Will British Olympian Lawrence Okoye turn his raw athletic prowess into something useful in a 49ers uniform?
Each year, a lot of press and attention is given to the NFL draft.
Why not? It is exciting to see top college stars find their ways onto NFL franchises. After all, these collegiate prospects are supposed to be future NFL stars after all, right?
Not so fast.
There are plenty of "diamonds in the rough" that are often found late in the draft, as well as plenty of undrafted free agents who wind up playing significant roles at the NFL level. In many cases, some of these "un-draftees" wind up being impact players who often make up that critical difference between a good team and a Super Bowl contender.
Tight end Antonio Gates and wide receiver Wes Welker were both undrafted free agents. Look at the difference each of those players made with their respective teams.
In an article written by Bob Boyles for Football.com, Boyles states that out of the last 600 players who have played in the Super Bowl, 137 of them have been undrafted free agents—22.8 percent overall.
When one thinks of a Super Bowl franchise, one might think that the team was built largely by smart drafting and development, combined with the right trades and free-agent acquisitions. It is hard to believe that nearly a quarter of these teams were comprised of players whose names were not called on draft day.
The San Francisco 49ers are no different.
After the 2013 NFL draft, San Francisco signed a total of 12 undrafted free agents. The list of these 12 can be found here. While it may be a long shot to expect any of these 12 to have impacts like those made by Frank Gore, Colin Kaepernick or Patrick Willis, some of these 12 may be able to provide that extra boost necessary to ensure that the 49ers get back to the Super Bowl and win it this time.
Here are five undrafted free agents signed by the 49ers who have a legitimate shot at becoming gems at the NFL level.
MarQueis Gray may be a "hybrid" type of player in the 49ers' offense.
Player: MarQueis Gray
Position: Running Back
Former Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray will have one of the more interesting transformations at the NFL level after being signed by the 49ers as an undrafted free agent on April 27.
San Francisco has shifted the former quarterback to a running back, something that has happened before during college-to-pro transformations. Look no further than Denard Robinson or Josh Cribbs for comparison.
Gray fit the bill for a "hybrid" player in college when he played as a running back, wide receiver and quarterback for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. He did most of his quarterbacking during his junior year, posting an impressive 114.5 quarterback rating with 108 completions on 213 attempts (sports-reference.com).
Yet his quarterbacking prowess showed little more than just completions and the remainder of his game as a running back and receiver garnered little attention on draft day.
Now, Gray will figure to compete for playing time in an already crowded backfield that features incumbent starters like Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James.
Gray will also have an opportunity to compete with San Francisco's wide receiver corps, and the recent injury to Michael Crabtree may result in Gray getting some more looks from the 49ers coaching staff.
At 6'4" and 250 pounds., Gray may also see some time competing for a backup tight end position, something that Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee believes he will do.
While not necessarily excelling at anything, the one major factor that Gray has going for him is the fact that he is versatile. For him, adjusting to the new role has been difficult, but a challenge worth accepting.
Gray stated, via 49ers.com:
I never thought I’d be a tight end or h-back. It’s very hard, but you’ve just got to stay in the playbook and overcome adversity. At this level, you’re playing with the best athletes in the world. You’ve got to have the strength and the confidence to make plays and it starts with the playbook and the weight room. Any way we can help make this team better and at least make this team, we’re all for it.
If Gray is able to impress enough during training camps as well as the preseason, he may just have a shot at becoming a type of player that opposing defenses come to fear.
Chuck Jacobs could be the "speed" receiver the 49ers need.
Player: Chuck Jacobs
Position: Wide Receiver
College: Utah State
49ers wide receivers have already been atop the discussions thus far into 2013.
San Francisco traded for Anquan Boldin. There was the drafting of former Louisiana Tech wide receiver Quinton Patton. There was the Achilles injury to star receiver Michael Crabtree. There are the potential returns of Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams. There has been the development of A.J. Jenkins.
Where does former Utah State wide receiver Chuck Jacobs fit into the mix?
The answer is simple: He has speed.
They also must have noted his impressive college career, which totaled 61 receptions for 826 yards and seven touchdowns over two seasons with the Utah State Aggies (sports-reference.com). He put up solid numbers returning kicks as well.
San Francisco needs help with a "speed" receiver. Boldin, sitting atop the depth chart, is by no means a speed guy, and neither are Manningham and Williams. Jenkins and Patton are virtually untested commodities at the NFL level. Thus, the addition of a speed receiver became essential.
At 6'0" and 178 pounds, Jacobs might not be any type of player that can break tackles or fight for the ball, yet his speed alone may create some chances on offense.
He would have to beat out some of the more favored San Francisco receivers if he hopes to do this, however.
Player: Sherman Carter
College: Tennessee State
If there is one position of relative uncertainty on the vaunted 49ers offensive line, it is at center.
Starting center Jonathan Goodwin is 34 years old and entering the final year of a three-year, $10.9 million contract. Will he return to the 49ers in 2014?
Goodwin's immediate backups are Daniel Kilgore and Joe Looney. Kilgore may be the immediate favorite. He has more practical NFL experience despite being initially slated as an exterior lineman.
I initially thought that San Francisco would have looked toward the 2013 draft as a means to find a potential long-term solution at center. Yet that did not happen, and the 49ers instead elected to add depth at the position by signing undrafted free agents.
Patrick Omameh and Sherman Carter were signed to add depth and competition at the interior positions along San Francisco's offensive line. Carter may be the dark-horse candidate for a future starting center in San Francisco.
Carter's impressive college career includes 33 starts in 42 games as well as being named to the First-Team Ohio Valley Conference his senior year. Carter was known for his leadership as well as his academic prowess while at Tennessee State.
He also possesses more experience at the position, something that Omameh does not have.
Carter was ranked as the 26th prospect at the position by NFLdraftscout.com and finished the combine with a 5.45 40-time and 25 bench reps (nfldraftscout.com).
Currently, CBS Sports has Carter as the third-string center on the 49ers' depth chart.
If Carter can develop his game at the NFL level and impress coaches enough, there would be little to prevent him from earning a reasonable shot at taking over for Goodwin after the 2013 season.
Player: Luke Marquardt
Position: Offensive Tackle
College: Azusa Pacific
The 49ers may have found a "gem" of the future when they signed former Azusa Pacific offensive lineman Luke Marquardt as an undrafted free agent.
At 6'8" and 315 pounds, Marquardt is a beast and shall immediately provide depth at a position vital to the 49ers' future.
Currently, CBS Sports has Marquardt as the third-string right tackle on the 49ers' depth chart, although it is doubtful that he would stay there for very long.
What makes Marquardt so intriguing is beyond just his physical stature. NFL.com's prospect profile of Marquardt had this to say about him:
Possesses prototypical height, length and a growing frame still able to add weight without losing athleticism. Flashes foot quickness to take away the edge in pass protection, but also mirror without losing knee bend to maintain balance and form. Redirects ends through the pocket inside, as well. Widens his base to anchor when on his game. Also uses his feet to change blocking angle on the move to create running lanes. Surprises with his straight-line speed when leading on pulls or getting downfield to block. Has a solid punch, and is also capable of keeping his feet active while landing it. Comes out of his three-point stance low and hard for his size, gets hands inside to bully defender out of the play. Greets blitzers instead of catching them. Uses strength and length to hold back one defender on double-team while waiting for edge blitzers.
Those talents are certainly noteworthy considering he came from a college not known for producing top-tier NFL talent. While he did miss his senior season due to a foot injury, there is little doubt that he can return at top strength at the NFL level even if he misses training camp.
Yet that is exactly what the 49ers are hoping to turn Marquardt into. In the immediate term, Marquardt could potentially serve as a backup to either of the two tackle positions, providing ample insurance in case either Staley or Davis goes down with an injury.
Marquardt stated in a recent interview with SF Gate:
I’m kind of the guy that loves competition. I’ve never shied away from competition. I’m a bigger guy and I love hitting people. I’m not the kind of big guy that plays soft. I play tough. I’m going to come into camp when I’m healthy and work hard and do my best to learn the offense and hit people. That’s my goal.
If there is a type of work ethic and attitude that epitomizes a player on a top-caliber offensive line, Marquardt has it. He also has the physical attributes to make it happen.
Lawrence Okoye is a beast, even if he's never played American football.
Player: Lawrence Okoye
Position: Defensive Line
I cannot recall the last time a player with absolutely zero experience playing organized football made a significant impact at the NFL level.
Yet that is exactly what British Olympian Lawrence Okoye is trying to do.
At 6'6" and 304 pounds, Okoye looks the part of a defensive lineman in the NFL.
Yet the fact remains that Okoye had not played a single down of organized American football in his entire life before signing with San Francisco.
Fortunately, Okoye is the type of person with the work ethic and credibility to make the efforts needed to succeed.
Currently, the 49ers' depth chart has Okoye lining up as a right tackle, according to CBS Sports. However, he may find a spot somewhere along the defensive line, depending on just how his transformation to the NFL comes to fruition.
Stranger things have happened.
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