Previous post:

Next post:

The Best Undrafted Players To Enter the NFL Since 2002

by Chase Stuart on May 3, 2013

in Draft

Can you believe no one drafted me?

Can you believe I went undrafted?

Now that the NFL Draft is behind us, I thought I’d take a look at the best undrafted rookies to enter the NFL since 2002. At some positions (quarterback, tight end, pass rusher), picking the best players is very easy; at others (running back, wide receiver, safety) you’ll notice that there have been quite a few successful undrafted free agents. I think the most valuable part of this exercise is simply seeing where it’s reasonable and unreasonable to expect to find a successful player outside of the draft.

Below is my starting lineup, although I’ve selected 12 players on offense and 14 players on defense to accommodate different schemes.

Quarterback: Tony Romo (2003)
Honorable Mention: Shaun Hill (2005), Matt Moore (2007)

This one’s a no-brainer.  Outside of Romo, no undrafted quarterback has done much as of late.  As Scott Kacsmar noted yesterday, it’s not just undrafted quarterbacks struggling for playing time: all but five of the expected 2013 starting quarterbacks were top-40 picks.

Running Back: Arian Foster (2009)
Honorable Mention: Willie Parker (2004), Ryan Grant, Fred Jackson, Pierre Thomas (all 2007), BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Mike Tolbert, (both 2008), Danny Woodhead (2009), LeGarrette Blount (2010)

This is the position where undrafted free agents are most likely to make an impact.  While I generally think about the running back position as one where rookies can be successful right away, undrafted running backs have to take a different route.  With the exception of Blount, none of these players earned much playing time as rookies, but they showed enough in camp to stick around.  Grant was the extreme case: he made the Giants practice squad in ’05, but didn’t get his first carry until 2007.

Fullback: Vonta Leach (2004)
Honorable Mention: John Kuhn (2006), Leonard Weaver (2005), Marcel Reece (2008)

Only three teams drafted fullbacks in 2013.  At this point, few teams really utilize a fullback, but it wouldn’t appear to be difficult to find one outside of the draft if a team desired such a player.  These days, fullbacks are treated like punters.

Welker dropped out of the draft.

Welker dropped out of the draft.

Wide Receivers: Wes Welker (2004), Victor Cruz (2010), and Miles Austin (2006)
Honorable Mention: Malcom Floyd (2004), Nate Washington (2005), Lance Moore (2006), Davone Bess (2008), Danny Amendola (2009), Mike Furrey (2003)

Another position where teams can find players outside of the draft, especially slot receivers.  Offenses like Hawaii (Bess) and Texas Tech (Amendola, Welker) commonly placed four receivers on the field during this era, helping to develop players that would have been overlooked a generation ago.  The other area where teams have found success is in small schools, like Tiffin (Washington), Monmouth (Austin), Wyoming (Floyd), and Massachusetts (Cruz).

Tight End: Antonio Gates (2003)
Honorable Mention: Ben Utecht (2005), Tom Crabtree (2010), Jake Ballard (2010)

Gates didn’t play college football, making it hard to identify him as an overlooked player.  I recognize saying “outside of Gates, you can’t find tight ends outside of the draft” is the football equivalent of “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” — but really, it seems unlikely that teams can find much at tight end outside of the draft.  Except for Gates.

Left Tackle: Jason Peters (2004)
Honorable Mention: Donald Penn (2007), Demetress Bell (2008)

Peters and Bell both caught on with the Bills before becoming Eagles.  For the most part, left tackle is like quarterback: if teams think there’s a chance you can turn into a starter, they’re not going to let you slip out of the draft.

Left Guard: Kris Dielman (2003)
Honorable Mention: Ryan Lilja (2004)

Center: Jamaal Jackson (2005)
Honorable Mention: Lyle Sendlein (2007), Kyle Cook (2008)

Right Guard: Brandon Moore (2003)
Honorable Mention: Steve Neal (2002), Harvey Dahl (2006)

Interior linemen aren’t sexy to discuss, but it doesn’t look like NFL teams ignore them in the draft.  Until recently, the Jets starting guards were an UDFA and Matt Slauson, a 6th round pick; it’s hard to know whether more teams don’t give undrafted linemen a chance or if most undrafted players simply don’t have the ability to succeed.

Right Tackle: Tyson Clabo (2006)
Honorable Mention: Cornell Green (2002), Erik Pears (2006)

Again, very little successful tackles make it through the draft.

4-3 Defensive End/3-4 Outside Linebacker: James Harrison (2002), Cameron Wake (2009)
Honorable Mention: Chris Clemons (2004), Israel Idonije (2004), Michael Bennett (2009)

Wake was a CFL star after failing to catch on with the Giants (imagine that pass rush) while Harrison was too short and light to play defensive end at a time when few teams played a 3-4 defense.  Teams place such a premium on pass rushers that it’s crazy to think that any can fall through the cracks. On the other hand, perhaps teams are generally more willing to give undrafted free agents who show any pass rush ability more of a chance to stick around; if nothing else, they can turn into part-time players.

4-3 Defensive Tackle/3-4 Defensive End: Cullen Jenkins (2004), Tommy Kelly (2004)
Honorable Mention: Jacques Cesaire, Mike DeVito (2007), Desmond Bryant (2009)

Nose Tackle: Ma’ake Kemoeatu (2002)
Honorable Mention: Chris Hoke (2004)

The Planet Theory: there aren’t many athletic, 300 pound people with football ability walking the planet. Teams don’t miss out on these guys.

4-3 Outside Linebacker: Nick Roach (2007), David Hawthorne (2008),
Honorable Mention: Tracy White (2002), Akeem Jordan (2007), Donnie Spragan (2002), Vontaze Burfict (2012)

Inside Linebacker: Bart Scott (2002), Paris Lenon (2002)
Honorable Mention: Gary Brackett (2003), Stephen Cooper (2003), Jameel McClain (2008), Dannell Ellerbe (2009)

While few of these players turned into stars, non-pass rushing linebackers are the type of players that teams can find after the draft.  It wouldn’t shock me at all if Stanford’s Chase Thomas — who signed with New Orleans — can be the next UDFA linebacker to start for a half dozen years.

Cornerback: Tramon Williams (2007), Brent Grimes (2007), Brandon Browner (2011)
Honorable Mention: Jabari Greer (2004), Leigh Bodden (2003), Randall Gay (2004), Kelly Herndon (2002),

Like wide receivers, college teams can produce significantly more NFL-caliber players at cornerback than they can at positions where the player needs to weigh 275 pounds. You probably won’t get a star cornerback out of an UDFA, but I suspect teams can probably find a nickel or dime corner most years. Total speculation on my part, but I always suspected that cornerback is one of those positions where many college athletes don’t receive the proper training. Perhaps teams can coach up athletic cornerbacks from smaller schools who weren’t necessarily stars in college.

Safety: Ryan Clark (2002), Quintin Mikell (2003)
Honorable Mention: Brian Russell (2002), Will Demps (2002), Mike Adams (2004), Jordan Babineaux (2004), Jim Leonhard (2005), M.D. Jennings (2011),

One of the easier positions to fill theoretically — safeties don’t need elite coverage skills or exception size or speed. However, as teams place more of an emphasis on the position, it may become more difficult to find these players. Last weekend, 23 safeties were drafted.

Returner: Josh Cribbs (2005)
Honorable Mention: Chris Carr (2005), Eddie Drummond (2002), Stefan Logan (2009)

Kicker: Dan Carpenter (2008)
Honorable Mention: Matt Prater (2007), Steven Hauschka (2008)

Punter: Mat McBriar (2004)
Honorable Mention: Chris Kluwe (2005), Dirk Johnson (2002), Ben Graham (2005)

Special Teams Ace: Kassim Osgood (2003)
Honorable Mention: Eric Weems (2007), James Ihedigbo (2008)

I’m not going to talk special teams on a Friday.

Let’s close today’s post with a list of some of the best undrafted free agents who have signed with NFL teams this week:

Quarterbacks Tyler Bray (Tennesesee – signed with Chiefs), Jeff Tuel (Washington State – Bills), Matt Scott (Arizona – Jaguars), Jordan Rodgers (Vanderbilt – Jaguars), Colby Cameron (Louisiana Tech – Panthers), and Collin Klein (Kansas State – Texans);

Running backs Cierre Wood (Notre Dame – Texans), Ray Graham (Pittsburgh – Texans), Miguel Maysonet (Stony Brook – eagles), Onterio McCalebb (Auburn – Bengals), and Zach Line (SMU – Vikings);

Wide receivers Marcus Davis (Virginia Tech), Lanear Sampson (Baylor – Colts), Mark Harrison (Rutgers – Bears), Ryan Spadola (Lehigh – Jets), Jason Collins (Mount Union – Dolphins), Da’Rick Rogers (Tennessee Tech – Bills), and Conner Vernon (Duke – Raiders);

Tight ends Ryan Otten (San Jose State – Jaguars), Jake Stoneburner (Ohio State – Packers), Philip Lutzenkirchen (Auburn – Rams), Marqueis Gray (Minnesota (as a quarterback) – 49ers), and Joseph Fauria (UCLA – Lions);

Offensive linemen Alvin Bailey (Arkansas – Seahawks), Xavier Nixon (Florida – Redskins), LaAdrian Waddle (Texas Tech – Lions), Nick Becton (Virginia Tech – Chargers), Braxston Cave (Notre Dame – Browns), and John Wetzel (Boston College – Raiders);

Defensive linemen Kwame Geathers (Georgia – Chargers), Cory Grissom (South Florida – Patriots), T.J. Barnes (Georgia Tech – Jaguars), Damion Square (Alabama – Eagles), and Glenn Foster (Illinois – Saints);

Linebackers Chase Thomas (Stanford – Saints), Nate Williams (Ohio State – Vikings), Jonathan Stewart (Texas A&M – Rams), Lerentee McCray (Florida – Broncos), John Lotulelei (UNLV – Seahawks), and Nick Clancy (Boston College – Falcons);

Defensive backs Nickell Robey (USC – Bills), Tony Jefferson (Oklahoma – Cardinals), Mike Edwards (Hawaii – Jets), Robert Lester (Alabama – Panthers), Sheldon Price (UCLA – Colts), Jordan Kovacs (Michigan – Dolphins), and Johnny Adams (Michigan State – Texans)

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Bob May 3, 2013 at 12:19 am

A couple years ago, Football Outsiders looked at UDFAs and the likelihood that one might stick around based on the position he plays.

http://www.footballoutsiders.com/four-downs/2010/four-downs-afc-west-1

It seems to bear out what you’re saying in that RBs, DBs, and WRs (e.g., positions very closely tied to athleticism) were the positions one would expect to be most likely to stick.

Reply

Chase Stuart May 3, 2013 at 8:55 am

Thanks Bob — hadn’t seen that before.

Reply

Sunrise089 May 3, 2013 at 1:33 am

Chase, if you made a 53man roster out of the above players, with no cap concerns but with the players as they are in 2013 (so knocking some out who aren’t in the league) how do you think the team would fare over 16 games? I don’t even know all of the defensive players, but the offensive skill positions are pretty strong.

Reply

Topher Doll May 3, 2013 at 6:22 pm

Great question! Hope you don’t mind me adding my thoughts. I think it would be a good team, but I think that applies to any round. You could likely creating a decent team with only 6th or 7th rounders as well. As long as their is a big enough sample size you are going to find talent. Looking at the best players listed above I’d say that I wouldn’t be surprised if they went at least 8-8 if not better, as long as they are at their peaks, there are a lot of Pro Bowlers there.

Reply

Chase Stuart May 3, 2013 at 10:35 pm

That is a good question. I’ll have to think it over.

Reply

Shattenjager May 3, 2013 at 1:45 am

Seeing as how it is still Thursday where I live, I demand special teams talk!

Reply

Dennis May 3, 2013 at 8:38 am

Nice list, although Michael Bush was drafted on 2007 as the first pick of the 4th round. I didn’t notice any other obvious drafte players on your list though.

Reply

Chase Stuart May 3, 2013 at 8:54 am

Good catch, Dennis. There’s a tech reason as to why he’s on the list, but I should have caught that. Thanks.

(The tech reason is all drafted rookies who do not play in year 1 are initially recorded as having never made it to the NFL. After they play in year 2 or 3, that gets fixed, but every once in awhile players slip through the cracks. I need to fix that.)

Reply

squirrel May 3, 2013 at 9:28 am

You left Ryan Griffin (Tulane – Saints) off the list of best UDFA QBs signed this week. I’ll be surprised if Griffin doesn’t at least make the practice squad.

Reply

Andrew May 3, 2013 at 10:45 am

This is a cool article. But I’m pretty sure Matt Slauson was a 7th round pick of the Jets.

Reply

Andrew May 3, 2013 at 10:46 am

*correction 6th round

Reply

Chase Stuart May 3, 2013 at 10:47 am

Thanks Andrew. That’s a particularly bad one, as I definitely should have known that one.

I’ve fixed the post. Slauson again falls into the coding era issue. Now that I’m doubly embarrassed, fixing my draft file has shot to the top of the weekend to-do list.

Reply

Craigary May 3, 2013 at 12:02 pm

Fun. Hard to argue with this list. Though… is there any reason Chris Harris (Broncos’ CB) doesn’t make it? I know it’s not because it’s too early in his career because other guys of past few years made it? Maybe CB is too crowded but wanted to give the guy from Kansas a shout out because he’s a keeper.

Reply

Chase Stuart May 3, 2013 at 12:06 pm

No real reason.

I generally didn’t put a player in the last couple of years on the list unless he really stood out or was at a position where there weren’t many other options. I’m fine with putting Harris or anyone else on the honorable mentions list.

Reply

Bob May 7, 2013 at 2:24 am

Chase,

Last April, you looked at when draft classes make their biggest difference ( http://fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/04/24/when-draft-classes-make-the-biggest-difference/ )…

Have you ever looked at the question of when UDFAs make their biggest difference?

Reply

horn May 9, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Ray Ray Armstrong [S] from Miami was an All-American candidate until Golden threw him off the team in pre-season. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t stick in STL. He’s the first safety they’ve had since Sean Taylor that had stud NFL potential.

Reply

bigblue August 14, 2013 at 2:14 am

i know its early in the career but Henry Hynoski wasn’t drafted. feel like he should at least get a nod. where would bradshaw have been without him last year? plus he’s got hands. potential: untapped and unlimited

Reply

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <strong> <em> <pre> <code> <a href="" title="">