Insider Blog: Overlooked, Underappreciated and Non-Graded

Posted May 6, 2010

Don’t sleep on the NFL’s crop of undrafted players

Everyone seems to obsess over judging a draft class.

Those who cover football for a living (and those who follow it with a deep passion) all want to place their own grade on a respective draft class; pass/fails, A’s to F’s and top-five lists are all levied out. It’s both fun and fine.

Snap judgments of draft classes provide great off-season conversation topics, guide expectations and are a fantastic measure of public sentiment regarding a specific franchise. NFL coaches and general managers, on the other hand, aren’t fond of the immediate report cards (actually, they probably don’t even pay much attention to the grades).

“It’s too early to tell…you have to wait two or three years to give a fair evaluation,” an NFL coach or front office executive will often say.

Rarely are draft grades similar across the board for a specific team. Grades for the Chiefs in ranged from A+ to C- in 2010. The draft process as a whole is an inexact science and never in any of those grades are the undrafted prospects taken into account.

Overlooked, underappreciated and ungraded – these are rookie free agents and they have a long history of being some of the most important parts of each team’s 53-man puzzle.

Think of it this way. Nearly every team is going to bring in more undrafted free agents each off-season than they are drafted players. Kansas City’s roster currently consists of 42 such players, which represents 53.8% of the players under contract to play for the Chiefs right now. Specific to 2010, the Chiefs currently have 11 undrafted rookies signed and chose seven players through the draft.

While draft classes are subject to grades, many of the sixth and seventh round picks are beaten out by the non-graded, undrafted class of players. The rookie free agents who make the team are often the guys who are asked to perform on special teams and offensive/defensive sub-packages (see Jovan Belcher for KC in 2009).

The cycle of undrafted players churns on and makes up a vital portion of the roster, particularly from a depth standpoint, yet the class rarely gets an overall review. Why? Too much work? Not enough interest? Is it because of the difficulty in tracking, since many of the undrafted players jump-start their careers in their second or third NFL city?

Sure, for every Tony Romo, Wes Welker, Priest Holmes, Kurt Warner and Antonio Gates (all undrafted) there are five times as many Kevin McRae’s, Johnny Dingle’s, Titus Ryan’s, Jeff Terrell’s and Robert Docherty’s (open up those Kansas City media guides to find these training camp blasts from the past). But undrafted players don’t have to be those rare Pro Bowl finds to make a stronger impact than many of the draft choices; they just need to be consistent performers that fill out a roster.

In Kansas City alone, an undrafted player (Wallace Gilberry) led all defensive linemen with 4.5 sacks a year ago. There’s also great possibility that all three starters on the interior offensive line this season will have started their NFL careers as undrafted players (Brian Waters, Rudy Niswanger, Casey Wiegmann, Ryan Lilja). Kansas City also leaned heavily on undraftees Mike Cox, Jovan Belcher, Maurice Leggett and Corey Mays in 2009.

Across the league, the impact of undrafted players weren’t hidden when it came to individual statistical leaders for 2009 either.

  • Atlanta’s interception leader a year ago went undrafted (Brent Grimes)
  • Buffalo’s leading rushing in 2009 was undrafted (Fred Jackson)
  • Carolina’s long-time starter at quarterback entered the league undrafted (Jake Delhomme) – Now with Cleveland
  • Cleveland’s leading tackler in 2009 went undrafted (Abram Elam)
  • Dallas starting quarterback Tony Romo was undrafted out of Eastern Illinois
  • Green Bay’s leading rusher in 2009 (Ryan Grant) was undrafted
  • In Miami, the top two receivers from 2009 were undrafted (Deveone Bess and Greg Camarillo)
  • New England’s leading receiver in 2009 was Wes Welker, who went undrafted
  • New Orleans’ top rusher from 2009 was never drafted (Pierre Thomas)
  • Philadelphia’s leading tackled in 2009 went undrafted (Quintin Mikell)
  • San Diego’s best receiver in 2009 wasn’t drafted (Antonio Gates) and so was their leading tackler (Stephen Cooper)
  • Seattle’s top tackler and interceptor from 2009 entered the league as a rookie free agent (David Hawthorne)
  • St. Louis’ interceptions leader in 2009 was undrafted (James Butler)
  • Washington’s leading tackler from 2009 wasn’t selected (London Fletcher)

That list doesn’t even include offensive linemen, which seems to be the position group carries the bell when it comes to undrafted starters.

Overlooked…Underappreciated…Non-Graded. Don’t sleep on the NFL’s crop of undrafted players.

Want to fairly grade a draft class? How about extending the draft back to 12 or 17 rounds? That’s likely never to happen, but it’s the players who would have been drafted in rounds eight through 17 that now make up undrafted rookie classes.

Who’s your pick from this year’s crop to make an impact?

DL Garrett Brown (Minnesota)

LB Justin Cole (San Jose State)

TE T.C. Drake (Kentucky)

OL Tyler Eastman (Maine)

WR Rich Gunnell (Boston College)

WR Jeremy Horne (Massachusetts)

LB Michael Johnson (North Alabama)

RB Tervaris Johnson (Miami – FL)

OL Nick Landry (Tulane)

OL Lemuel Jeanpierre (South Carolina)

OL Andrew Lewis (Oklahoma State)

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