The cause of the undrafted player in the NFL got another couple poster-child candidates last season when rookie running backs LeGarrette Blount and Chris Ivory wound up leading their teams in rushing despite never hearing their names called from the podium in New York City.
But it happens every year that way in the NFL in some form or fashion, which is why we're back at it again this spring, rolling out our third annual Wes Welker Watch List -- a compilation of 10 off-the-radar NFL prospects who have a shot to make the league even if they are taken in the late rounds or the draft passes them by altogether.
From highlighting future Patriot Julian Edelman in 2009 to undrafted Bills receiver David Nelson last year, our Welker Watch List has had a decent success rate in its first two years. Of last year's 10 players, six are still on NFL rosters as they enter their second seasons, and six were ultimately selected in the draft's latter rounds (although not the exact same six players).
Of the players we wrote about in 2010, Nelson (31 catches for 353 yards and three touchdowns), quarterback Levi Brown and linebacker Danny Batten all wound up as members of the Buffalo Bills. Baltimore drafted promising offensive tackle Ramon Harewood, Cincinnati took guard Reggie Stephens, and Seattle selected tight end Jameson Konz.
In most cases, the players we're targeting weren't invited to the NFL Scouting Combine in February and will wind up entering the league with little or no fanfare. But that doesn't mean we won't be reading about their exploits and accomplishments in the fall. Wes Welker himself went undrafted, and so too did stars like Kurt Warner, Antonio Gates and James Harrison. All of them eventually made us notice them, and there will be more such stories of the unsung to come.
Walls somehow didn't rate an invitation to the scouting combine in February, but he proved that you don't have to make it to Indianapolis to put on an eye-opening show for NFL scouts. At the Notre Dame pro day earlier this month, Walls recorded a 4.39 in the 40-yard dash, and flashed even more speed with a 6.88 three-cone drill that measures up to nearly everyone who was at the combine. He's a 6-foot, 183-pound corner who excels with a physical brand of press coverage, and he doesn't mind throwing a shoulder into his team's run defense either. A three-year starter for the Fighting Irish, Walls had his career sidetracked a bit by not enrolling for his expected junior season of 2008, but he's now seen as a solid fifth- to seventh-round prospect who may be ready to handle a nickelback role as early as his rookie season.
Besides having perhaps the most distinctive name of any draft prospect, Oordt has impressive size (6-6, 262 pounds) and speed (4.63), with reliable hands and the ability to exploit the downfield seams in a defense. It's not easy to attract pro scouts to Cedar Falls (just ask UNI alum Kurt Warner), but they know about Oordt, who has been described as a slightly faster version of Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis. Oordt earned an invite to the scouting combine and put up some impressive numbers in Indy, giving himself a chance to be selected in the sixth or seventh round. He needs to get stronger and develop his blocking skills, but some team will give him a shot based on his ability to separate from coverage and stretch the field vertically.
One surefire way to drop off the NFL's radar screen in terms of the draft? Just miss your entire senior season with a broken leg suffered in mid-August, as Smith had the misfortune of doing. But Smith started 26 games at left tackle as a sophomore and junior, and a surprisingly strong showing in the East-West Shrine Game jump-started his draft prospects. Though he didn't make the combine, he ran an impressive 5.09 in the 40 at the Cornhuskers pro day. At 6-5½ and 290 pounds, he has the frame NFL scouts seek at tackle. Smith also has experience playing guard and center, and his blend of versatility and athleticism could prompt a team to invest a late-round pick on him.
Having learned the game playing club-level football in his native Germany, Berning would add a touch of international flavor to the NFL if he can make a club as either a late-round pick or priority free agent. He started 35 of 53 games for the Chippewas and is known for his ability to pursue and tackle from sideline to sideline. Though he didn't get the attention of fellow CMU linebacker Nick Bellore, a combine invitee, Berning might be the better prospect as a three-down outside linebacker in the NFL. At 6-0, 238 pounds, Berning ran a 4.71 40 at Central Michigan's pro day and he intrigues scouts with how much his game has improved over the course of the past two seasons. Berning is also getting looks from NFL teams at fullback, which might only add to his draft value.
The ex-Bronco earned a trip to the combine and then made the most of it, impressing scouts with quickness in the change of direction skills (6.66 in the three-cone), and his potential to play the tough role of sticking with a slot receiver in coverage. Thompson isn't big (5-9½, 189 pounds), but he posted a solid 4.47 time in the 40 at Boise State's pro day and he displayed a knack for making the big play throughout his years in college -- including being named the player of the game in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl for his two-interception, one-touchdown performance against TCU's Andy Dalton. Some scouts think Thompson could climb as high as the fourth round, but being a bit undersized could ultimately push him into the fifth.
Offensive tackle is one of the deepest positions in this year's draft, but Stingily has still managed to stand out despite not getting asked to attend any of the key All-Star games or the combine. At the Louisville pro day, the junior college transfer piqued the interest of NFL scouts by measuring 6-5, 313 pounds, with 25 bench press reps, a broad jump of 9-2, and a very respectable 4.98 in the 40. Stingily's footwork and athleticism make him a potential NFL starter at left tackle some day, but his upper body and hands need a couple years of work and development before he'll be ready to challenge for a spot in the lineup. Personnel men are on to him, however, and reportedly he has been busy this spring, visiting anywhere from five to nine NFL clubs. He's a third-day draft selection, but somewhere in the fourth or fifth round isn't out of the question for the Cardinals senior.
You don't hear of many NFL prospects who were backups for three years in college and made their first start as a senior, but that is Carter's unlikely story. Carter registered 3½ sacks in 2011 and led UCLA defensive linemen in tackles with 41. But it was Carter's impressive week at the East-West Shrine Game that got him noticed by the NFL, and even though he was a combine snub, he followed up with strong numbers at the UCLA pro day (4.98 in the 40, 25 reps in the bench press, and a 28.5 vertical jump). The 6-5, 293-pound Carter has good upfield burst and is stout against the run, and judging by the several visits he has taken to NFL teams in recent weeks, he's thought to be a solid candidate to be selected in the sixth round.
Hill has been almost entirely overlooked this offseason, somehow failing to generate invitations to the East-West game, the Senior Bowl or the combine, despite having played well in 2010 opposite potential first-round pick Brandon Harris. Hill replaced DeMarcus Van Dyke in the lineup last season, starting 11 of 13 games, but it was the speedster Van Dyke who got the nod for both the Senior Bowl and the combine. A former receiver with the Hurricanes, Hill switched to defense in 2008 and lost his 2009 season to a shoulder injury. He has very limited experience at cornerback, but solid NFL size at 5-11, 202 pounds, with enough speed (mid-4.5s) and range to entice a team into giving him time to develop his technique and coverage skills.
Somebody's going to find a roster spot for this undersized (6-2, 260 pounds) defensive end who can rush the passer all game, every game. NFL teams will stand him up over tackle as a situational rush linebacker, a role the small-school senior playmaker will be well-suited for after breaking the NCAA's Division II career sack record last season with 46, and finishing fourth all-time with 70½ tackles for loss. Schiechl reminds some of Chiefs linebacker Andy Studebaker, a sixth-round pick of the Eagles in 2008. Studebaker, a product of Wheaton (Ill.) College, has carved out a decent three-year NFL career for himself after transitioning from a similar play-making role as an undersized defensive end in college.
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