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NFL Undrafted Free Agents: Why Top Players Were Not Drafted

Jeff RoemerContributor IMay 2, 2012

NFL Undrafted Free Agents: Why Top Players Were Not Drafted

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    The 2012 NFL draft has come and gone—hard to believe given all of the time and effort that goes into preparing for and writing about its lead-up. However, rest assured that rookie player procurement did not cease with Mr. Irrelevant at pick No. 253.

    For most teams, in fact, the volume of their draft haul was easily exceeded by the number of undrafted free-agent signings they immediately secured in the aftermath of Saturday evening's closing bell. And for the hundreds of undrafted free-agent hopefuls and their respective representation, the signing process quickly arrived at a boiling point within hours of the conclusion of the draft.

    The 2012 college free-agent crop is especially bountiful in the wake of the NFL's amendment to training camp roster maximums, augmented from 80 to 90 players, effectively creating an additional 320 potential NFL jobs if only for a few weeks during the preseason.

    The rub is that a crucial recruitment phase, post-draft free agency, just became a whole lot bigger and more interesting. Due to the grueling physical demands of NFL play, the relative brevity of the draft and the chaotic nature of player projection, the UDFA ranks continue to be a low-risk, cheap and plentiful revenue stream for acquisition.

    Given the previous points and in the wake of the newly increased offseason roster limits, I believe the NFL should strongly consider bumping the draft back up to 10 or 12 rounds. After all, the league previously ran at this length before it was eventually shortened to the current seven-stanza format we now know.

    For a quick-and-dirty rundown of some of the top-performing former undrafted free agents, check out this piece from ProFootballFocus identifying players at every position. According to PFF, the highest-rated former UDFA in 2011 was former Penn State Nittany Lion, Canadian Football League alum and vaunted Miami Dolphin sack artist Cameron Wake.

    If so many of these overlooked players go on to complementary, situational, starting and in some cases starring success, how do these men get passed over by every team after seven rounds?

    With the frenzied throes of undrafted free agency almost completed for the 2012 class, this slideshow examines my top-rated prospect at each position and offers an explanation for their respective fall-outs from the draft.

Quarterback

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    Darron Thomas, QB, University of Oregon, 6'3", 220 lbs., DOB: 5/23/1990

    UDFA status: Minicamp tryout invitations with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns and Arizona Cardinals

    2011 stats: 339 attempts, 211 completions, 62.2 completion %, 2,761 passing yards, 33 touchdown passes, 7 interceptions, 158.65 passer rating, 45 rushes, 304 net rushing yards, 6.8 rushing average, 3 rushing touchdowns, 8 fumbles

    Combine/pro day results: 4.80 40 time, 14 bench reps, 36" vertical, 10'6" broad jump, 4.28 short shuttle, 7.17 three-cone

    NFL ceiling comparison: Aaron Brooks

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    It is appalling to me, despite the appeal of a tremendous underdog profile, that Thomas not only went undrafted, but that no NFL team offered him an outright contract as an undrafted free agent. Instead, he will traverse the longer, less-guaranteed road of being a camp invitee for the three aforementioned organizations.

    His situation is also curious to me because I grade him as having clearly more starter upside than both seventh-round selected quarterbacks (B.J. Coleman, Green Bay Packers and Chandler Harnish, Indianapolis Colts), not to mention the numerous passers that have been signed already as UDFAs.

    It is fair to assert that Thomas made a poor business decision to declare early for the draft this year. The gains he will likely make as an NFL rookie, or practice-squad member, in 2012 would have taken place on a wider, more measurable stage had he returned to Oregon to helm one of the elite offenses in college football.

    Thomas' misstep, however, should have been, and I predict will be for one discerning club, the gain of an NFL team adding a potential future starter on the cheap.

    It almost appears as if the industry mistrusts his decision to come out early when the scouting community unanimously, and correctly in my opinion, concluded that he is at least a year away from NFL readiness.  As a result, he is being made to more fully and intimately prove his worth and attitude by going through the tryout process.

    Ryan Riddle of Draft-Hub.com offered the following viewpoints on Thomas' evaluation, decision to declare and potentially ideal development path:

    Thomas was never viewed as a QB who can beat you from the pocket; nor was he much of a threat outside of it either.  Thomas is a long, slender-framed signal caller who has a long rangy windup and appears to throw caution to the wind with every ball.  His passes have become more accurate as he gained experience but he rarely, if ever, completed passes in tight windows.

    Darron Thomas decided to forgo his senior year at Oregon after being told he was projected as a mid-round draft pick.  Whoever was providing him with information that would suggest he leave college for the NFL has really done him a great disservice.  The odds are stacked against him and he did himself no favors.  Shame on the men who gave this kid the advice to leave school.  And shame on Darron Thomas for listening to it.

    The best thing Thomas can do for himself at this point is to play for the CFL so that he will not be sitting on a bench holding a clipboard for three years before being released.  He needs playing experience and he needs more time to grow if he is ever going to become even an adequate QB in the NFL.

    Following his natural disappointment with how things have turned out, I fully expect Thomas to sufficiently impress one of his suitors and begin his transition in earnest. Is he a long shot to stick on his signing club's roster, let alone eventually become a starter? Absolutely. 

    But the same can be asserted for almost every late-round/UDFA quarterback.

Running Back

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    Chris Polk, RB, University of Washington, 5'11", 215 lbs., DOB: 12/16/1989

    UDFA status: Signed with the Philadelphia Eagles

    2011 stats: 293 attempts, 1,488 rushing yards, 5.1 rushing average, 12 rushing touchdowns, 31 receptions, 332 receiving yards, 10.7 receiving average, 4 receiving touchdowns, 0 fumbles

    Combine/pro day results: 4.45 40 time, 16 bench reps, 31.5" vertical, 9'3" broad jump, 4.21 short shuttle, 7.13 three-cone

    NFL ceiling comparison: Pierre Thomas

    Video

    Polk going undrafted was another overreaction from the NFL scouting and front office community. In this case, it was in response to to some sketchy medical details including a previous labrum surgery and unconfirmed rumors of a degenerative hip condition.

    The response to Polk's medical makeup seem overly cautious at best, and silly at worst, given he was completely passed over despite his well-rounded skill set and NFL upside. Not to mention, Polk showed elite durability as a three-year feature back in college.

    The last three seasons have seen him accumulate 857 total touches, an average of 286 per campaign and capitulating his bell cow status with 324 touches as a senior.

    Considering that most professional baseball pitchers return successfully from labrum surgery, the expectation that Polk's career as an NFL running back will be unhinged from his condition is far-fetched.  However, a more relevant point is the even greater unlikelihood that it will impact him during the life of his rookie contract, essentially the only window a draft-signing team should consider given his position.

    Jeremy Hyde of Frog's Football Fantasy and Draft-Hub.com, essentially shares my take on the Polk situation with these strong words:

    Chris Polk is arguably the top undrafted player in the 2012 class.  Shoulder injuries and rumors of a degenerative hip condition were likely the reasons Polk went undrafted.  The former Washington halfback denies that there is any truth to rumors that he has a bum hip, or that he played through said hip condition for multiple seasons.

    The Eagles were quick to sign Polk soon after the draft concluded.  His vision, patience and ability to contribute as a blocker or receiver in the passing game make him a great fit for the Philadelphia offense and a suitable backup to LeSean McCoy.  At the same time, Polk’s punishing running style between the tackles makes him an excellent complement to the elusive McCoy.  If given the opportunity, Polk has the ability to make 31 teams regret their decisions to pass on him last weekend.

    Greg Cosell of NFL Films tempers the rosy projections with the following observations of Polk from his film study sessions:

    Not a lot of lateral agility, not a make-you-miss runner...A measured and methodical runner, not explosive...Lacks short area acceleration and top end speed, a little stiff...No special qualities as a runner: some burst and some power; needs carries to be effective...

    Skill set and game stamina is that of workhorse back but is he good enough to fill that role in the NFL?  Is the skill set good enough to be a foundation back?  Because the only way he can be successful is with volume and carries.

    Polk is a likely future NFL feature back whom I had rated No. 3 in the entire class with a second-round grade and a fourth-round comfort level based on my philosophy of supply-demand running back draft value. 

Wide Receiver

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    Dwight Jones, WR, University of North Carolina, 6'3", 230 lbs., DOB: 1/1/1989

    UDFA status: Signed with the Houston Texans

    2011 stats: 85 receptions, 1,196 receiving yards, 14.1 receiving average, 12 receiving touchdowns, 1 fumble

    Combine/pro day results: 4.55 40 time, 14 bench reps, 33" vertical, 9'1" broad jump

    NFL ceiling comparison: Kevin Walter

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    After being regarded as a first-rounder in some draftnik circles early in the process, it was a precipitous fall from grace for Jones when he was passed over completely this past weekend.

    Jones' ultimate level of success will depend almost entirely on his work ethic and commitment to refine his craft. He is a plus-sized receiver, but he could succeed early in his NFL career in the slot or as a motion man because he struggles against press man coverage and is not very aggressive in his stem.

    Though he is capable of circus catches and possesses an excellent radius and target size, his natural receiving skills, or lack thereof, negate those attributes as he consistently fights the football. Improving his catch percentage will go a long way in helping him stay on the field.

    If he becomes a more determined and precise route-runner as well, he could grow into a perimeter role more beneficial to his size because there is enough off-man and zone coverage alignments in the NFL for him to operate freely.

    Jones' size also makes him a threat after the catch when he is loose amongst smaller defensive backs, but his game will require the proper development and nuance work.

    Charlie Campbell, the lead scout at WalterFootball.com, reinforces some of my contentions with his observations from this year's Senior Bowl practices:

    He really killed his stock with his Senior Bowl. One NFL coach told me unprompted that Jones' route-running was beyond awful. It was obvious in the practices with the way he was rounding off cuts and not getting separation from defensive backs, coming in and out of breaks. On top of that, he has some off-the-field concerns. He has natural size and speed, but he needs to come up with a relentless work ethic to become anything more than a backup.

    I also went back to Greg Cosell at NFL Films for his take on Jones and his notes included:

    At his best with free access; needs room to run and build up speed...Not a change-of-direction route runner, minus lateral quickness...Very upright off the line into his routes, looked stiff at times...Tendency to let the ball get into his body, negating size advantage...Can he develop into a Vincent Jackson-type vertical WR in the NFL? A lot of questions...

Tight End

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    Brian Linthicum, TE, Michigan State University, 6'4", 250 lbs., DOB: 11/28/1987

    UDFA status: Signed with the New York Jets

    2011 stats: 31 receptions, 364 receiving yards, 11.7 receiving average, 0 receiving touchdowns, 0 fumbles

    Combine/pro day results: 4.87 40 time, 28 bench reps, 27.5" vertical, 9'0" broad jump, 4.62 short shuttle, 7.37 three-cone

    NFL ceiling comparison: Joel Dreessen

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    Yet another puzzling non-draft in the 2012 class. Tight end was thought of as a thin crop this year but, somewhat counterintuitively, instead of pushing up the stock of those players with skills for the next level, like quarterback, NFL teams completely soured on the later-round prospects.

    Linthicum did not hear his name called over the weekend for one reason and one reason only: athleticism. In an era where most organizations are coveting tight end prospects that run like the wind but cannot block a lick, Linthicum's lack of movement skills and explosion proved to be too much of a turnoff.

    In signing him immediately after the draft, the Jets shrewdly acquired a likely future No. 2 tight end. Despite his limitations on the stopwatch, Linthicum is a complete player at the position due to his combination receiving and blocking ability.

    While he will never be a seam-stretching vertical threat, his excellent route-running and soft hands make him a viable cog in the passing game. And despite having strength gains to make in his lower half, he is already an adept blocker due to his upper-body power, positioning and tenacity.

Offensive Line: Center/Guard

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    Quentin Saulsberry, C/G, Mississippi State University, 6'2", 305 lbs., DOB: 10/14/1988

    UDFA status: signed with the Minnesota Vikings

    Combine/pro day results: 5.35 40 time, 26 bench reps, 24.5" vertical, 8'6" broad jump, 4.76 short shuttle, 7.93 three-cone

    NFL ceiling comparison: Scott Wells

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    Saulsberry features a fairly typical, albeit successful, plugger profile for an undrafted interior offensive lineman with below-average size and athleticism who compensates with versatility and aggression.

    Built like a nose tackle, there is some speculation that he could provide depth and even see some snaps on the defensive side of the football because of his quick and heavy hands. 

    Charlie Campbell over at WalterFootball.com offered this on why Saulsberry ultimately did not get his name called by a team on draft weekend:

    I believe Saulsberry went undrafted because he was terrible at the East-West Shrine.  He was dominated in the one-on-ones and during the team scrimmage.  He made Baylor's Nick-Jean Baptiste and South Carolina's Travian Robertson look like world beaters.  Saulsberry has a sloppy body and needs to reshape his body in a strength and conditioning program.  He looks like a career backup.

    My only cautionary thought against Campbell's testimony is to not overweigh a week's worth of exhibition-practice evaluation against the sample of four years starting in the SEC at right tackle, center and both guard spots.

Defensive Line: Nose Tackle

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    Hebron Fangupo, NT, Brigham Young University, 6'1", 325 lbs., DOB: 7/19/1985

    UDFA status: Signed with the Houston Texans

    2011 stats: 26 total tackles, 6 tackles for loss

    Combine/pro day results: 5.16 40 time, 36 bench reps, 31.5" vertical, 8'3" broad jump, 4.62 short shuttle, 7.72 three-cone

    NFL ceiling comparison: Aubrayo Franklin

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    Fangupo is on the short list of pure nose tackle prospects in this class along with names like Josh Chapman, Alameda Ta'amu and Brandon Thompson. His excellent strength and balance combination makes it very difficult to move him off the line of scrimmage, even if he is not penetrating consistently into the backfield.

    He actually possesses good explosion and get-off but there simply is not any secondary quickness to allow him to rush the passer or make pursuit plays that would occur deep or wide from his position.

    With Wade Phillips' 3-4 defensive scheme in Houston, Fangupo will have a chance to stick on the roster and contribute there during the life of his rookie contract. However, I also like him enough as a two-down space-eater to fit in a 4-3 defensive scheme, either as a true nose or from a two-gap tackle alignment.

    Jeremy Hyde of Frog's Football Fantasy speaks to the primary reason that Fangupo had to take the UDFA route in his overall assessment of the player:

    My top-rated defensive player to go undrafted was BYU defensive tackle Hebron Fangupo.  On a short list of pure two-gap defenders in the 2012 class, Fangupo was likely passed over because of his age (26).  Fangupo is a live body who is capable of holding up multiple blockers at the point of attack.  While he is not a penetrator or a playmaker, he is very difficult to move off the football.  With Texans' nose tackle Shaun Cody in the final year of his deal, Fangupo could get a chance soon enough to show NFL teams, particularly those who run a 3-4 defensive front, why it was a mistake to let him go undrafted in 2012.

Outside Linebacker

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    Sammy Brown, OLB, University of Houston, 6'2", 245 lbs., DOB: 4/17/1990

    UDFA status: Signed with the St. Louis Rams

    2011 stats: 93 total tackles, 30 tackles for loss, 17 quarterback hurries, 13.5 sacks

    Combine/pro day results: 4.63 40 time, 20 bench reps, 37" vertical, 10'3" broad jump, 4.47 short shuttle, 7.13 three-cone

    NFL ceiling comparison: K.J. Wright

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    Brown is actually one of my favorite defensive prospects in the entire class. I was pulling for a team to turn in a draft card on him, but his profile almost gets better with UDFA status.

    He is going to a 4-3 scheme with the St. Louis Rams, where he should fit well on the strong side, but I also believe he would do fine on the weak side of a 3-4 alignment because of his chase skills and athleticism in coverage.

    In watching him on film, my conclusion notes read as follows: good size; active playmaker from the perimeter; plays attack style football; speed may not be elite but he is always coming; needs to become a more consistent tackler to take full advantage of his playmaking skills and being in position.

    Early in his career he should provide quality depth for the Rams at outside linebacker, as well as being a special teams performer and potential niche player on obvious passing downs. In order to realize his full potential as a 4-3 strong-side backer, he will need to become more stout against the run at the point of attack.

Cornerback

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    Micah Pellerin, CB, Hampton University, 6'0.5", 195 lbs., DOB: 11/23/1988

    UDFA status: Signed with the Indianapolis Colts

    2011 stats: 51 total tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 19 pass deflections, 15 pass breakups, 4 interceptions

    Combine/pro day results: 4.61 40 time, 14 bench reps, 33" vertical, 9'8" broad jump, 4.29 short shuttle, 7.06 three-cone

    NFL ceiling comparison: Perrish Cox

     

    Pellerin's path to being undrafted was paved definitively when he did not time well in the 40-yard dash at the combine (4.61). I read that another scout clocked him as fast as 4.56 hand-held. However, as a small-school corner with average size and an underwhelming overall physical profile, he probably needed to run at least a tenth of a second better.

    Having previously given NFL scouts and front offices too much credit, I learned a smarmy lesson this year that even the professionals do not simply value the tape and their eyes—especially with a non-FBS player. Instead, they look for the comfort of the physical measurables.

    Pellerin can really play the corner position and with the state of the Colts' defensive backfield, he would have to get seriously injured or commit a major team violation not to break camp this fall.

    I saw him live during the East-West Shrine and he plays very under control and never panics. I have not seen him enough to know exactly how to attribute this quality. It could be instincts, pattern recognition, quarterback-reading, click and close short-area quickness, or some combination.

    He also has good length, which, before he timed poorly, had some scouts buzzing about him. I wish he played more consistently physical in the run game but, regardless, there is a place in the NFL for a coverage-oriented player of his caliber. 

Return Specialist

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    Marquis Maze, RS, University of Alabama, 5'8", 185 lbs., DOB: 3/2/1989

    UDFA status: Signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers

    2011 stats: 33 punt returns, 436 punt return yards, 13.2 punt return average, 1 punt return touchdown, 12 kickoff returns, 342 kickoff return yards, 28.5 kickoff return average, 0 kickoff return touchdowns, 56 receptions, 627 receiving yards, 11.2 receiving average, 1 receiving touchdown, 2 fumbles

    Combine/pro day results: 4.51 40 time, 33.5" vertical, 9'4" broad jump, 4.33 short shuttle, 6.90 three-cone

    NFL ceiling comparison: Eric Weems

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    Do not be fooled by the pedestrian 40-yard dash time. I have my suspicions about the fullness of his recovery from a hamstring injury he suffered on this play in the national championship game against LSU.

    Maze's explosion on returns is akin to someone being shot out of a cannon. Part of that is natural athleticism but the real key is having quality vision and a natural feel for the return game, which a lot of football players lack. 

    There is a lot more to getting the most yardage on a consistent basis than being fast. Understanding when to throttle, when and off which block to cut, how to get small (an inherent advantage for Maze at his size, which is ideal for an NFL return man) and finally the acceleration skills to attack daylight.

    Maze is built like a sprinter and runs with the strength and balance to break through passing contact and even keep his feet when shocked high in traffic. He is my second-ranked dual return man in the class behind third-round selection T.Y. Hilton.

    His limiting size, projected role only in the return game and the late injury that gave teams pause and also negatively impacted his 40 time all combined to push him out of the draft.

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