Serious football fans know the NFL draft doesn't necessarily end with the last pick of round seven, otherwise known as Mr. Irrelevant. Sure, the Radio City Music Hall draft televised on ESPN and the NFL Network is officially over at that point. However, the process of finding rookie talent is less than halfway finished.
Following the draft, team personnel hit the phones to contact undrafted rookies. In most cases, there will be more undrafted rookie free agents than draftees in summer training camps.
There is a mile-long list of undrafted players who went on to have great careers, some even donning the yellow jacket at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Warren Moon, Kurt Warner, Dick "Night Train" Lane, Lou Groza, John Randle, Antonio Gates, Willie Brown, Jeff Saturday, Wes Welker, Priest Holmes, Larry Little and Frank Gatski are a few who highly exceeded expectations in the NFL.
Although it is hard to predict the future, here is a list of 10 players from small schools or obscure programs who deserve recognition and a shot at an NFL career either during or after the draft.
There are many others who could make this list, but these are some prospects I have watched and came away with a good impression.
Matt Blanchard, QB, Wisconsin-Whitewater (6'3", 225 pounds)
There have been very few Division III quarterbacks who have made it big in the NFL. The most famous are former Cincinnati QB Ken Anderson and former Buffalo QB Jack Kemp. Blanchard, a Division III All-American, hopes to follow in their footsteps and also become the first Wisconsin-Whitewater player drafted since WR Derek Stanley was taken by the Los Angeles Rams in 1987.
Long-time punter Matt Turk entered as an undrafted free agent. Blanchard led the Warhawks to two consecutive Division III championships. He threw for 4,989 yards with 44 TD's and only 5 INT's during that time span.
He is accurate, has a good arm and makes audible calls at the line of scrimmage. His mobility allowed him to rush for 452 yards in 2011. The jump from Division III to the NFL is daunting, but not without hope. Blanchard will likely be in a training camp to get his chance.
Kenny Turner, HB, New Mexico State (5'10", 192)
If you're looking for an interesting prospect biography, Turner will provide one for you. He was a high school teammate of Titans' RB Chris Johnson. At age 16, he was charged with second-degree aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and sentenced as an adult to five years in prison.
Following his release, he enrolled at Fullerton College in California, where he was named a junior college All-American. There, he also became involved in local charity work.
With his life on the right path, he signed at New Mexico State, where he had a breakout season in 2011 with 1,074 yards rushing (4.9 average-per-attempt) with 10 TD's and added 46 receptions for 514 yards and three scores.
His size and age will work against him. He will turn 27 this coming year. Turner has been clocked at sub-4.40 in the 40-yard dash. He is not an effective inside runner, but has the agility to make big plays on the edge and in space. He can also be lined up wide in the slot.
Some team will be intrigued by Turner's athletic skills and sign him to a rookie contract.
Chris Summers, WR, Liberty (6'4", 213)
NFL passers love tall receivers who can out-jump the coverage in the red zone. Summers is a tall, lanky receiver from Liberty, an FCS-level Christian college in Virginia, who fits that mold.
During the last two seasons, Summers made 140 receptions for 2,095 yards and 22 TDs. He is not a blazer, as indicated by a 4.58 time in the 40-yard dash at Liberty's pro day, but is a long strider who can make the tough grab for big gains downfield.
He has added weight and strength over the last four years, but could use extra explosion off the line and technique work to break press coverage at the NFL level.
Liberty, a rising program once coached by the legendary Sam Rutigliano and now by Turner Gill, has sent a number of players to the NFL: Rashad Jennings, Samkon Gado, Eric Green, James McKnight, Richard Shelton and Freddie Banks. Hopefully, Summers will be on that list soon.
Joe Long, OT, Wayne State, MI (6'5", 308)
If the last name Long playing the position of OT sounds familiar, you are thinking of Jake Long, the Pro Bowl left tackle for the Miami Dolphins. His younger brother, Joe, hopes to follow in big brother's footsteps and carve out his own niche in the NFL.
While Jake drew national attention playing for the historic Michigan Wolverines in college, Joe is taking the hard road. Not as highly recruited, he plays for a good Division II program which lost in the 2011 title game.
He was named the winner of the Gene Upshaw Award in 2011, given to the best lineman in Division II. Long showed well during the East-West Shrine game week. His best position will likely be at RT in the NFL due to limited athleticism.
He is a tenacious blocker who locks onto the defender, but may struggle initially against quicker NFL pass-rushers. He is a developmental prospect with good bloodlines and intriguing potential.
Zach Nash, DE/OLB, Sacramento State (6'3", 252)
If you are the type of dedicated college football fan who watches small college games, and if you have ever watched Sacramento State play late on a Saturday night, you are sure to have heard the name of Zach Nash. He was the one flashing into the opposing backfield on a regular basis.
During his career with the Bees, Nash had 29.5 sacks and 40.5 tackles-for-loss. He gets off the line quickly at the snap and doesn't stop until the whistle. He has good instincts, follows the ball and uses his hands to shed blocks.
Nash mostly played with his hand down in college, but projects best as a 3-4 OLB in the pros. He is not stout enough to handle big blockers one-on-one. With his athletic range, he could also play ILB as he did in parts of the postseason Players Classic All-Star game.
Nash should impress a coaching staff enough to be on an NFL roster or practice squad sometime next fall.
Coulter Boyer, DE/OLB, North Dakota State (6'4", 248)
Playing for the FCS national champions can enhance a potential draft prospect's visibility among scouts and NFL personnel. Boyer was the best pass-rusher on the 2011 Bison team which defeated the favorite Sam Houston State to win the title.
Boyer registered nine sacks and 12.5 tackles-for-loss in 2011, including 2.5 sacks against Big Ten opponent Minnesota. He finished his career with 27.5 sacks and 173 tackles.
He is a scrappy and active player who will throw his body into a play. He has a nice burst off the edge and finds the ball easily. His frame will not allow him to play as a 4-3 down end, so he will need to show the athleticism to move in space as a 3-4 OLB.
Boyer will need to add weight-room strength to take on larger NFL blockers. His poor 4.99 time in the 40-yard dash at his pro day was influenced by a bad hamstring.
Former Buffalo Bills DE Phil Hansen was the best pass-rusher to come out of North Dakota State. Boyer hopes he can add his name to that short list.
Caleb McSurdy, ILB, Montana (6'1", 245)
How can an NFL team go wrong by drafting a linebacker from Montana with the nickname "Dirty"? McSurdy fits the mold of the classic throwback middle linebacker who will put a RB on his back.
He is a solid tackler with strong hands and the strength to anchor against blocks. He tackles with good strength and form. McSurdy is not a top athlete and may struggle with pass defense at the next level. He can handle assignments in front of him, but gets beaten with pass plays over the top where he has to cover vertically.
Nevertheless, his gritty style, work ethic and team-first attitude will endear him to a pro locker room. In 2011, McSurdy was named an FCS first team All-American and Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year.
The last two seasons he had a stat line of 243 tackles and four sacks. He ran an impressive 4.68 in the 40-yard dash and benched 26 reps at his pro day, where he also worked at FB drills for NFL scouts.
In high school, McSurdy also played RB and TE, as well as winning two state titles in the discus and shot put. He could be another offense/defense hybrid such as Brit Miller, Spencer Larsen and Spencer Havner.
Carmen Messina, ILB, New Mexico (6'1", 241)
There are times when great players play on awful football teams. The fans at University Stadium in Albuquerque, N.M., have witnessed one such player during the last three seasons. During a dreadful run in which the Lobos trudged through a 3-33 pit of quicksand, Messina stood out like a gold nugget in a dark, gloomy coal mine.
Despite the terrible record during his three years as a full-time starter, Messina did his part and then some with 419 tackles. His 454 career tackles are an all-time record in the Mountain West Conference, surpassing such NFL notables as Brian Urlacher and Robin Cole. He finished the 2011 season with 21 tackles against Boise State.
He has added 31 pounds since his freshman season and has a lean, chiseled physique. His 31 bench- press reps at pro day showed signs of his strength, but he tends to play too upright, which allows blockers to cut him low.
Messina is relentless and always around the ball, but needs to stack and shed bigger blockers more consistently. He has good instincts and reads plays well, disrupting the backfield. His cousin, Rich Coady, was a member of the 1999 champion St. Louis Rams. Messina could project to a 4-3 OLB as well as playing inside.
Brian Hendricks, OLB, Wyoming (6'1", 231)
No relation to former Oakland Raiders and Baltimore Colts great linebacker, Ted Hendricks. However, this Hendricks is a scrappy former high school wrestler who won Colorado state championships in his junior and senior years at 215 pounds. The technique and body control he learned as a wrestler showed up on the football field.
His ability to play with balance and leverage helped him to rack up 309 career tackles at Wyoming. He led the team in tackles in 2009 and 2011 while playing on the outside. In 2010, he was moved to the middle and his production dropped a bit.
As an NFL prospect, Hendricks is probably too light to play inside, so his best position should be a 4-3 OLB. He is a good athlete who ran a 4.64 40-yard dash and benched 27 reps at his pro day. He's an instinctive player who attacks the ball carrier.
In order to stick on a roster, Hendricks needs to keep his weight up and maintain weight-room strength. He can be engulfed by bigger NFL blockers.
If nothing else, he has a good chance to stick as a core special teams player.
Travaun Nixon, CB/S, UTEP (6'0", 200)
The UTEP Miners play in one of the most scenic stadiums in the country, Sun Bowl Stadium in El Paso, Texas. Nestled in-between two mountains and less than a mile from the famous Rio Grande River, it is a shame that the football program is not more high profile so fans can see more televised games from this bastion of nature
After a stellar stint at Ventura Junior College in California, Travaun Nixon spent his home Saturdays in the Sun Bowl the last two years. He wasn't just sitting back and admiring the landscape, he was busy becoming UTEP's best defender.
In 2010, he was named the team's defensive MVP after collecting 75 tackles and 4 INT's. In 2011, he missed some time with a knee sprain and only recorded 50 tackles but held ground with four picks.
Nixon is a competitive player with good vision and ball skills, capable of coming through in the clutch. He is a bit of a CB/S tweener, but his 4.57 timed speed in the 40 would indicate he might be better off staying inside at safety.
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