Even though there are close to 256 overall selections in each year’s NFL draft, there are always a significant number of undrafted free agents who make rosters around the National Football League.
All undrafted players must fight to earn a roster spot, so only one week into the preseason, it is a challenge to project which and how many undrafted free agents will make an NFL team this season.
There may be no such thing as an undrafted free agent locking up a roster spot well before final cuts are made. However, the following five undrafted rookies from the 2012 draft class are in very good position to make their team’s final rosters and play important roles in the upcoming season.
The Pittsburgh Steelers signed former Georgia punter Drew Butler for a very important reason: they need an upgrade at the position.
Daniel Sepulveda was a very talented NFL punter, but he had serious issues staying healthy over the past four years, which led to the team not re-signing him in the offseason. His replacement, Jeremy Kapinos, is back with the team, but Kapinos has not proven himself good enough to become an established full-time punter.
Butler appears to be in the driver's seat to win the Steelers’ punting job, especially after a tremendous performance in his first preseason game. Butler took all six punts in the Steelers’ preseason contest versus the Philadelphia Eagles, and had a very good punting average of 49.7 yards.
Admittedly, Rod Streater was not on my 2012 NFL draft radar as a prospect out of Temple last season. Considering he only caught 19 passes in his senior season, he was not a player who caught the eyes of many.
Streater, however, has reportedly made a huge impression thus far in Oakland Raiders training camp. During minicamp, Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Streater received work with the first-team offense.
Streater’s play is also believed to be a factor in the team’s decision to trade Louis Murphy to the Carolina Panthers. He is currently competing with fellow rookie, fifth-round pick Juron Criner, for the team’s No. 4 receiver spot, but even if Criner wins that battle, there should be a roster spot for Streater.
It came as a big surprise when former Troy offensive lineman James Brown went undrafted, but fortunately for him, he found a perfect situation by joining the Chicago Bears. The Bears are very thin in offensive line depth, and it appears that Brown could be in line for a key role in the team’s final 53-man roster.
Brown is listed as the third-team left tackle on the Chicago Bears’ depth chart, but according to Bleacher Report’s Brett Soblesky, Brown has been working as the primary backup to J’Marcus Webb at the position.
Soblesky reported that Brown has also worked at right tackle and guard, areas where the Bears also lack depth. Brown’s versatility is playing well into his favor, and he has the talent to compete for playing time, so his chances of making the final roster look very good.
Heading into New England Patriots training camp, former Mississippi running back Brandon Bolden seemed to be a long shot to make the final roster. The release of veteran Joseph Addai, however, opened up a potential spot at the position, and Bolden has since made a potential surge up the depth chart.
At the training camp practices I attended, Bolden was often the second-team running back, receiving reps over a touted second-year back, 2011 second-round pick Shane Vereen. This was the case again in Thursday’s preseason game versus the New Orleans Saints, as Bolden came into the game early, while Vereen did not see playing time until the second half.
Vereen’s spot with the team should be safe, but it is appearing increasingly likely that Bolden’s will be too. He has shown an impressive combination of speed, quickness and receiving ability out of the backfield. Given the amount of repetitions he has earned, he appears to be part of the Patriots’ plans going forward.
Early in the 2011 college football season, Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict looked more like a high first-round draft pick than an undrafted free agent who would have to fight for a roster spot. Unfortunately for Burfict, a steep decline in both playing performance and playing time in his senior season, coinciding with serious questions about his character and physical conditioning, resulted in him going undrafted.
Burfict seems to be getting his act together, however, and if he does, he is a talented middle linebacker with the potential to be a real difference-maker on an NFL defense. Because of that, it appears he is on the fast track to earning a spot on the Cincinnati Bengals’ final roster.
Burfict’s preseason got off to a very strong start on Friday against the New York Jets, as he made six tackles and intercepted Jets quarterback Tim Tebow. Then, on Sunday, Josh Kirkendall of Cincy Jungle reported that Burfict was working as the middle linebacker on the first-team defense, with regular starter Rey Maualuga sidelined due to a knee sprain suffered on Thursday.
While Burfict’s work with the first-team defense does not necessarily mean he has made a move up the depth chart over backup middle linebacker Roddrick Muckleroy, it is a very good sign that the Bengals have him in their plans for the upcoming season. Assuming things keep going as well as they are for Burfict, it likely that he will make the team’s final 53-man roster.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.