Undrafted NFL Free Agents Who Could Be Major Contributors in 2014
For many young football players, last week's NFL draft was a dream come true, as years of hard work were rewarded by hearing their name called in New York City.
For others, however, there was no such moment, only the disappointment of going undrafted.
However, that's hardly the end of the world.
The NFL is littered with undrafted free agents who have gone on to be major contributors for teams: Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker, San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates, Houston Texans running back Arian Foster; in just the past two years, Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict (who led the NFL in stops a year ago) and Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Marlon Brown.
All were undrafted free agents. So was Hall of Fame defensive tackle John Randle, in an era when the draft was 12 rounds long, no less.
With that in mind, here's a look at a handful of youngsters who could be in line to continue the long and storied tradition of making scouts and front offices look silly.
Christian Jones, LB, Chicago Bears
The Chicago Bears are a team long known for defense and strong play from the middle linebacker position, from Dick Butkus to Brian Urlacher.
In 2013? Not so much.
Veteran D.J. Williams got hurt early in the season. Rookie Jon Bostic looked like gangbusters one minute and completely lost the next.
The Bears didn't go the linebacker route in the draft, but it turns out they may not have needed to.
Florida State linebacker Christian Jones was a top-10 prospect on Dane Brugler's draft board at CBS Sports. According to Brugler, the third-round prospect is a "tremendous athlete with has [sic] fluid footwork who flawlessly flips his hips to blanket tight ends or receivers down the field in coverage."
Jones also has experience playing inside and the size (240 lbs) to pull it off.
A failed drug test at the combine caused Jones to fall from the draft, so now is the time to redeem himself—by climbing the depth chart in the Windy City.
Willie Snead, WR, Cleveland Browns
There's a saying in retail that success is all about "location, location, location!"
If that's true at all in the NFL, then Ball State wide receiver Willie Snead, who finished third among FBS wide receivers with 1,516 yards in 2013, has to be included on this list.
Granted, at 5'11", Snead isn't especially big. His 4.62-second 40-yard dash time, per CBS Sports, demonstrates that he isn't especially fast.
However, Snead's productivity speaks to his hands (Snead has a "my ball" style, according to scout Aaron Aloysius) and route running, and with the Browns choosing not to draft a wide receiver despite Josh Gordon's looming suspension, the wideout spot in Cleveland is a smoking crater.
Johnny Manziel (and make no mistake, it's going to be Manziel) has to throw the ball to someone occasionally other than tight end Jordan Cameron, and Snead's sure hands could come in, well, handy in that regard.
Chris Davis, CB, San Diego Chargers
Chris Davis may be the most simultaneously hated and loved young man in the state of Alabama.
It all depends on which side of the "Kick Six" fence you're on.
However, Davis' Iron Bowl heroics don't appear to have made much of an impression on NFL scouts, as the 5'10", 202-pounder went undrafted.
Still, while Davis is on the small side, Rob Rang of CBS Sports, who projected Davis as a fourth- or fifth-rounder, went so far as to write that his "stout (if somewhat short) frame, physicality and versatile coverage ability make the underrated Davis a potential early-round pick and future starter in the NFL."
That early round pick prediction may not have come to pass, but the "future starter" part might sooner than many think.
The San Diego Chargers were 29th in the NFL last year in pass defense, and while the Bolts added first-round pick Jason Verrett, he can't play both sides of the field and the slot at the same time.
Besides, I hear Davis can return kicks too.
Antonio Richardson, OT, Minnesota Vikings
Heading into the 2013 college football season, more than one pundit had Tennessee tackle Antonio Richardson ranked as a potential first-round prospect.
Even after an uneven 2013 campaign, Rang was among the numerous draftniks who still viewed Richardson as a Day 2 pick.
After all, were talking about a 6'6", 336-pound mountain of a lineman with 35-inch arms who has "shocking athleticism for his size."
That made it all the more surprising when Richardson slid out of the draft entirely, with Shawn Zobel of Draft Headquarters reporting that Richardson's knees were red-flagged by some NFL teams.
Doug Farrar of Sports Illustrated speculates that Richardson might be well-served by a move inside to guard, where his size could best be put to use.
Not only would that shorten Richardson's learning curve, but it could also lead to early snaps for Tiny in the Twin Cities.
Kelcy Quarles, DT, New York Giants
Of all the players on this list, it's defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles who has the best chance at making a big dent as a rookie in 2014.
And it's not just because he's 297 pounds.
Quarles was a beast at South Carolina in 2013, racking up 13.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks en route to being named both All-SEC and a second-team All-American.
However, Quarles fell like a stone on draft day, in large part because of an April incident in which Quarles was implicated in a New York nightclub beating.
Still, we're talking about an accomplished and productive 3-technique who was viewed as a Day 2 prospect by some pundits. They included Rob Rang of CBS Sports, who compared Quarles to Lamarr Houston of the Chicago Bears.
"Quick, strong and tenacious," Rang said, "Quarles projects equally well inside as a 4-3 defensive tackle or outside as a five-technique defensive end."
With Linval Joseph now in Minnesota, the New York Giants have a hole inside, and the only thing standing between Quarles and the job is fellow rookie (and third-round pick) Jay Bromley.
Bromley may not have Quarles' red flags, but he also doesn't have his explosiveness or disruptive ability.
If Quarles keeps his head on straight, he'll win the job.