And every year, almost unbeknownst to most of us, there's a new wave of Wes Welkers, James Harrisons, and Willie Parkers entering the league so below the radar screen they're virtually undetectable. We know them now, of course. Now that Welker is one of the most unstoppable weapons in the game as New England's slot receiver, Harrison is the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and Parker a Super Bowl hero of the recent past.
But we didn't know them then, because they all -- and many more like them -- made their names in the NFL without the benefit of being drafted. In some cases, they didn't even get invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, which this year featured well over 300 prospects displaying their "draftability'' before almost every personnel decision-maker in the league.
The list of those who made it in the NFL the hard way is an impressive one, and it's filled with undrafted players who were cut multiple times, or forced to hang around on the fringes of the game until their opportunity came, and they seized it. (Here's a list of some of the best undrafted free agents since 1994.)
"It's the mystery of our business: why first-round picks are sometimes busts, and why seventh-rounders and free agents go to Honolulu,'' said Chargers general manager A.J. Smith, the man responsible for signing Gates as a collegiate free agent for San Diego in 2003 and Welker in 2004. "But it happens every year, and it'll happen again this year. There are guys who will go on to have great careers in the NFL after their name didn't come off that board draft weekend. And then you'll be writing about first-day picks who [are] busts. We don't know why it happens, but we know it will happen.''
All undrafted free agents have some significant hurdles to overcome, including non-typical NFL size, a lack of big-time college experience, ill-timed injuries or not having a natural position.
"A lot of times a guy can just get caught up in the wash, even in his own school,'' Smith said. "There's always a story to be told about every guy. ... You have to cling to the intangibles, because all of these guys have got something going for them. Sometimes we take a chance with a guy who's got a work ethic and some toughness to him."
Predicting who won't get drafted is almost as foolhardy as trying to predict the exact order of the first round. But the reality that some very good players will slip through the cracks every year is the inspiration for our inaugural Welker Watch List -- a modest compilation of 10 prospects who weren't invited to the combine, but who we still project to make the NFL some day, and maybe even star in it.
1. Brigham Harwell, DT, UCLA -- At 6-0, 295 pounds, Harwell isn't as tall as the NFL likes a defensive tackle to be. But he's a three-year starter at a major college program and fared well in the Pac 10 against the likes of current or future NFL linemen such as Carolina's Ryan Kalil (ex-USC center), Cal's Alex Mack and Oregon's Max Unger.
2. Vince Anderson, CB, Webber International University -- Playing at an obscure NAIA school like Webber International in Central Florida makes it tough enough to get noticed, but Anderson has reportedly drawn some interest this spring from teams such as the Patriots, Giants and Chiefs, meaning some of the better personnel men in the league are on to him. Anderson is a 6-2, 205-pound cornerback who is a past high school high jump champion.
3. Julian Edelman, QB, Kent State -- Besides quarterbacking for KSU, the versatile Edelman returned punts and played safety on the punt team. He's a likely receiver, or return specialist/Wildcat formation quarterback in the NFL, where he will be used wherever he can employ his 4.46 speed and great short-burst quickness (a'la Welker). The former California Juco transfer has been busy with private workouts and team visits this spring, a sure indication he's a priority free agent target.
4. Russell Allen, LB, San Diego State -- Don't be surprised if the hometown Chargers jump on Allen as a priority free agent, because San Diego worked him out privately last week, and his combination of 4.62 speed, 33.5-inch vertical jump and 9'-10'' broad jump are intriguing. Chicago gave Allen a private workout as well, and his long-snapping skills could prove to be the difference if he chooses wisely when it comes to finding the best available roster opportunity.
5. Carson Butler, TE, Michigan -- Only 21, the Wolverines junior opted for the draft in part because his role in Michigan's offense disappeared when head coach Rich Rodriguez brought the spread offense to Ann Arbor. Butler is a bit of a project for a team that can afford to take its time with him, but he's 6-5, 257 pounds, with an arm-span of more than seven feet. His 4.6 speed should also prove tempting, because it's faster than your typical NFL tight end.
6. Greg Toler, CB, St. Paul's College -- After a superb pro day, Toler is being touted as this year's version of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, a small-school talent at cornerback who is rising up everyone's draft boards. St. Paul's, a Division II school in rural Virgnia, has never had a player taken in the NFL Draft, but Toler could be its first. He's 5-11, 191, but ran a 4.45 time in the 40, with a 33-½ inch vertical jump and a 9'8'' broad jump. Six NFL teams have worked him out privately, including the Patriots, Ravens, Jets and Browns.
7. David Nixon, LB, BYU -- The ex-Cougar was the Mountain West Conference's all-time leading tackler, and in his 6-3, 233-pound build, NFL talent scouts see the potential for him to fill out quickly and man an outside linebacker position. Nixon gets high marks for his intelligence and ability to master a difficult defense at BYU. He also got great experience in pass coverage, which is rare for college linebackers entering the NFL. A former Mormon missionary and Eagle Scout, he's more mature than most collegiate prospects, and turned heads at his pro day with a 40 time in the low 4.6's.
8. Maurice Covington, WR, Virginia -- Covington missed four games of his senior season with a broken left hand, and that's the kind of setback that can cause a prospect to fall off the radar screen in the three-month, pre-draft buildup. But after not being invited to the combine, Covington made up for it at the Cavaliers' pro day, posting a 40-inch vertical jump that drew applause from the other UV players in attendance. Covington is drawing interest from teams that covet a big receiver, like the Plaxico-less Giants.
9. Pat Cowan, QB, UCLA -- It was ages ago, but Cowan was the quarterback for the Bruins when they upset the cross-town USC Trojans in 2006, and though he has been beset with injuries the past two seasons, scouts are still intrigued with his 6-4, 235-pound body. He's healthy again after having ACL surgery last summer, and his Bruins offensive coordinator, Norm Chow, has talked up his football instincts and intelligence to NFL teams this spring. A crisp pro day showing helped Cowan considerably, and the Bengals are reportedly among the teams who are interested.
10. E.J. Biggers, CB, Western Michigan -- Biggers thrust himself into draft consideration by running a blazing 40 in the high 4.3's at the Western Michigan pro day. He's only 5-11, 180 pounds, but his 36-inch vertical jump shows he's capable of covering bigger receivers. Both the Bucs and Texans reportedly had Biggers in for a visit after his eye-catching pro day showing.