The spotlight will be on many college players on draft day in April.
For some players, the premature spotlight of a first round selection will become bittersweet when they are tagged with the shunned label of "bust".
Others will go unnoticed, however; but luckily draft day isn't the lone hope for college players hoping to go pro.
There are two lights at the end of the tunnel from college to pro, but both lead the same place. One path goes through the draft, the other through undrafted free agency. Good things often come to those who wait, and some rookie free agents will be rewarded for their patience.
These players can't wait to make an impact, and prove the other 31 teams exactly why they belong in the NFL.
Teams who are fortunate enough to find a diamond in the rough may be rewarded for their attention to detail.
Several players have gone undrafted, and went on to make a big impact for their franchise. These players are few and far between, but here's a list of the top 10 undrafted free agents from the decade 2000-2010.
A former undrafted free agent out of Rutgers, Brackett was heavily criticized for his diminutive frame. He's a trim 235 pounds and stands at only 5'11". It was questioned whether he'd ever be anything more than a situational back-up in the NFL.
I think he's sufficiently proven his point. If not, maybe his five 100-plus tackle seasons could stand as proof. And for a guy who's supposedly too short, his 11 career interceptions ought to count as proof against the height-weight-speed theories.
Brackett is soon to be rewarded for his major contributions to the team; the Colts plan to offer him a long-term contract that will make him one of the highest-paid linebackers in the league.
Another overlooked Rutgers alum, Shaun O'Hara was consistent in Cleveland, starting a majority of the games he played there at either guard or center. After leaving the Browns in free agency, O'Hara was brought to New York to bolster an offensive line that was criticized much throughout the 2003 season.
His production and consistency have stunned those who overlooked him. Subsequently, he was a part of the 2007 Giants team that stunned the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII.
A Pro Bowl reserve in back-to-back seasons, O'Hara's been a huge reason for the Giants' recent success, helping lead the way for two 1,000-yard running backs in 2008.
Bart Scott caught a reputation over the past few years for speaking his mind and showing undying confidence in himself and his teammates. He has every reason to be confident; he made the Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro rosters just four years after going undrafted in 2002.
Scott contributed mightily to the dominant Ravens defense over the decade. The dynamic duo of Bart Scott and Ray Lewis in the middle of the field imposed its will on rushing offenses for years.
He made such an impact on Rex Ryan, in fact, that the defensive coordinator took the middle linebacker with him to the Jets when Ryan got his job as head coach. As lead signal-caller for the Jets defense, Scott did his coach proud—he registered 97 tackles and a sack on the season.
Pierce is yet another middle linebacker who was undervalued and overlooked on draft day. Many had tabbed him as too small to play linebacker in the NFL, much like Gary Brackett.
Despite Pierce's measurables, his impact on the Giants defense was immeasurable. Well, it's measurable in that he led the team in tackles for four consecutive years from 2005-2008.
Pierce was another key component in the Giants' 2007 Super Bowl season. As the lead signal-caller from the field, Pierce helped the Giants find some semblance of consistency in stopping the run. His tenacity and leadership brought together a team that was heavily criticized throughout 2006, and made them champions in 2007.
Although he was released from the team as of just a few weeks ago, there will be plenty of teams in need of a middle linebacker, ready to bring Pierce on board. And just as he did before, Pierce will prove wrong all those who dare to overlook him.
Speculation has begun that "Fast Willie" has lost a step.
In his prime, though, Willie Parker was a whirling dervish. Considering the unthinkable value placed on 40-yard dash times, it's astonishing Parker was so vastly undervalued. He ran a lightning-quick sub-4.3 40-yard dash.
To disprove the doubters, he eclipsed the 1,200-yard plateau in each of his first three seasons as a starter, earning two Pro Bowl nods in the process. He was among the top five in many statistical categories during those seasons.
He was a big part of the 2005 champion Pittsburgh Steelers' success, even setting a record in Super Bowl XL for the longest run from scrimmage with his 75-yard touchdown scamper.
The two-time second-team All-Pro offensive tackle has been a force on the offensive line for much of his NFL tenure since going undrafted out of Arkansas in 2004.
He earned those All-Pro selections as a member of two mediocre Bills teams, and what's more surprising is that he played more tight end in college than offensive line. He was picked up as a practice squad member, and eventually worked his way onto the active roster as a special teamer.
From there, he went onto become one of the Bills' most note-worthy linemen. He only allowed two sacks in 2006, and wasn't called for a single holding penalty according to Stats, Inc.
Though his play diminished through his tenure in Buffalo, the Eagles were glad to give them a first- and fourth-round pick to get the monstrous left tackle. He returned to form last season by allowing six sacks on Donovan McNabb to go with only one holding call.
Despite several college accolades—including three consecutive All-American honors—and despite impressing many scouts at the NFL Combine, the Eastern Illinois product went undrafted in 2004.
He was a sought-after commodity in free agency, though, and aroused the interest of both the Cowboys and Broncos.
Several starters came and went in Dallas as Romo watched from the bench. In 2006, though, Drew Bledsoe went down with an injury and the rest is history—sound familiar, fellow Pats fans?
Midway through the 2007 season, Romo was granted a contract extension for six years at $67.5 million to be the Cowboys' franchise quarterback.
Although he just won his first playoff game this season, the star-lit quarterback has been worth every penny. He's meant so much to the success of the Cowboys' franchise over the past few years, setting the Cowboys record for yards and completions in a single season. He became the first Cowboys QB to throw for over 4,000 yards back in 2007, and broke his own record just this past season with 4,483 yards.
It should be no surprise, then, that his development was spearheaded by Sean Payton, one of the men who was instrumental in bringing Romo to Dallas.
Although he's 30 in just under two months, Romo has plenty of time to bring Dallas the postseason success they're hoping for. Needless to say, they've already got more than they ever could have dreamed of from the undrafted free agent acquisition.
Even if James Harrison was the first Kent State alumnus to play linebacker for Pittsburgh since Jack Lambert, the Steelers couldn't possibly have known what kind of production they were going to get out of him.
In fact, they definitely didn't. They cut Harrison from the practice squad three times before he finally got a shot at the roster.
He came over from the NFL Europe's Rhein Fire, and played with enough fire to engulf all of Heinz Field. He was solid in spot duty from '04-'06, but he got a crack at a starting job in 2007 and never looked back. He has wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks, racking up 34.5 sacks in his three years as a starting linebacker.
In 2008, his 93 total tackles combined with 16 sacks earned him first-team All-Pro honors, as well as the GMC Defensive Player of the Year award.
With three Pro Bowl appearances in the past three years, Harrison has become the ideal outside linebacker for Pittsburgh's zone blitz defensive scheme, and has become a favorite toy for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
His historic 100-yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII is further evidence that a deep dip in the free agent pool could pay dividends to any team willing to invest the time and patience in a player slighted from the draft.
Some have labeled the "Slot Machine" as nothing more than a product of the system in which he plays.
I think 346 receptions over a three-year span oughtta do the trick in dispelling those theories.
In fact, it was that same hypothesis that may have driven Welker out of the draft. As a part of Texas Tech's "Air-Raid" offense under Mike Leach, Welker raked in receptions left and right, tallying 259 receptions for 3,019 yards and 21 touchdowns in his four-year collegiate career.
That label, combined with his diminutive 5'9" frame, probably did the trick in conjunction. But he's simply been a magnet for the football everywhere he's gone.
Thankfully, he didn't let any of that deter him—he was picked up by the Chargers, and joined the Dolphins shortly thereafter. He was productive in Miami, and even caused the Patriots a few headaches in 2005 and 2006—so much so, that Belichick never wanted to have to face him again.
Since he joined the Patriots via trade in 2007, he's been selected to two Pro Bowls and made the first-team All-Pro squad this past season. He's been a huge reason for the offensive statistical success of the Patriots throughout his tenure in New England.
Welker has certainly proven that top-tier talent comes in all shapes and sizes.
Six Pro Bowl selections. Three first-team All-Pro selections.
If you were to tell any NFL scout that a player with that kind of future played basketball through college, they just might scoff at you.
But such is the case for Antonio Gates. Before he played in the NFL, he played his last game of football in his senior year of high school. In fact, many attribute his football success with his experience as a power forward, and his ability to fight for a jump ball.
The Chargers recognized his potential, and quickly signed the athletic Gates. He played well in his rookie year, but he really burst out of the gate in his second year (2004) with 81 catches for 964 yards and 13 touchdowns, the record for touchdown receptions in a season by a tight end.
Three consecutive first-team All-Pro selections came his way from '04-'06, as he has consistently been among the top three to five in nearly every statistical category among tight ends. Even with a switch in quarterbacks from Drew Brees to Philip Rivers, he has stayed on pace, and is almost a sure-fire first- or second-ballot Hall of Famer.