The months-long build-up to the NFL draft from a fan/media perspective routinely features about 85% of the attention devoted to the ultimate composition of the first round, but there’s always a lot more to the story than that. And that’s where our annual Wes Welker Watch List comes in.
Every year in the NFL there are collegiate prospects who fight their way into the league despite never earning an invite to the 300-plus-player scouting combine or enticing a team to spend a pick on them in the seven-round draft. The spotlight finds plenty of the names near the top of everyone’s draft boards, but the guys at the bottom are still sometimes successful despite starting off as unsung.
With a Welker-like rise to prominence as the clear-cut inspiration for these long-shot prospects—Julian Edelman and Victor Cruz know what we’re talking about—here’s our seventh annual Welker Watch List, a compilation of 10 lesser-known players who have a chance to make a name for themselves in the league even if they go undrafted or get picked late on the third day of the proceedings. As Welker proved upon entering the league in 2004, missing the combine and going unselected doesn’t have to be the death knell for a productive pro career.
• DeAndre Carter, WR-KR, Sacramento State: Small of stature and coming from a small school isn’t the best combination to carry into the draft, but Carter has some big-time numbers on his résumé, like the 4.4 time he turned in on his 40-yard dash at his pro day and the FCS-leading 99 receptions for 1,321 yards and a school-record 17 touchdowns he posted in 2014. With 14 more touchdown catches as a junior in 2013, Carter was a red-zone machine late in his collegiate career and is reportedly on radar screens in NFL locales like Baltimore and San Francisco.
At 5'8 1/2", 192 pounds, Carter projects to play the slot, where he should be able to best utilize his superb short-area quickness, ability to separate and knack for finding space in one-on-one coverage—a skill set that has drawn comparisons to Cleveland slot man Andrew Hawkins. But early on, Carter’s niche will be special teams, and his ability to make a roster and compete for a No. 5 receiver job will depend on how much he can add to a team’s return game. A dynamic playmaker with a strong work ethic, Carter has an intriguing backstory as well: As a junior, he lost his 17-year-old brother, Kaylan, to cardiac arrest, with DeAndre promising his sibling that he would fulfill their dream of reaching the NFL.
• Cody Riggs, CB, Notre Dame: Riggs spent four years at Florida before transferring to Notre Dame as a fifth-year senior in 2014, and that kind of high-profile background has brought him valuable tutelage from three different defensive coordinators with NFL experience: Falcons head coach Dan Quinn and Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin at Florida, and former Falcons DC Brian VanGorder at Notre Dame. He’s a known quantity by enough people in the league to get a shot somewhere, and though small by NFL standards (5'9", 187 pounds) his best shot to stick will be as a team’s fourth or fifth cornerback who can contribute heavily on special teams.
Riggs had individual workouts this spring for cornerback-needy clubs like the Patriots and Dolphins, and whoever lands him will be getting a mature 23-year-old who started at Notre Dame last season, where he transferred in order to pursue a graduate degree in business management. (He’s scheduled to complete his course work this week, just before Thursday’s first round commences.) Riggs struggled with a foot injury in the second half of last season, and a hamstring issue limited him somewhat at his pro day, but he’s healthy now and most likely will be a priority target early on in the collegiate free agent signing frenzy.
• David Irving, DE, Iowa State: Character-issue red flags may well keep Irving from hearing his name called at any point on Saturday, but rest assured league scouts are intrigued by both his NFL-style body and his talent level. At 6'7 1/2", 273 pounds, with an absurd 87 3/4-inch wingspan—it is said he can tie his shoes while standing up—Irving has freakish athleticism for his size and worked out well for a pro-day-style event attended by seven teams this spring. But Irving’s NFL candidacy is greatly complicated by his dismissal from Iowa State in April 2014 for behavioral issues—he didn’t play anywhere last season—and he was suspended in 2013 after being charged with domestic assault against the mother of his child, although the charge was dropped two months later.
Some clubs will no doubt remove him from their draft board with that kind of history, but the incident that got him dismissed from the team last year wound up being a conviction of fourth-degree theft and criminal mischief, when he was pictured participating in a campus riot and late-night disturbance in Ames. On the field, Irving is raw and unpolished, but the former Cyclones defensive tackle has the speed and skill set to play defensive end in the NFL and add to a team’s edge pass-rush rotation. His frame could fill out some as pro, but he fits the profile of what many teams are looking for in quick-burst pass rushers, and the Giants, Bears, Patriots, Cowboys, Seahawks, Raiders and Chiefs were all in attendance when he worked out for pro scouts.
• Andy Phillips, G/C, Central Michigan: A four-year mainstay and two-time team captain for the Chippewas, Phillips started the final 43 games of his collegiate career, 38 of those at guard. But he has the versatility to handle the center position in the NFL as well, and Central Michigan’s recent reputation for turning out NFL-ready offensive linemen (Eric Fisher and Joe Staley) will likely earn him long looks and perhaps priority free agent status from teams seeking upgrades to their interior line.
Phillips doesn’t have prototypical NFL height at 6'2", but at 305 pounds he posted a stellar 4.98 time in his 40, which would have topped all the guards invited to the scouting combine. His athleticism, durability and ability to play three of the five positions on the offensive line are his calling cards, and he’ll get the chance to make his case in some team’s training camp this summer.
• Kaleb Eulls, DT, Mississippi State: Eulls doesn’t possess elite skills in any one particular facet of his game, but he’s a proven commodity, having started all 52 games of his career in the rugged SEC West. He’s a nice fit for teams looking for an aggressive backup 4-3 defensive tackle or a five-technique defensive end in the 3-4. Much better as a run stuffer at the point of attack than he is as a pass rusher who can penetrate the backfield, Eulls plays with power and decent agility at 6'4", 295 pounds. His long arms (33 1/2 inches) and solid base allow him to effectively shed blockers, and his feet are nimble enough to hold up in run pursuit.
Eulls did take part in the Senior Bowl, and he gets high marks from NFL teams for being a well-polished, pro-ready prospect who graduated with a degree in interdisciplinary studies last December and should be able to contribute early on in his career. His claim to fame off the field is impressive as well: As an 18-year-old high school senior in 2009, he earned national attention for the heroic act of separating a troubled 14-year-old girl from the handgun she was brandishing on a school bus ride in Mississippi. All 22 students and the bus driver came through the ordeal safely thanks to Eulls’s quick reaction.
• Nick Perry, S, Alabama: Perry rarely had the spotlight on him in the Alabama secondary in recent years, with NFL-bound talents like Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick, Dee Milliner, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Landon Collins surrounding him. But he started to earn himself some recognition as a prospect with a strong showing at the Crimson Tide’s pro day this spring, running a 4.6 40-yard dash and posting a vertical leap of 33 inches. A 6'1", 211 pounds, Perry has versatility to offer as well, with experience at free safety, nickel back and in a hybrid linebacker role, and that adaptability might be the reason why teams like the Patriots and Colts scheduled private workouts with him in recent weeks.
Perry will have to prove he possesses the speed and coverage skills to match up with NFL-level receivers, but his experience in a winning program like Alabama’s will carry weight with some teams, and he gets high marks from league scouts for his leadership, competitiveness, grasp of defensive signal-calling and love of contact. He’ll likely have to earn a roster spot based on his special teams contributions, but whether he goes in the seventh round or during the free agent scrum that follows, Perry has proven to have resilience and relevancy in whatever depth chart situation he finds himself in.
• George Farmer, WR, USC: Farmer was the object of plenty of second-guessing when he declared for the draft as an underclassman in January. He had logged only one healthy season with the Trojans and wasn’t even able to crack the starting lineup at his position. Twenty-five of his 33 career catches, and all four of his scoring grabs, came last season for USC, but hey, Matt Cassel never once started as a Trojan, and he’s still cashing checks in the NFL. Then again, the receiver position is incredibly deep in this year’s draft once again, making Farmer’s path to the league all the steeper.
Farmer, the son of the former Rams/Dolphins receiver of the same name, was a freakishly gifted high school prospect in the Los Angeles area, and he ran a 4.31 40 as a 14-year-old phenom, appearing destined for stardom. But injuries severely curtailed his effectiveness at USC, and reportedly even the Trojans coaching staff advised him to stay in school this winter. League scouts, however, are still intrigued by his speed and upside, and when he ran a 4.35 at USC’s pro day, the 6'1", 209-pound Farmer gave himself a good chance to land on a training camp roster. Six NFL teams had him in for a private visit, including Dallas, Jacksonville, Houston, San Diego and San Francisco.
[daily_cut.nfl draft]• Deontay Greenberry, WR, Houston: The draft is about projection and being able to see around the corner at how a raw but unpolished player might look and perform once he develops. Teams don’t have a lot of time to waste on prospects that show painfully slow progress, but if there’s obvious talent there, chances will be taken on the gifted. Greenberry is going to get an opportunity to develop somewhere in the NFL, and he deserves it. At 6'3", 211 pounds and running a 4.52, he’s got a skill set that appeals to the league, but he needs plenty of improvement on his route-running and his concentration level, with his 11 drops being a glaring weakness last season.
Greenberry’s 2014 season represented something of a step back, even at 72 catches for 841 yards and six touchdowns. But Houston lacked for consistent quarterbacking as well, and Greenberry’s 2013 season of 82 catches for 1,202 yards and 11 touchdowns might be closer to what the NFL judges him on. Unlike so many rookie receivers from last year, he’s not going to contribute early, and the patience that will be required likely means he’s a late-third day pick or a priority free agent. But his size and knack for making the highlight-reel catch will prompt someone to invest in him, in the hope that his game can be refined with time.
• Katrae Ford, TE, Texas-El Paso: Blocking tight ends like Ford are never glamorous. But not everybody in the NFL is looking for the next Jimmy Graham. At least not at the expense of the dirty-work half of the job description. "The tight end for me, I’m old school," Arizona head coach Bruce Arians said at this year’s scouting combine in Indianapolis. "You’ve got to block first and catch passes. That’s why I loved [Steelers tight end] Heath Miller. I still think Heath Miller’s the best tight end in the National Football League, not because he catches 90 passes, [but] because he blocks big defensive ends and he catches about 60-70 passes. Tight ends for me block first, catch second."
Make no mistake, Ford is never going to be in Miller’s class as a receiver. He caught just six passes for 43 yards and his first career touchdown in 2014, and totaled just 12 receptions for 89 yards and that score in his three seasons at UTEP. But Ford is a 6'4", 255-pound road-grader of a blocker, who will do whatever is required in the running game, or add another layer of blocking protection in the passing game. UTEP head coach Sean Kugler, a former NFL offensive line coach with the Steelers, Bills and Lions, has tutored Ford and turned him into a battering ram as a blocker. It’s not a sexy role, but some NFL team might just find beauty in such a beast.
• Alonzo Harris, RB, Louisiana-Lafayette: As bigger running backs go, Harris is one of more interesting blank slates in this year’s draft pool. Once a top fullback recruit out of high school, he turned in four very solid seasons at Louisiana-Lafayette, gaining between 700 and 942 yards in each season and producing 45 touchdowns over that span. At 6'1", 235 pounds, he runs with a bruising, power-back style, and there’s some who could envision a poor man’s LeGarrette Blount with another 10 pounds of muscle added to his frame in the NFL. Bulk up a little bit more than that, and Harris might just craft himself a long pro career at the fullback position, which still has a few NFL proponents.
Harris didn’t develop much as a pass-catcher in college and wasn’t used much as a blocker, so those parts of his game will have to improve if he’s going to make a go of it in the NFL. But he exhibits good athleticism for his size, can consistently be counted on to gain extra yardage after contact and has a knack for hitting the hole quickly and being the north-south runner that coaches covet. He projects as an undrafted free agent who might be able to make a team as a short-yardage specialist.