It has been called the year of the no-name draft in the NFL, and is said to be devoid of true star power after 2012's high-profile, quarterback-rich proceedings. Maybe. But it's all relative.
Every year in the NFL there are prospects so off-the-radar they don't rate an invite to the league's 300-plus-player scouting combine or hear their name called at any point in the seven-round draft. And still, some of them make it to the NFL every season and make us sit up and take notice, just the way Arian Foster, Victor Cruz and Chris Ivory have done in recent years.
The plight of the undrafted player in the NFL is long and arduous, and the odds are never in his favor. But that challenge is met every year by a fortunate few, and the talents who might get overlooked are the impetus for our fifth annual Wes Welker Watch List, a compilation of 10 lesser-known prospects who have a shot to make it in the league even if they go undrafted or don't get selected until the later rounds. Like Welker himself, who didn't make the cut for a combine invitation or a draft slot back in 2004, some prospects will defy their collegiate labels and be productive pros.
Recent alumni on the WWWL include New England receiver-returner Julian Edelman, former Buffalo-turned-Cleveland receiver David Nelson and newly signed Colts cornerback Greg Toler, among others who still dot NFL rosters. Those stories of the unsung we now know. Here are 10 more we might soon learn:
Charles Johnson, WR, Grand Valley State
Johnson's recent pro-day 40 times of 4.38 and 4.39 vaulted him onto draft boards all over the league, and would have been good enough to earn him upper tier status at the combine if the league would have thought enough of his prospects to bring him to town. Johnson has good size (6-foot-2, 215) and his 39½-inch vertical jump and 11-foot-1 broad jump also caught the eye of NFL scouts at Grand Valley State's pro day.
Considered a solid third-day draft prospect, Johnson has an unusual resume that includes stints at Eastern Kentucky, Antelope Valley Community College in Calif., and a year away from football in 2009. But since 2010 he has been at Grand Valley State, where he hung up eye-popping statistics in 2012: 72 receptions for 1,199 yards and 16 touchdowns as a senior. Johnson is one of the draft's most gifted athletes, and his blend of size and speed has scouts intrigued.
Gilbert Pena, DT, Mississippi
Every prospect has traveled his own unique path to get here, and Pena's includes turning down scholarship offers out of high school to help out his mom, who had just been diagnosed with cancer. Because of it, Pena will be a 26-year-old NFL rookie in 2013, and some teams will naturally shy away from him due to his shorter career shelf life. Once Pena got back to football, he was a two-year standout at ASA Junior College in New York, then transferred to Ole Miss, where he had to overcome a broken hand as a junior in 2011.
Pena finally cracked the Rebels' starting lineup for the final six games of 2012, and his run-stuffing prowess gained him immediate notice, as Mississippi's run defense improved from last in the SEC in 2011 to sixth in 2012. At 6-2, 330 pounds, Pena is a space eater who's thick enough to hold the point of attack, while also adding some disruptive playmaking skills from the interior of the defensive line. He finished with 45 tackles, 7½ tackles for loss and two sacks for the Rebels last season, and at least two NFL teams were reportedly interested enough to work him out privately this spring.
Kyle Juszczyk, FB, Harvard
If that's not a fullback's name, I don't know what is. I'm just hoping whoever winds up with Juszczyk has a Monday Night Football game or two this season, so we get the pleasure of Jon Gruden mangling his surname. Juszczyk had a strong week at the Senior Bowl, showing the athleticism to handle the fullback role in a West Coast offense, as well as catching the ball well and executing all blocking assignments.
Juszczyk (6-1, 248) played plenty of tight end and H-back at Harvard, so he's more than versatile enough to fit into a team's passing game in the NFL. With the Crimson, he led the Ivy League in touchdown catches (eight) and was his team's top receiver with 52 receptions for 706 yards. If he's drafted, he'll be the first Harvard prospect selected since the Rams took quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2005's fifth round.
Mike Catapano, DE, Princeton
Catapano has emerged as a big favorite of NFL coaches and scouts who have worked him out this spring, because he plays with non-stop hustle and intensity and has all the work ethic and leadership intangibles you could ever want as a three-year starter and two-time captain at Princeton. The 6-3, 270-pound Catapano needs to get bigger and stronger to win battles with NFL offensive tackles, but he's a developmental 4-3 defensive end prospect who has great pursuit skills and solid pass-rushing technique.
Hard to believe, but Catapano would be the first Princeton product drafted by the NFL since 2001 if some team invests a third-day pick in him. Though he wasn't deemed combine-worthy, he did have a nice week at the East-West Shrine Game and would best fit with a team that would not need to initially ask much more than special teams play and perhaps rotational defensive line duty. His calling card is his effort level, and while not as athletically gifted as some pass rushers, he's a coach's dream with a game that shows bountiful potential for improvement.
Jeremy Harris, CB, New Mexico State
Taller cornerbacks are still very much in demand in the NFL, and at 6-2, 189 pounds, Harris has the kind of length the league craves. The former hurdler is more athlete than natural cover man at this point in his development, but he put himself in play in the draft with a couple of 40s in the 4.48 and 4.49 range at the New Mexico State pro day, and teams like the Seahawks, Chiefs and Colts had him in for visits in the past month, while the Bears and Raiders privately worked him out.
Though he might rate a priority free agent, Harris could sneak into the later rounds based on New Mexico State's recent track record at cornerback. The long-downtrodden Aggies have had drafted corners the past two years (Green Bay's Davon House and Detroit's Jonte Green), and current Jacksonville secondary coach DeWayne Walker once was Harris' head coach at New Mexico State. Harris earned first-team All-WAC honors last season, and showed a willingness to play physically, with 56 tackles and a team-best 10 passes defensed.
Jasper Collins, WR, Mount Union
NFL scouts know where Mount Union (Ohio) is and what it's all about when it comes to churning out receiving prospects. Thanks to NFL starters Pierre Garcon and Cecil Shorts, both of whom are recent Mount Union products, Collins was given a ready-made platform to impress. He didn't waste it, catching 232 passes for 3,527 yards and 37 touchdown passes in his 52-game-starting career, making him the school's second-leading all-time receiver behind only Shorts. In addition, Collins is a punt return threat, with three career touchdowns at Mount Union in that role.
At 5-10, 183 pounds, Collins has the skill set of a likely slot receiver in the NFL. Though not a blazer, he knows how to separate from defenders and can exploit the empty spaces in a secondary. If he joins a team that runs a lot of spread sets with plenty of short to intermediate routes in the middle of the field, he could prove a handy and reliable target. While his punt returning is a plus, his blocking and ability to beat press coverage off the line isn't NFL ready yet.
Jahleel Addae, S, Central Michigan
The 49ers">49ers and Raiders are among the teams reportedly having visited with Addae, and we can only surmise that plenty of clubs noticed him when they watched game tape of Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher, an expected top-five pick. Addae is a former running back who switched to the secondary after his freshman year at CMU, and in three years at safety he developed into one of the best defenders in the Mid-American Conference.
Though great speed is not part of his game, he closes well on the ball, packs a punch when he arrives at the ballcarrier, and is superb at the pre-snap recognition that is required at the position. Addae led the MAC with four interceptions in 2012, adding 89 tackles with two sacks and seven tackles for loss to earn second-team all-conference honors. He did take part in the East-West Shrine Game, and is considered a smart, instinctive player who makes up for his lack of great size (5-10, 195) by covering a lot of ground and having a disciplined and dependable approach to tackling. A couple more inches of height and Addae would be a candidate to go in the third round.
Alex Gillett, WR, Eastern Michigan
Gillett is going to require some foresight and patience from whatever team he might wind up with, because he represents a significant conversion project. The 6-1, 217-pound former Eastern Michigan quarterback started 30 games for the Eagles under center, only switching to receiver for the final month of the 2012 season. Gillett's best hope to catch on in the NFL is his variety of skills as a passer, receiver, holder on kicks, and even punt returner. That kind of combination brings gadget-play possibilities and conjures up former collegiate quarterbacks-turned-receivers like Antwaan Randle El, Hines Ward and Julian Edelman.
His ability to handle a special teams role will likely be his path into the NFL, but Gillett is an honors student who should be able to assimilate into any offense, and his combination of reliable hands, good explosion and impressive size makes him an unusual and intriguing prospect.
Ryan Jensen, OG-OT, Colorado State University-Pueblo
NFL teams were all over Jensen this spring, and he could even climb into the middle rounds of the draft based on his superb combination of size (6-3½, 317 pounds), athleticism (5.23 in the 40, 25½ inch vertical jump) and strength (30 reps in the bench press). The Cardinals, Bengals, Vikings, Ravens, Seahawks and Patriots were among the teams reportedly planning to work him out or visit with him before a pro-day session. Jensen didn't allow a sack in 2012, and while he played left tackle at CSU-P, he projects at guard or center in the NFL due to arms that come up a bit short by league standards.
Jensen didn't earn an invitation to the East-West Shrine Game, Senior Bowl or the scouting combine, but reps from all 32 teams made it to campus last fall and scouts from at least 11 teams watched Jensen in action last season. His game is known for its versatility, high-motor effort and toughness, and he has a great chance to become the first player from CSU-P drafted since then-Southern Colorado University running back Herman Heard went in 1984's third round to Kansas City.
Steven Means, OLB, University at Buffalo
Means put up a 40 time in the 4.6s at Buffalo's pro day, and that helped NFL scouts project him to make the switch from undersized collegiate defensive end to outside linebacker. At 6-3, 257, Means has good speed off the edge and finished his collegiate career with 18½ sacks, including 11 tackles for loss and 6½ sacks as a senior in 2012. In addition, Means shows a penchant for kick blocking, with three to his credit for the Bulls last season, and five in his UB career.
After playing at end for Buffalo, Means proved this spring that he has the athleticism to drop into coverage, with good hands and fluid change-in-direction skills. He figures to garner interest in the late rounds, and could earn his NFL roster spot as a special team standout who can also develop into a quality reserve linebacker with nickel package responsibilities.