Undrafted Players: The Hidden Gems

| April 28, 2012

In 2008 Pro Football Focus produced our first full season of analysis. That means every player that has entered the league since then has been put under a greater microscope than those that came before them.

It doesn’t matter if you were the first overall pick in the draft like Jake Long, or someone who would go onto make 58 career snaps after being undrafted like Titus Brown, we’ve looked at all of them and it’s those undrafted players we’re going to feature now.

The draft is only part of the battle when it comes to finding talent. There’s a whole market out there for undrafted free agents who can come in and contribute. We’re going to break down some of the players at each position who’ve done so.

We’re only going to look at players who have played over the last four seasons, so it’s all about their performance over that period. Let’s get to it.

 

Quarterbacks

It’s hard finding a quarterback in the first–let alone one who goes undrafted–but it’s not impossible, as the success of Kurt Warner and Tony Romo should show. Warner had a career that could land him in Canton, finishing incredibly strongly with two years that had him ranked as one of the Top 10 passers in our ratings. While Romo hasn’t replicated that, he’s stabilized the quarterback position in Dallas and made the kind of plays to win games and make him a Top 15 quarterback. Outside of those two, we’ve seen Shaun Hill turn into one of the league’s better backups, and Matt Moore finally put his physical tools to good use with a strong showing in 2011 for Miami.

 

Running Back

There’s a saying that there’s no point drafting a running back early, because you can find talented runners all over the place. Looking at some of the undrafted rushers it’s not hard to see why people say that. It doesn’t get much better than Arian Foster, who led the league in rushing in just his second year in the league, following that up with a 2011 that showed it was no fluke. He’s not the only guy to excel mind you, with Fred Jackson earning a +44.8 grade for his work over the past four years. Additionally, Pierre Thomas has been as close to an every-down back as the Saints have managed, while Ryan Grant has carried the load as the feature back in Green Bay. Guys like LeGarrette Blount, Danny Woodhead, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Mike Tolbert, Isaac Redman and Chris Ivory have all had a positive impact for their teams in some way.

 

Fullback

The importance of the fullback position is on the wane somewhat, with these blockers tending to see less than 40% or so of offensive snaps. That makes it all the more important that you don’t spend valuable picks on them when you could spend on a guy who could possibly be an every-down contributor. The success of undrafted free agents hasn’t been all that great, but Vonta Leach and Jed Collins were our top two run-blocking fullbacks in 2011, while players like John Kuhn and Marcel Reece have made up for their inconsistencies in blocking by offering something with the ball in hand. Those mismatches are valuable.

 

Tight End

There aren’t many undrafted tight ends who have gone onto become stars in the league, but the one who has stands out. Antonio Gates was–before the emergence of players like Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, and Aaron Hernandez–the league’s top receiving TE, providing the kind of option for Philip Rivers that scared the life out of defensive coordinators. Evan Moore has always been an intriguing prospect that the Browns haven’t made full use of, while the Giants got more than expected from Jake Ballard on their run to the Super Bowl.

 

Wide Receivers

Teams throw picks at receivers almost in hope more than expectation given how poorly some of them turn out. Indeed it seems you’re almost as likely to find a difference-maker undrafted as you are in the later rounds. Take last year for example, two of the top three receivers (in terms of yards) were undrafted, in the shape of the hard-to-cover duo of Wes Welker and Victor Cruz. Meanwhile, you had a guy like Malcom Floyd who led the league with 19.9 yards per reception (and had a not-too-shabby +17.0 grade for his receiving). We’ve seen Miles Austin go on to star in Dallas (even if he’s never replicated his 2009 breakout year), and don’t sleep on the super tough Nate Washington, who is coming off the best year of his career where he netted 1,023 yards and a +10.1 receiving grade. During the draft, slot receivers tend to be a tad undervalued in this evolving NFL, so the UDFA market has been a great place to find these types of chain-movers. Look at players like Davone Bess, Doug Baldwin and David Nelson, while a player like Lance Moore (who has the attributes of a slot receiver despite playing outside) has been a big hit in New Orleans. Andrew Hawkins looks like a player who could follow in their footsteps.

 

Offensive Tackles

It’s not easy finding tackles in any round, and teams have sometimes been guilty of pushing UDFA’s into the lineup when they’re clearly not ready (hello Mr. Dombrowski).  It should be noted however, that our top left tackle in the whole of the league last year was Jason Peters, a man who went undrafted in 2004; grading twice as high as any left tackle last year. Over on the right side, Tyson Clabo hasn’t missed a game in four years since moving to tackle and has graded positively in every year. He doesn’t have elite physical tools, but his consistency at the position is near unmatched. The only other tackle to distinguish himself is Donald Penn. A franchise left tackle who hasn’t always demonstrated ideal consistency, Penn is a top talent.

 

Offensive Guards

You can find guards all over the place, with a number of would-be stars going undrafted. Whether he retires or not, there’s no denying Brian Waters has been one of the best guards in the league over the last decade. The Jets Brandon Moore isn’t the player he once was, but has impressed for a while. While Harvey Dahl has a reputation as a dirty player, his play, first as a Falcon and then as a Ram, should be commended. He’s the picture of consistency, and he’s a player who doesn’t take plays off. The Giants got a lot out of Rich Seubert before cutting ties, in much the same way as the Chargers and Patriots got plenty out of Kris Dielmann and Stephen Neal respectively before they retired. The Raiders will be hoping Mike Brisiel takes his game to another level upon moving to Oakland.

 

Center

There’s a whole pile of centers who’ve gone undrafted yet made a career for themselves in the NFL. Jeff Saturday stands out, with the new Packer consistently being one of the league’s best. He may be about to turn 37 but he was still our fifth-ranked center last year. Speaking of the elderly, Casey Wiegmann was still playing at a decent level at the age of 38 even if he peaked back in 2008 (+31.7 grade). Forgotten by some, Shaun O’Hara held together one of the league’s best lines in New York for many years before his play declined in 2010, while Jamaal Jackson was consistently one of the best until injury derailed his Eagles career. The Bengals found themselves a long term starter in Kyle Cook, and judging by 2011, so have the Saints in the form of Brian De La Puente. They may not be Day 1 starters, but you can find smart centers and turn them into long term starters.

 

Defensive Ends/ Outside Linebackers

Finding pass rushers is crucial, so imagine landing one as undrafted free agent? It’s not easy but there have been some top talents who have watched the draft without hearing their names called. Take James Harrison, the most complete 3-4 outside linebacker in the league, capable of humiliating tackles, punishing running backs and making plays in coverage. Cameron Wake is a different type of outside linebacker, being far more focused on the pass rushing and it has showed the past two years. The former CFL star was second in the league in total pressure this year and has achieved a higher percentage of pressure on his pass rushes than any other player over the past four years. Chris Clemons is a player who hasn’t always had the opportunity to excel, but look what he’s done in Seattle, earning a +58.9 grade for his pass rushing over the past two years. Players like Juqua Parker and James Hall have contributed significantly over the years, while others such as Michael Bennett and Israel Idonije have gone onto become some of the premier run defenders from the DLE spot. If he gets a chance, watch out for Phillip Hunt whose pass rushing on just 105 snaps resulted in 18 QB disruptions. Let the Wake comparisons continue.

 

Defensive Tackle/ 3-4 Defensive Ends

There are a host of players who have gone onto be productive here and it’s probably best to start with Cullen Jenkins. A pass-rushing terror with Green Bay, he carried that form over to a destructive first year with the Eagles where he scored a +15.3 grade. The Raiders Tommy Kelly has always graded positively with his pass rushing, in much the same way the Jets Mike DeVito has always graded positively with his run defense. 2011 may not have been the year Stephen Bowen expected after signing a big money deal, but you can’t deny his talent after being a situational star in Dallas before breaking out in 2010. You’re able to find some big run stuffers as well, if you look at the excellent career of Pat Williams and how Ma’ake Kemoeatu played before tearing his Achilles tendon. The Patriots could have found something similar in Kyle Love, and the Eagles have a guy who can make plays in the shape of Antonio Dixon. There have also been a few guys to come along that can offer pass rush in teams subpackage defense. I’m talking about players like Wallace Gilberry and Mike Wright.

 

Linebackers

Teams are often loathe to spend high picks on linebackers, because you can get guys to contribute from all over. In terms of undrafted free agents, Bart Scott stands out by a country mile, being arguably the most aggressive linebacker in the league. His ability to take on blockers and redirect runners should get him more credit than it does. The Saints have invested draft picks at the linebacker spot, but the best move they made will likely be signing David Hawthorne. The every-down linebacker has been a star since replacing an injured Lofa Tatupu in 2009, earning a +45.8 grade over that time. You get the feeling we’ve yet to see the best of Erin Henderson who only has one season’s worth of significant action (as a two-down player) under his belt. He doesn’t get much press, but Jameel McClain has outperformed draft picks to become a good partner on early downs for Ray Lewis. It’s incredible to think that London Fletcher has had the career he’s had after going undrafted, but he has.

 

Cornerbacks

When you think about the Packers’ secondary you can’t help but turn your attention to Charles Woodson. Well, the best cornerback on that team is actually Tramon Williams who has turned into one of the league’s best. Another player who has done that is Brent Grimes, who was given the franchise tag after allowing fewer Yards per Route he was in coverage than any other cornerback. He may be brittle but Jabari Greer has done well in Buffalo and New Orleans when he’s been on the field. Outside of a horror year in Detroit, Leigh Bodden has been an extremely productive cornerback throughout his career. He teamed up with Kyle Arrington at times, another player who has held up to life in the NFL after doing undrafted. 2011 was the year where Brandon Browner changed some perceptions to cornerbacks, giving up too many penalties (15) but also breaking up the third-highest number of passes in the league (15). Another undrafted player is Chris Carr who is a better corner than people are prepared to admit.

 

Safeties

He was quite poor in his first year as a Ram, but in his final three years with the Eagles, Quintin Mikell was arguably the most consistent safety in the league. Former wide receiver George Wilson broke out with a fantastic 2009, and was then rewarded by being benched for most of 2010. He hasn’t replicated his form from three years ago, but he’s been a productive starter in Buffalo. It’s easy to forget Ryan Clark among all the talented defenders on the Steelers’ defense, but he’s about as reliable as it comes. Jim Leonhard has battled back from injuries, but before them was a productive player. You could do a lot worse at safety than Atari Bigby.

 

Special Teams

You want kick returners, how about Joshua Cribbs, Stefan Logan or Eric Weems? You want a kicker, then you can grab David Akers, Adam Vinateri or Rob Bironas. You want punters then say hello to Britton Colquitt, Mat McBriar or Steve Weatherford. My point? You can find special teamers in the UDFA market and don’t need to spend a pick on them.

 

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