Favorite undrafted free agents

The draft is long over, not much else is happening and while we’re waiting on the owners and players to figure out how to split up their money, I thought that I’d toss out something different. In the past, there were as many as thirty rounds to the NFL draft, and with a lot less teams, too. To compensate for the missing rounds each year - except for this one, so far - there’s a run on college free agents, or as they’re sometimes called, undrafted free agents, right after the draft. Some of them will be cut in training camp, and many will be taken on as training camp bodies with a slim chance of catching on with someone. Some will go to the Canadian Football League, or the WFL or Arena League, or whatever incarnation of non-NFL football is going on at the time. A few will get a special teams berth, and of all of those, a very few will become starters and even stars.

It’s rare, but it does happen - in fact, if you look at the rosters of the Packers and Steelers, you can see that a few of them influenced the outcome of the last Super Bowl. Let's take a look at a few undrafted players who may end up at Dove Valley once the league year begins.

Denver has their eye on several undrafted players - and, of course, so do a lot of other teams. A short list would probably include the following:

At running back, Mario Fannin out of Auburn - with a Combine 40 time of 4.38 seconds and measuring at 5'10" and 231 lbs - is someone that may fit well into the Denver roster. Like all such players, there are reasons that he wasn’t drafted. He’s had some injury problems, he would be 24 years old as a rookie and he’s been prone to fumbles at times. The good side? He’s averaged over seven yards per carry over the past two years. He’s a shifty runner, hits hard, he likes to block and is good at it and he has good hands when receiving out of the backfield. How important is that? While complaining that Kyle Orton had lousy third-down and red-zone performances in Denver is a perfectly valid point, it also misses the fact that he didn’t have that problem in Chicago. There was a simple reason why - Chicago didn’t have any better of an OL than Denver, but they had a heck of a season from Matt Forte, and Orton needs that kind of outlet player. He lacked that in Denver, so Fannin, if he can stay healthy, might be a good option for the Broncos regardless of who’s under the center.

OT Willie Smith out of East Carolina is a classic example of the need for a development league - offensive and defensive linemen rarely can come in and contribute quickly. At 6’5" and 310 lbs, he’s got prototypical height and size and also shows impressive athleticism; he’s a converted tight end/defensive lineman. He was a two-year starter at left tackle for the Pirates, and he has the athleticism to play at either tackle spot. Smith may need a little longer, but after converting from TE, it will take him a while to do naturally what he should have been learning in HS and college. He’s got to learn much better technique and his conditioning needs to be reviewed, but he’s shown a lot of potential. Sadly, a lot of players like him never get the chance.

There’s also a guard out of Ohio State named Justin Boren - he’s 6’3, 320 lb and plays with a nice, nasty streak. Like the rest, there’s a reason that he wasn’t drafted - a ponderous 5.54-second 40, a tendency to over-exert himself on a single play and average athleticism and strength all would need work. The advantage? He’s the kind of player a coach tends to love, willing and hard-working, has a great first punch that can clear running lanes and plays with intensity. He’s got some skills at drive blocking, but would be useless in a zone blocking scheme. Could he still be turned into NFL material? That’s the issue, really, and we’re unlikely to know. Agents have a chance, this year, to scout the best fit for their players and the club that might give them a chance, and that’s something that the CBA needs to address - it’s in everyone’s best interest to figure out how to handle the CFA situation each year, and the NFL has to grow up enough to recognize that some form of developmental structure is a necessity, not an option.

Ian Williams out of Notre Dame was one of the DTs that dropped from being a 4th-round option to going undrafted. At 6’1” and 318 lb, he’s your basic fireplug of a player who fits into the nose tackle slot in some defenses. Cedric Thornton, DT out of Southern Arkansas  was often described as underrated -- he had fourth- and fifth-round grades, can work as a 3-4 DG or a 4-3 defensive tackle, possibly at under tackle. He was also 16th in the nation in tackles for loss in 2010 - I expect there to be a lot of interest in him. He was a two-time Division II All-American and also had a solid performance at the Senior Bowl: he pushed Chiefs second-rounder Rodney Hudson right back into the backfield on at least one occasion. His draft prospects suffered from an abundance of DTs, and the standard small school problems with concerns over the level of competition and simply the lack of attention that many of the small schoolers often get.

Here’s a name that you probably haven’t run into a lot - nose tackle Blaine Sumner out of Colorado School of Mines. OK, it’s not a major football powerhouse. But someone who worked for me had gotten her education there, and Sumner caught my eye. He put up 52 reps on the bench press on his Pro Day (that’s not a misprint, and if he’d been at Combine he’d have set the all-time record):  he’s a 6’2”, 335 lb machine at the position who surprisingly carries very little body fat and has better-than-average lateral movement. Granting that he wasn’t going against top competition, he dominated everyone he came in contact with and he’s got the intellect that CSOM requires, which is considerable, and carries with himself a degree in petroleum engineering. Denver, like many teams, could use a monster in the middle - he’s far more talented than I’d expected, and is easily worth a look at the 4-3 nose tackle DT slot, depending on what the Broncos would require of him. If they want a run stopping force to stand next to Kevin Vickerson, they’d do well to look him over. Here’s a look at him on YouTube - At the 3:09 mark you'll see him running at a ball carrier and the back just fell down - he might have slipped, or he might have just not wanted to let Sumner hit him. You call it.

The Colorado School of Mines has three possible CFAs this year who are well worth taking a look at. The second is a DE/OLB named Marc Schiechl who put up good numbers for them. He may not fit the new system in Denver, but he could be a fine player for another NFL team. How good? Schiechl is a senior (6'3", 260 lbs) who became the all-time NCAA Division II career leader in sacks (46.0) during the 2010 season and ended his career at CSM ranked fourth in the NCAA Division II record book in career tackles for loss (70.5). He also led the RMAC and tied for fifth in the nation in sacks (12.0). On top of that, he was the RMAC leader in tackles for a loss last season (19.0) and ranked third in the nation in forced fumbles (6). Catch him here on YouTube. It’s worth a look.

The CSOM Orediggers also have a DE named Kaleb Anderson who worked out for Denver and a few other schools at Air Force’s Pro Day. A 6'3", 270-lb. defensive lineman from Littleton, CO.  Coming out of Bear Creek High School (I used to watch HS football games there, since it was two blocks from my old house), Anderson was ranked second in the RMAC in tackles for a loss (16.0) and third in the conference in forced fumbles (four) in 2010.  Anderson was ninth in the RMAC in sacks (tied - 4.5) last fall, finished first on the team in solo tackles (tied - 37) and second on the team in total tackles (67). He’s got some potential as a 4-3 DE.

Denver isn’t in need of additional receivers, but there are a few CFAs that would be worth a look if they were. One is Jeff Maehl out of Oregon. Maehl is 6’1” and 190 lb, and he only ran a 4.62 40 at Combine, but that’s only a small part of the story on him. His three-cone was a blazing 6.42 and his short shuttle was timed at 3.94: he’s got a ton of quicks. Last year he led the Ducks with led the Ducks with 77 receptions for 1,076 yards and a dozen touchdowns in their championship try.

Moving on to linebackers, where Denver is also currently fairly flush, there’s one who I suspect will get the most attention all over the league - Mark Herzlich
out of Boston College. He was once projected as a first- to second-day guy, but it seems clear that the medical report on him at Combine was less than glowing or that his situation - he’s cancer-free and played well in the 2010 season, as well as putting in a good week at the Senior Bowl, but either the physical outcome of the metal rod in his thigh or shadow of the Ewing’s Sarcoma itself must have had quite an effect. Mark Herzlich is as tough as they come. If attitude is the biggest part of playing defense - as Broncos DC Dennis Allen recently reminded us - Herzlich will be getting a lot of well-deserved phone calls.

Successful UDFAs

What about the ones who went on to solid careers? Who do you enjoy watching play, In terms of CFAs who later made it big in the NFL?  I’m going to steal Rod Smith as my first guy - he’s my all-time favorite Bronco, right up there with Elway and TD. This exercise isn’t limited to Denver, either - Antonio Gates is the enemy twice a year, but the rest of the time I see him as a guy who just plays his heart out and who came from a basketball-bouncing CFA to a perennial Pro Bowl player, just as Denver hopes that Julius Thomas will do. Sam Shields made plays that made Green Bay the winner of the most recent Super Bowl. Jeff Saturday, the perennial Pro Bowl center in front of Peyton Manning in Indy is another guy that I love to watch unless he’s playing Denver. Jason Hunter is a guy who didn’t play football until he was a junior in high school and who suddenly bloomed his senior year. He still was a later-blooming small school guy, with the deck stacked against him as he came into the league. But he’s come on enough to show everyone that he deserves to be on the gridiron.

I’d like to hear what players you’re hearing good things about: who turns your crank in this year’s CFA market? While we’re at it, who are your top UDFAs of all time? It’s a long list to choose from, but to make the exercise easier, Gil Brandt was kind enough to run a list of his 100 favorite undrafted players of all time recently. CB Willie Brown, obtained by the Denver Broncos in 1963 made it to Brandt’s #5. I’d also forgotten that Priest Holmes was originally picked up by Baltimore before Kansas City used him to torment the Broncos.  As you’d expect, Rod Smith is there along with center Jerry Sturm, who came into the dusty cowtown back in 1961. Dan Reeves is there for the time before he became a coach, playing running back for Dallas from 1965 to 1972, by virtue of having scored 16 TDs on only 175 carries back in 1966. He took Denver to three SBs before bringing Atlanta into SB XXXIII to provide a little irony by playing his part in John Elway’s final victory.

Then there’s Arian Foster of Houston, another undrafted star. In 2009, he started one game and had a total of 54 carries for 257 yards. The former practice squadder led the NFL in rushing with 1,616 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns over the 2010 season. He also had 66 catches for 604 yards and two touchdowns. Not bad for a guy who could barely get on the field the year before, but that’s how it goes with these kinds of players. It’s also why I don’t listen to the folks who casually pin a player into a nice little box after seeing them play once or twice. I’m not big on spending a lot this year on a running back like DeAngelo Williams just because the price tag is high (although if he’s a UFA, as is starting to look more likely, he’s more interesting by far), the team is rebuilding and RB isn’t the single piece that could put them late into the playoffs. There’s no point in using up a couple of draft picks and a lot of cash for a player you don’t need now, but obtaining him if he’s unrestricted is far more interesting. A hole you didn’t fill this year can get filled next, or in the one after. Or, you might get a CFA that solves the issue at much lower cost.

We’ve all got them. Who are the guys that you love to root for who started out the hard way? Past or present, on any team, and who do you see as the best of those who might be available? What’s your take?

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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