Undrafted Rookies Most Likely to Earn Starting Jobs in Training Camp
For some NFL players, going undrafted can mean a big opportunity. The lucky ones receive multiple calls from interested teams and can dictate their own fate by choosing a team where they see a hole or a need, which means they could possibly compete for starting snaps in a way that many seventh-round picks drafted solely for depth cannot.
The following seven players all find themselves in such situations on their respective teams this offseason, and have stood out during OTAs and minicamp practices. Though few or none might start in Week 1 of the 2014 season, each has an opportunity to prove during training camp that he deserves to make the 53-man roster, and could receive some starting snaps later in the year.
For purposes of this article, we'll use the term "starting job" to include subpackage players such as nickel corners or slot receivers who nonetheless are one of the 11 players on the field to start a given game.
Similarly, a player need not start at his position for 16 games to have been considered for this list but rather must have the chance of starting a game at some point next season.
OT Antonio Richardson, Minnesota Vikings
Once projected as a Round 2-3 talent by NFL.com's Nolan Nawrocki, Tennessee's Antonio "Tiny" Richardson fell right out of the draft and was signed by the Minnesota Vikings as a free agent on May 10.
Many, including Fox Sports North's Brian Hall, have speculated that Richardson's somewhat surprising fall may have been because NFL teams took issue with his knees. He had arthroscopic surgery in 2012, though he never missed a game because of it.
Now, according to Hall, Richardson is out to prove he's a "first-round talent," and Minnesota may be the place for him to earn a starting job.
During OTAs on June 5, Richardson took first-team reps at left tackle, according to Master Tesfatsion of the Star Tribune. The Vikings already have Matt Kalil at left tackle, but he has been limited this offseason as he recovers from minor knee surgery, per Tom Pelissero of USA Today. They also have right tackle Phil Loadholt.
But Richardson has the size and the ability to be a starting offensive tackle in the NFL.
"Tiny" is actually 6'6" and 336 pounds and has an arm length of 35". Coming off a 2013 season at Tennessee in which he started all 12 games, he would be an excellent run blocker for Adrian Peterson and is agile enough, despite his massive frame, to protect Teddy Bridgewater, or whichever quarterback starts for the Vikings this fall.
Kalil will likely start at left tackle if he's healthy, but Richardson has been impressive during OTAs. He is definitely rising up the depth chart in Minnesota.
WR Corey Brown, Carolina Panthers
Former Ohio State receiver Corey "Philly" Brown looks like a major sleeper prospect, and Carolina's untested depth chart behind presumed starter Kelvin Benjamin could provide Brown an opportunity to get some starting snaps on three-or-four wide receiver sets and on punt returns.
After the end of the fifth round, Brown actually hoped he wouldn't be drafted so that he could land in Carolina, recognizing the opportunities for a wide receiver there, according to Jonathan Jones of The Charlotte Observer.
Brown led Ohio State in receiving yards in 2012 and 2013, with with a combined 123 receptions for 1,440 yards and 13 touchdowns, per Sports-Reference.com
After losing longtime star wideout Steve Smith in free agency, the Panthers drafted first-rounder Benjamin and signed veteran free agents Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant. Young players like Tavarres King and Marvin McNutt could compete with Brown for starting snaps, but he's productive enough to leapfrog them on the depth chart.
Brown likely fell out of the draft due to his relatively pedestrian speed, running a 4.51-second 40-yard dash at the combine. On another team's roster, if he weren't cut, he'd likely be relegated to a return role. But the Panthers are searching for their receivers of the future to help out Cam Newton, and Brown has an opportunity in Carolina to prove he's better than his draft status (or lack thereof).
S Alden Darby, San Diego Chargers
The San Diego Chargers will see a lot of camp competition for starting safety snaps opposite free safety Eric Weddle, and while Jahleel Addae (another undrafted rookie two years ago) could be the candidate to win that role, rookie Alden Darby out of Arizona State could compete to make a start next season.
Darby was one of the leaders of ASU's vaunted defense. He led the team in pass deflections in 2013 with 13, and was second in tackles, with 72. He also returned interceptions for 253 yards total.
Darby is similar in size to Addae (5'10", 195 pounds), so neither has a true advantage there. Darby, at 5'10" and 192 pounds, has the strength to play near the line and the hands and playmaking ability to play the pass. With 10 career interceptions at Arizona State, Darby is a rangy player who could make meaningful contributions to the Chargers defense.
Playing in the same division against one of, if not the, best quarterback in football and many productive receivers, Darby's instincts and playmaking skills could serve San Diego well in 2014. He'll have his chance to prove in training camp that he deserves to start at some point next season.
ILB Shayne Skov, San Francisco 49ers
Stanford's Shayne Skov could have been one of the top inside linebackers selected in the 2014 draft but saw his projections tumble after tearing both his MCL and ACL and breaking the tibia in his left leg in 2011, which required three surgeries to repair.
Still, it was a surprise when Skov went undrafted, and even more of a surprise when the 49ers signed him as a free agent. Chris Borland, selected in Round 3, joins a linebacker-heavy roster with Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman as the starters on the inside and Michael Wilhoite, who started two games last season, for depth.
But Bowman underwent surgery for his torn ACL on Feb. 4 and is expected to miss the first six weeks of the regular season, according to Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com. Willis will move into the "mike" linebacker role in his absence, which leaves the "jack" position open for a competition between Wilhoite, Borland and Skov.
For one season at Stanford, Skov played for 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and is familiar with his scheme. He has the leadership qualities that help define this elite 49ers defense. He has instincts for the inside linebacker that are difficult to teach.
Because he was a medical scratch at the combine, he didn't run the 40-yard dash, but he can prove in minicamp that he's faster than the teams who passed on him in the draft thought he was.
Skov's long-term durability is certainly a question, and beating out the fiery playmaker Borland and more experienced Wilhoite for the "jack" position next to Willis would be a difficult feat. But Skov has an opportunity to start in San Francisco for at least six games in 2014.
WR Albert Wilson, Kansas City Chiefs
The Georgia State Panthers football program was only founded in 2010, but receiver Albert Wilson has already made a name for himself both at Georgia State and beyond.
"He had a very productive career down there with big plays," Chiefs wide receivers coach/assistant head coach David Culley said during OTAs, per Rachel Santschi of KCChiefs.com. "As he’s starting to learn our offense, we’re starting to see kind of the things he did down at Georgia State.”
Indeed, in 2013 Wilson started all 12 games and led the Panthers in receptions, with 71, receiving yards, with 1,177 and touchdown receptions, with eight.
He also comes into a good situation in Kansas City, where Dwayne Bowe is the only true standout receiver on the roster, with Donnie Avery and A.J. Jenkins next on the depth chart.
But if Wilson can prove he's competitive, he could possibly win some snaps in the slot from Junior Hemingway or even Avery next season, and could certainly see some action in the return game. He's a young talent with tons of upside.
TE Justin Jones, New England Patriots
Once the New England Patriots had failed to address their need for depth at the tight end position by the end of Round 7 of the draft, Justin Jones knew he could have an opportunity there.
"I got a couple of calls afterwards." Jones told reporters at Gillette Stadium shortly after the Patriots signed him, per Boston.com's Erik Frenz.
"[But] with this decision to come here, it was really a no-brainer, man. As far as my skill set is concerned and the way that the opportunities that I could possibly have here with the recent things that have been going on, it couldn't be a better fit for me."
Jones was academically ineligible for his senior season at East Carolina, and so he only finished his college career with 52 catches for 598 yards and 12 touchdowns. But his lack of production isn't necessarily due to a lack of talent, and if given a chance to compete with Hoomanawanui and Williams for starting snaps, or if Gronkowski finds himself injured again at some point in 2014, Jones could legitimately vie for starting snaps in a game in his rookie season.
TE Colt Lyerla, Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers have both a need at tight end and a history of past success with undrafted free agents. In 2013, Green Bay was second in the league after the Seattle Seahawks in giving playing time to undrafted free agents, with 33.6 percent, according to Don Banks of Sports Illustrated.
Lyerla could have gone in Round 3 on talent alone, had his maturity, drug and legal issues not reared up during his time at and following his departure from Oregon. His physical talent is elite, helped by his size (6'4" and 242 pounds with hands measuring 10 1/4"). He was a top performer in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump and broad jump at the NFL combine.
Versatile as both a pass-catcher and blocker, Lyerla could be the most natural replacement for Jermichael Finley on the Packers' roster. After observing the tight ends at OTAs and minicamp, beat writer Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has noted that third-round selection Richard Rodgers has been the top tight end in practice.
But Lyerla has had some impressive catches and has demonstrated maturity when discussing his past problems. He has also repeatedly been one of the last players at practice.
"I've spent the last six, seven months doing hard thinking and making changes and doing the right things," Lyerla told FOX Sports Wisconsin's Paul Imig. "I think me being here today shows that I am moving in the right direction."
Rodgers, Lyerla and Brandon Bostick will compete for starting snaps with recently re-signed tight end Andrew Quarless, and the Packers also have Ryan Taylor, Jake Stoneburner and Justin Perillo on the roster. But even with all that competition, Lyerla may very well be the most physically gifted tight end in Green Bay. He has a legitimate chance to earn starting snaps next season if he can thrive in the system and manage his behavior.