With training camps nearing, optimism around the league is at a season-high as player acquisitions and departures are analyzed and predictions are made. Everyone wants to see how the big-time free agent signings pan out, or if the top draft picks will crack the starting lineup and make their presence felt immediately.
While it is easy to get excited about those additions, players of significant import occasionally come from the unlikeliest of places. I’m talking about undrafted free agents. With training camp rosters expanded to 90 players, there is ample room for many UDFAs to vie for roster spots. With a baseline rookie year salary of $435,000, these players have the chance to provide an enormous return on investment compared to the first-round picks, who carry a minimum cap hit of $1.3 million, and all the way up to $4.5 million and beyond for top selections.
Here are five of the most significant UDFAs who played all or most of their careers in the Pro Football Focus Era (2007+). They demonstrate that when a team really hits on an UDFA, it can change the face of a franchise for a decade or more.
Harrison was an UDFA out of Kent State signed by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2002. He became a starter in 2007 and immediately began piling up All-Pro statistics as an outside linebacker. He quickly became known for bone-jarring hits and spearheaded a Steelers’ defense that ranked in the top five in the NFL for total defense (Yards Per Game) every year from 2007-2012.
What really separated Harrison from the pack was his fearsome pass-rushing ability. From 2007-2012, he racked up 60 sacks and averaged a fourth-place overall ranking among 3-4 outside linebackers in that span. Harrison also ranked in the top four of PFF’s Pass Rushing Productivity Signature Stat four times and was top three in PFF’s Run Stop Percentage six times. He’s won the AP NFL Defense Player of the Year Award and holds two Super Bowl rings.
After a season for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2013, Harrison returned to the Steelers in 2014. In both of those seasons he proved that he was far from done and could still play at a high level then signed a two-year extension with Pittsburgh in 2015. He has had a truly remarkable career for any player, let alone an UDFA.
A star power forward for the Kent State Golden Flash basketball team, Gates led them to the Elite Eight in the 2002 season. The most remarkable part of Gates’ collegiate career was he never played a single snap as a football player. His plus athleticism intrigued NFL teams, leading to him being signed by the San Diego Chargers in 2003 as an UDFA.
Gates pioneered the NFL’s look to basketball for talented athletes that can be used on the field as matchup problems, paving the way for future converted basketball players like Jimmy Graham and Julius Thomas. With an average receiving grade ranking of third among tight ends from 2007-2010, Gates ranked among the top three in PFF’s Yards Per Route Run statistic three times and in the top four in PFF’s Tight End Deep Passing statistic three times. Gates was a major part of a Chargers’ offense that ranked in the top 10 in the NFL for total offense (Yards Per Game) four times from 2008-2014 and top 10 in the NFL for passing offense (Yards Per Game) six times from 2008-2014.
His career appeared to be on the downslope until he exploded for 69 receptions, 829 yards and a whopping 12 TDs in 2014, becoming only the fourth player in league history to register a 12 receiving TD campaign at age 34. What Gates has lost in athleticism, he has replaced with an admirable veteran savvy and ability to generate separation with a variety of subtle moves in his routes. Considering Gates’ football experience began in the pros, his career, both in terms of its longevity and success, has been truly remarkable.
Signed by the San Diego Chargers as a UDFA out of Texas Tech in 2004, Welker lasted one game before being released and picked up by the Miami Dolphins. He played in Miami from 2004-2006 and was a standout on special teams, with moderate success as a wide receiver. One of his highlight games of the 2006 season came in Week 5 against the Patriots in the form of a nine-catch, 77-yard performance. That showing was reportedly the driving force behind New England’s pursuit of him in the following offseason.
Welker’s offensive career was jumpstarted upon being traded to the New England Patriots in 2007 for second- and seventh-round draft picks. He was an integral part of a Patriots’ offense that ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in total offense (Yards Per Game) every year from 2007-2012, and was top five in the NFL in passing offense (Yards Per Game) four times from 2007-2012. With an average ranking of 19th among wide receivers from 2007-2012, Welker ranked top 15 in PFF’s Yards Per Route Run six times, top 10 in PFF’s WR Rating six times and top 5 in PFF’s Slot Performance six times. He holds multiple NFL records including most seasons with 100+ receptions (five), most games with 13+ receptions (five), most consecutive seasons with 100 receptions (three) and the most receptions (890) of any UDFA in NFL history.
Standing just 5-foot-9, Welker was not the first small wide out in the NFL, but he was easily the most successful. It took his incredible production in New England to convince the league that smaller wide outs could become huge parts of an offense, paving the way for an armada of smaller, quicker slot receivers. All in all, quite the career for an UDFA.
Romo was an UDFA out of Eastern Illinois signed by the Dallas Cowboys in 2003. A third-stringer that year before securing primary backup duties in 2005, Romo replaced Drew Bledsoe in 2006 (at halftime against the New York Giants) and threw for 227 yards, 2 TDs and 3 INTs in the second half. The performance was enough to earn Romo another start. His play in the following game and for the remainder of the season was good enough to lock him in as the starter for the next eight years and counting.
Romo’s claim to fame was his improvisational ability, penchant for extending plays and willingness to endure big hits while delivering accurate passes. He directed a Cowboys’ offense that ranked in the top 10 in the NFL for total offense (Yards Per Game) six times from 2006-2014 and top 10 in passing offense (Yards Per Game) seven times from 2006-2014. With an average ranking of 12th among quarterbacks from 2007-2014, Romo ranked int he top 10 in PFF’s QB Rating five times, top 15 in PFF’s Accuracy Percentage five times and top 12 in PFF’s Under Pressure statistic five times.
As arguably the most successful UDFA QB since Kurt Warner, Romo has thrived in one of the most scrutinized NFL markets in the NFL while representing an ever dwindling list of starting quarterbacks not selected high in the draft.
Foster was an UDFA out of the University of Tennessee signed by the Houston Texans in 2009. He began 2009 on the practice squad, but by the end of the season had made the active roster and was even starting. On opening day in 2010, he rushed for a franchise-record 231 yards, securing his hold on the starting role. Foster’s success stems from a decisive, one-cut running style, perfectly meshing with Houston’s zone blocking scheme, and formidable skill as a receiver out of the backfield.
Foster was the anchor of a Texans’ offense that ranked top 11 in the NFL for total offense (Yards Per Game) four times from 2009-2014 and top 8 in rushing offense (Yards Per Game) four times from 2009-2014. With an average overall PFF grade ranking 18th among running backs from 2010-2014, Foster ranked in the top 10 in PFF’s Breakaway Percentage four times and is a two-time NFL rushing TDs leader and NFL leading rusher.
Despite battling recurring hamstring woes, Foster has proven to be one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL when on the field. He remains a highly effective running back and is poised to be an integral part of the Texans, both as an on-field contributor and leader, as they transition to a new quarterback and move on from franchise wide receiver and leader, Andre Johnson.
With hundreds of total UDFAs on 90-man rosters this summer, it can be hard to identify who has the best chance of latching on to the 53-man active roster. Here are some quick notes about five offensive and five defensive UDFAs identified by PFF that may have a chance of making a name for themselves in the NFL.
James Vaughters, LB, Stanford, Green Bay Packers – He was the top 3-4 outside linebacker in draft based on per-snap productivity. He finished 2014 with six sacks, 11 hits and 21 hurries on 196 pass rushing snaps and the second-highest Run Stop Percentage (12.4%) on 234 run defense snaps.
Zach Vigil, LB, Utah State, Miami Dolphins– He was the second-highest graded linebacker in the 2014 class, finishing the year with a top 10 Run Stop Percentage (12.9%) and the second-highest number of tackles resulting in defensive stops against the run (58).
Troy Hill, CB, Oregon, Cincinnati Bengals – He was the sixth-highest graded cornerback, allowing only 435 yards and a quarterback rating of 63.9 on passes thrown into his coverage. He also finished with the second-most pass breakups (11).
Garry Peters, CB, Clemson, Carolina Panthers – He finished 2014 as the highest-graded cornerback, allowing only 233 yards in coverage and 0.62 Yards Per Coverage snap.
Quayshawne Buckley, DT, Idaho, Tampa Bay Buccaneers – He graded positively as a pass rusher in every game played in 2014. He posted the highest Pass Rushing Productivity Rating (11.3) among defensive tackles by generating 34 pressures on a mere 232 pass rushing snaps. He also finished Top 10 in terms of Run Stop Percentage.
Greg Mancz, C, Toledo, Houston Texans – He finished 2014 as the highest-graded draft eligible center including an impressive performance against Missouri. His only red flag is multiple shoulder surgeries.
Titus Davis, WR, Central Michigan, San Diego Chargers – He finished 2014 as the ninth-highest-graded draft-eligible wide receiver despite tallying a mere 531 snaps.
Tyler Varga, RB, Yale, Indianapolis Colts – He turned heads at the Combine with his impressive physique. At 222 pounds, he has the size to be a contributor at the NFL and has stated willingness to shift to fullback if need be. His skillset includes impressive power, good change of direction and reliable hands out of the backfield.
Matt Rotheram, G, Pittsburgh, Green Bay Packers – He finished 2014 as the highest-graded run blocker in the nation and imposed his will weekly with his behemoth frame (6’ 5”, 326 pounds).
Connor Neighbors, FB, LSU, Tennessee Titans – He posted the second-highest run blocking grade of all draft-eligible fullbacks on only 327 snaps in 2014.
Bottom line, make sure to keep an eye on your team’s UDFAs this season. You never know where the next James Harrison or Antonio Gates is going to come from. Besides, when one of those guys contributes in the regular season and your buddies are all trying to figure out who mystery player X is, you can say “Oh yeah, he tore it up in college and training camp and has been poised for a breakout.” Because, as fans, we can always be proud of finding the diamonds in the rough before they shine.