 73 times for 430 yards and three touchdowns, including 122 yards and one touchdown in the 2016 season finale.

Wilson signed in 2016 and has played in all but one game the past two seasons. He has played on special teams and is a top reserve at safety, getting significant snaps last season, especially when starter Tashaun Gipson was injured in the playoffs.

Not all of Khan's targeted players have worked out for the Jaguars. Safety Steven Terrell and receiver Tobias Palmer didn't make the team in 2014, though Terrell played in a Super Bowl with Seattle and Palmer is playing for the CFL's Toronto Argonauts. Khan brought in cornerback Mike Hilton in addition to Wilson in 2016, but Hilton was waived and eventually caught on with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He signed a one-year contract extension in January.

Khan brought in defensive ends Hunter Dimick and Carroll Phillips and running back I'Tavius Mathers last season. Phillips played in four games on special teams, but Dimick spent the season on the practice squad and Mathers suffered a neck injury in camp and was waived. Both Phillips and Dimick were cut this year when the roster was trimmed to 53.

Still, finding two, and potentially three, undrafted players who can play significant roles on a Super Bowl caliber team is an accomplishment for Khan and his team, which is comprised of Zach Beistline, Ben Blatt, Kellen Blumberg, and Mike Stoeber.

It's also a nod to general manager Dave Caldwell and executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin, who have embraced analytics throughout the franchise, from practices to situational probabilities to ticket sales. Especially Caldwell, who works with the analytics team extensively when it comes to evaluating draft prospects.

Two to three weeks before the draft, Khan gives Caldwell a list of players he identifies through analytics that he believes could be late-round draft picks or undrafted free agents. Some are players the Jaguars have already graded, but Khan said Caldwell will re-examine them and has sometimes improved their grade.

On the final day of the draft Khan gets nervous, because he's hoping his free-agent targets will still be available.

"I certainly did sweat out the last few rounds and hoped nobody drafted them," Khan said. "Not because I didn't think they were good players. They were guys I thought should have been drafted."

Then he can get on his phone.

"Definitely outside of game day, it's probably my favorite day in the NFL," he said.