A Guide to Striking Gold in NFL Undrafted Free Agency

Michael Schottey@SchotteyNFL National Lead WriterMay 1, 2013

A Guide to Striking Gold in NFL Undrafted Free Agency

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    While so much emphasis is placed on the NFL draft every year, many people's interest begins to wane after the first round is over.

    Sure, maybe they'll keep the TV on in the background as they do something else, or maybe they'll even remind themselves to log on to Bleacher Report on Monday morning to see who their favorite team picked up. Heck, even ESPN and the NFL Network spend Days 2 and 3 talking about players picked (or *gasp* not picked) on Day 1.

    Yet there's still talent to be had not only in the later rounds but even after the draft is over.

    Fifteen players have gone to the Pro Football Hall of Fame after going undrafted—the most recent is Jack Butler, who went undrafted in 1951 and was a 2012 inductee.

    So how can teams find the next big free-agent superstar? It's due to a mix of luck and a number of varied ways of looking for that unpolished diamond in the rough.

Grab an Athlete

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    By now, most people reading this know the story behind San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates.

    Undrafted in 2003, he hadn't played college football before entering the NFL. Instead of playing under Nick Saban at Michigan State, he went to a potpourri of colleges before ending up as a stud power forward who helped the Golden Flashes get to the Elite Eight.

    Athletes are athletes, and most kids have some knowledge of what goes on between the goal posts. If you have a chance at a freak athlete in undrafted free agency, you have to grab him.

    This year's best example is Lawrence Okoye—a British discus thrower now with the San Francisco 49ers. At 21, he's just a pup by discus standards. He won a gold medal in the 2011 European U-23 Championships and was once a fantastic rugby player.

    He's also 6'6", 304 pounds and runs a 4.78 40-yard dash.

    Maybe he won't pan out, maybe he'll return to discus or rugby, or maybe he's a Hall of Famer. Either way, the risk of taking a player is mitigated in undrafted free agency, and there's no telling how high a player like Okoye's ceiling could be.

Take a Small-School Flyer

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    The opinions on Tony Romo usually range anywhere from All-Pro player to hot garbage—and that's just among Dallas Cowboys fans!

    Yet after the 2003 NFL draft (apparently a great year for undrafted free agents), the opinions were even lower.

    After '03 Draft, scout yelled out to room "Anyone want to sign this QB Tony Romo? He's from Wisconsin, wants to sign here." Silence.

    — Andrew Brandt (@adbrandt) April 27, 2013

    That's Andrew Brandt, formerly of the Green Bay Packers and now with ESPN.

    The Packers didn't even want Romo for a camp arm. Coming out of Eastern Illinois, no one had heard about Romo or cared about him. The Cowboys took a chance on him, though, and he's been to three Pro Bowls in his career.

    In 2013, Luke Marquardt—an offensive tackle out of Azusa Pacific, signed by the San Francisco 49ers—may be the next small-school player to make that jump. He's 6'8", 320 pounds and has legitimate left tackle-quality lateral movement.

Look at a Football Factory's Deep Tracks

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    Priest Holmes was a fantastic running back at a big football factory high school in Texas. Then he was a fantastic running back at the University of Texas.

    Until a knee injury in 1995, he was the school's top running back. Then he got supplanted by some kid named Ricky Williams. Although Holmes was relegated to second and third string on most Saturdays, he still averaged over five yards per carry.

    Signed by the Baltimore Ravens after the 1997 draft, Holmes helped them win a Super Bowl as the second-string back behind Jamal Lewis—replaced again! He made most of his headlines with the Kansas City Chiefs, however, when he was a three-time All-Pro.

    The best example of this kind of pickup in 2013 might be LSU running back Michael Ford, now with the Chicago Bears. Although Ford rarely got a chance to shine in LSU's crowded backfield, he still averaged 5.8 yards per carry as a Tiger and had an amazing combine performance.

Take an Injury Risk

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    While Priest Holmes and Antonio Gates were once the faces of undrafted free agency, Arian Foster is the poster boy these days. He was the 2010 NFL rushing leader and is a two-time All-Pro. He's also a fantastic football analyst for one of the Internet's biggest sports websites!

    No one wanted him in 2009 after lingering injuries hampered his final year at Tennessee. A hamstring injury also kept him from working out up to his potential before the draft.

    Yet the Houston Texans took a chance on him. Then he grabbed the starting role and hasn't stopped running to this day. Now he's one of the NFL's most visible stars.

    This year, LSU's Chris Faulk—an offensive tackle now with the Cleveland Browns—could rebound after missing 2012 with a knee injury. He was All-SEC in 2011 and has great size and athleticism.

    He probably should've returned to school, but there's little reason he couldn't ascend to become a top backup on the Browns' already-talented offensive line.

Forget About Character Quirks

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    James Harrison's issues with authority didn't start with Roger Goodell.

    All the way back to high school, Harrison blew off tests and assumed his football ability would carry him through life. That attitude turned away top programs who didn't want to deal with him, and he ended up at Kent State. He had a good collegiate career, but many NFL teams felt that he hadn't matured enough to that point to warrant a draft pick.

    The Steelers saw something and picked him up, but the maturity issues were still there. He struggled to make an impact early on in his career—mostly due to effort, or lack thereof. He would bounce around between NFL Europe and the Baltimore Ravens before landing back on the Steelers.

    Five Pro Bowls and two Super Bowls later, the Steelers have moved on from the aging Harrison once again. But they don't have a moment of regret for giving this guy a chance once upon a time, nor the second chance, nor the third...

    Da'Rick Rogers left Tennessee after three failed drug tests. He then blew up the FCS while at Tennessee Tech and some (myself included) thought he could go as high as the second round. Instead, he ended up with the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted free agent. If he keeps his nose clean, he has the talent to be their No. 2 receiver from Day 1.

     

    Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.