In this age of non-stop, way-past-saturation coverage of the draft, the notion of unearthing a handful of true "sleeper'' picks during the scouting process seems as quaint as the novelty of a running game-led NFL offense. There really aren't any unknown prospects any more. But the reality that some quality players will last far longer than they should on draft weekend -- or even go undrafted -- remains an annual part of the proceedings.
By now, we have an almost paternal instinct when it comes to the Wes Welker Watch List, in this, our sixth year of trying to scope out 10 lesser-known prospects who have a shot to make their mark in the league even if they don't get selected, or wind up coming off the board in the latter rounds.
Last year's 10-man list had its highlights, with six prospects drafted (one in the fourth round, one in the fifth, one in the sixth and three in the seventh), and nine of the 10 players still on an NFL roster in 2014. But the clear-cut pacesetter, in true Welker-like fashion, was undrafted Chargers rookie safety Jahleel Addae, who made the San Diego roster and wound up playing in all 16 games, with two starts and very solid work in the Bolts' nickel and dime packages.
Welker, the inspiration for our list, signed with San Diego as an unheralded and undrafted collegiate free agent out of Texas Tech in 2004, after not even earning an invite to the 300-plus-player NFL Scouting Combine. But the Chargers didn't even know what they had stumbled upon, because 10 years later he's still one of the league's most productive receivers, and currently torments San Diego on behalf of three-time defending AFC West champion Denver.
One notable WWWL alumnus has been in the headlines this offseason as well: New England's Julian Edelman, a member of our inaugural 2009 class and kind of the original Welker clone as a fast, elusive and tenacious slot receiver who broke into the league as a lowly seventh-round pick (232nd overall). After his breakthrough 105-catch season of 2013, Edelman re-signed with the Patriots, and is somehow already working on his third contract of his six-year NFL career. Fittingly, he almost perfectly replaced the production New England lost when Welker signed with Denver last offseason.
Here are 10 more long-shot candidates to make it in the NFL the hard way, players hoping to navigate the difficult path from unsung to successful despite a lack of elite draft-season pedigree:
• Tyler Starr, OLB, South Dakota -- Well, first off, you've got to love the name. Green Bay should spend a third-day pick on him for that alone. But the product of small-town Iowa is an NFL-caliber athlete with intriguing size (6-foot-4, 250) and excellent open-field pursuit skills. He needs to get stronger in his lower body and refine his technique to get on the field in the NFL as an edge pass rusher, but he makes a ton of plays based on his superior instincts and athleticism. Some team will likely view him as a prospect well worth a year or two of development.
Starr's long limbs and ability to run with tight ends in coverage gives him more than special teams value in the NFL, and he showed he's not just an FCS star who dominated weaker competition when he excelled at the East-West Shrine this winter. Starr, a former high school basketball standout, is a fluid and natural athlete, the kind defensive coordinators are on the lookout for these days in the passing-crazed NFL.
• Mike Campanaro, WR, Wake Forest -- You don't even have to squint to see another Welker in the making when analyzing Campanaro's game. He's a little stronger and bigger than the Broncos' undersized slot receiver, but he's the same style of quick-twitch athlete who stands out due to his elusiveness, competitiveness and an ability to consistently exploit the seams in a defense as an inside receiver.
He turned heads at the NFL Scouting Combine with a 4.46 time in the 40-yard dash, adding an impressive 39-inch vertical leap and a 10-2 broad jump, but the overwhelming depth of the draft's receiving class could drop him to sixth- or seventh-round consideration, or perhaps even priority free-agent status. His great collegiate production and savvy style of play are strengths, but Campanaro must convince teams his small build can prove durable enough to withstand the pounding of the NFL. Otherwise he'll ultimately wind up drawing more comparisons to the oft-injured Danny Amendola, rather than Welker.
• Deandre Coleman, DT, California -- Projections have varied on how long Coleman will linger on the board, but the depth at defensive tackle this year could easily result in him lasting until the third day of the draft or even beyond. His long build -- 6-5, 315, with good arm length -- and versatility to play either tackle or five-technique end intrigues the NFL, and he has sufficient athletic ability to both penetrate the backfield and plug the running lanes.
Coleman didn't have the strongest of senior seasons for the Bears, and his pass-rush skills need refinement, but he proved durable at Cal, starting 37 games over the past three seasons. He plays physically and can wear down an opponent, and some have likened his game to the combination of run stuffing and pass pressure provided by Cleveland defensive lineman Desmond Bryant, the talented former Raider who went undrafted out of Harvard in 2009. Coleman is big and strong enough to be an asset against the run right away, and shows the potential to develop enough pass rush to stay on the field for all three downs.
• Larry Webster, TE, Bloomsburg (Pa.) University -- In the mold of a Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas, Jordan Cameron, Antonio Gates or Tony Gonzalez, Webster is yet another collegiate basketball player who looks destined to be a tight end in the NFL. A tremendous shot-blocker, the 6-6, 249-pound Webster played hoops all four seasons at Bloomsburg, had some eligibility left, and gave football a try in 2012. All he did in his two football seasons was amass 26 sacks and 31 tackles for loss at defensive end, seeing some action as a pass catcher in red-zone and goal-line situations. I'm pretty sure a team like the Ravens are on to him, because his father, Larry Webster Jr., was an 11-year NFL defensive lineman and member of Baltimore's 2000 Super Bowl champion squad. Webster might need a redshirt season in the NFL to build himself up a bit in the weight room, but his athleticism, speed (4.58), and impressive wingspan are tailor-made for the way the game is played in today's NFL.
• Chase Rettig, QB, Boston College -- Rettig didn't earn an invite to the league's scouting combine in Indianapolis in February and had to make due working out for the NFL at a regional combine in SoCal. But he's not without NFL-worthy credentials. He started 46 games for the Eagles the past four seasons, threw for more than 8,200 yards and 52 touchdowns, and his completion percentage and passer rating got higher every year. And he wasn't easily rattled either, given that he played for five offensive coordinators over that span, and starred for a Boston College team in 2013 that took a run-first approach with lead back Andre Williams being showcased in new head coach Steve Addazio's offense.
Rettig has more than sufficient NFL size at 6-2, 208, and some see a lot of Andy Dalton in him, even though his arm is stronger than that of the Bengals' starter. Rettig worked out this spring for the Patriots in Foxboro, and New England and Oakland are thought to be teams with some level of interest in him as a potential seventh-round pick or priority free agent.
• Joe Don Duncan, TE, Dixie State (Utah) -- A pass-catching machine named Joe Don demands attention, even if he did play in Division II for the obscure Dixie State. Health issues have dogged Duncan during his collegiate career, but he was medically cleared last month at an NFL re-check following foot surgery this winter, and is on the radar screen of a bunch of teams as a third-day pick.
Duncan is a prototypical H-back or slot tight end prospect who has shown quickness off the line and the ability to use his athleticism and 6-3, 267-pound frame to make for a great target. He dominated with 71 receptions for 1,045 yards and 13 scores in just 10 games last season, missing his team's finale due to a hamstring issue, after sitting out all of 2012 following lower leg surgery. He'll be a 25-year-old rookie in the NFL after having stints at Sacramento State and El Camino (Calif.) Community College, but given the premium teams place on tight ends who can move around and line up in multiple spots, Duncan will get a shot to prove he can elevate his game against much stiffer competition.
• IK Enemkpali, Louisiana Tech, DE -- This is how one NFL personnel executive described Enemkpali (his last name is pronounced "IN-em-PALL-ee," and his first name is Ikemefuna) to me: "He's an overachieving guy, just a madman with amazingly high motor. Just an animal on the field who's going to find his place and rush off the outside edge for you all game long.''
Of Nigerian descent, Enemkpali is thickly built at 6-0, 263, and plays with abandon and great competitiveness. What he lacks in size he makes up for in effort, but he'd be a short defensive end in the NFL and some teams project him at 3-4 outside linebacker or maybe fullback, where his love of collisions would come in handy. His tweener size will likely relegate him to either the seventh round or free-agent status, but some head coach is going to fall in love with his all-business approach to football and his ability to punish the ballcarrier.
• Jeff Janis, WR, Saginaw Valley State -- Big receivers who can run like Janis, who turned in a 40-yard dash time of 4.42 at the NFL Scouting Combine, don't come around too often, and some team will take a chance on his 6-3, 219-pound frame. Janis was a man among boys as a senior for Division II Saginaw Valley State, making 83 catches for 1,572 yards and 14 touchdowns, and he topped 3,200 yards, with 31 touchdowns in his last two collegiate seasons.
Though he had a good week of practices at the Senior Bowl, earning praise from Atlanta head coach Mike Smith, who coached the North squad, Janis didn't quite separate himself in the game with just two receptions for eight yards. This week, NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock called Janis an "intriguing'' prospect who may last until the sixth round, earning either a special teams role or practice-squad berth as a rookie. He's seen as a player who could, in time, develop enough to warrant a club's third- or fourth-receiver role.
• Beau Allen, DT, Wisconsin -- Allen is a great fit for a team looking for someone to do a little dirty work in the trenches. He's big, strong, stout and you're not going to move the 6-2, 333-pound former-Badger easily. He somehow got bypassed when the combine invitations were sent out, but he turned in a strong pro day performance at Wisconsin in early March with a 33-inch vertical jump and 30 reps on the bench press. Allen played the nose tackle slot in the Badgers' new 3-4 defense last year, but he had three seasons of defensive tackle experience in a 4-3 at UW before that, so his versatility is a key selling point to his game. He's going to be a pure first- and second-down run stuffer who can push the pocket but won't offer much pass rush, though his ability to hold his ground at the point of attack likely puts him in line to go in the seventh round or be a priority free-agent signee.
• Trashaun Nixon, OLB, New Mexico State -- Nixon is another prospect snubbed by the combine, but he has been noticed by teams that love highly mobile linebackers who can chase all game and keep delivering big hits at the same time. His skillset combines a linebacker's size (6-0, 233) with a safety's athleticism, and his blend of strength and quickness has reminded some of Seattle middle linebacker Bobby Wagner.
Nixon's grades coming out of high school forced him to go the JUCO route, but when he arrived at New Mexico State he proved to be an adept tackler and consistent playmaker, totaling 189 stops, five sacks and 23 tackles for loss in just two seasons. Nixon most likely projects to an outside linebacker role in the NFL, but he might be able to play the weak side as well in a 3-4. He ran in the 4.5's this spring, has taken a couple teams visits and will probably emerge as somebody's special teams dynamo while he provides depth at linebacker.