In 2013, 31 percent of all players on NFL rosters went undrafted. Fifteen Pro Football Hall of Famers did not hear their names called in the draft. The Seahawks recently put out a brochure trying to entice the best undrafted free agents of 2014 to their lakefront facility, and they had eight undrafted players on last year's Super Bowl team. You can bet that other teams will follow this recruiting angle in 2015.
Clearly, undrafted players are not the wretched refuse of football. Injuries, off-field concerns, schematic misfits, and coaching issues can lead to serial misevaluations of draft prospects. All of that to say those players who had to suffer through the most recent three-day process without hearing their names called can still make it happen at the NFL level. Here are some of the best of the bunch, with the teams that signed them right after the draft, if applicable.
Stephen Morris, QB, Miami: At the Senior Bowl, Morris was nicknamed "Tin Cup" by some scouts, due to his propensity for making the impossible throws seem routine ... and the routine throws seem impossible. There are times when he looks like a first-rounder on tape, but others in which he looks as if he doesn't belong on the field. He played through a strained Achilles tendon through the 2013 season, and it showed -- he completed just 57.6 percent of his passes and threw 12 picks to 21 touchdowns. Signed by the Jaguars, Morris could become a decent backup and possible surprise starter over time. He certainly has the base talent to do so.
Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina: The Browns selected Johnny Manziel in the first round, of course, but it wasn't Johnny Football who put up this ridiculous stat line in 2013: 24 touchdowns and one interception. That would be Shaw, who played through multiple injuries and without many of the traditional mechanical attributes NFL teams prefer. He'll be a developmental prospect on a team without a top receiver, which makes it difficult, but perhaps he lands in a more hospitable situation over time.
Kapri Bibbs, RB, Colorado State: "Bibbs had 30-something touchdowns last year and is coming out as a junior. So, very productive."
That's what Broncos Executive Vice-President John Elway said of Kapri Bibbs, the Colorado State star who didn't have to go far to reach his NFL dream -- the Broncos signed him as soon as they possibly could. In 2013, the 5-9, 212-pound Bibbs ran for 31 touchdowns, the highest total in the nation. Only three other college players have scored 30 or more touchdowns in a season -- Barry Sanders, Navy's Keenan Reynolds, and Monte Ball, who is now Bibbs' teammate. Bibbs had to get his start in community college due to academic issues, but in that one season, he showed power and leverage. Now, he gets to answer those pesky questions about strength of competition.
Isaiah Crowell, RB, Alabama State: Crowell has his share of off-field issues (two felony counts of possession of a firearm and a failed drug test when he was at Georgia), but his talent is undeniable -- he ran for 1,121 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2013 on just 170 carries. The 5-11, 224-pound Crowell also signed with the Browns, who will take the risk that his rare talent will shine through the other stuff.
Brandon Coleman, WR, Rutgers: In such a deep class at the position, you knew some talented receivers would slip through the cracks in this draft. A sometime standout in a run-heavy offense, Coleman caught 94 passes for 1,808 yards and 20 touchdowns in his three-year collegiate career. The Saints picked him up, perhaps hoping that the 6-6, 225-pound Coleman can win physical battles and become a more aggressive target.
L'Damian Washington, WR, Missouri: Washington is a bit of a tweener -- he's shown that he can be a good speed receiver, but at 6-4 and 195 pounds, he may lack the physical strength and consistent mechanics at the position to succeed in the NFL. The Cowboys have decided that they'll give him a shot to overcome those flaws.
Blake Annen, TE, Cincinnati: Annen’s stats didn't blow anyone out of the water — his career “highs” came in 2013 with 16 catches for 183 yards and two touchdowns. But in the right system, I could see Annen becoming the kind of old-school tight end that still has a place in the NFL. He’s a great blocker, whether inline or flared out, and he releases quickly at the snap. He'll get his first NFL shot with the Eagles.
Antonio Richardson, OL, Tennessee: At 6-6 and 336 pounds, with a rare combination of strength and agility, "Tiny" Richardson looks to have everything you want in a premier offensive tackle. Until you turn on the tape and see his technical issues and conditioning lapses... though you can also see him hold his own against Jadeveon Clowney. Yeah, it's kind of confusing. Richardson might project as a guard in the NFL, and the Vikings will see where he fits best
Anthony Steen, OG, Alabama: Steen logged 36 starts in three seasons for a premier program, and he shows all the technical and mechanical efficiency one would expect. But there are limitations that likely pushed him down boards — he was a right guard for the Crimson Tide, and he lacks the kind of power and agility most left guards have in the NFL. Steen is a relatively ready-made player with a low ceiling, and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as the team taking a shot on him understands what it’s getting — and what it’s not. The Cardinals are that team, as they signed him to a free-agent deal.
Ethan Westbrooks, DE, West Texas A&M: Westbrooks came to Division II by way of Sacramento City College, and hit the national radar when he amassed 19.5 sacks and 29.5 tackles for loss in 2012. With every opponent lining up to over-block him in 2013, he still grabbed seven sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss, and he further proved his worth when he was named the Defensive MVP of the East-West Shrine Game with two sacks against tougher competition. Westbrooks flies off the handle at times (he’s known for an obscene amount of offside penalties), but he’s strong, very quick and could turn into a dominant NFL strongside defensive end who can move inside to five-tech tackle. He's now a member of the Rams' ridiculously deep defensive line.
Jackson Jeffcoat, DE, Texas: The son of former Cowboys and Bills end Jim, Jeffcoat was projected as a third-to-fourth-round prospect by many media scouting services. But the Longhorns were shut out of the draft for the first time since 1937, and Jeffcoat was the primary player left out in the cold. Multiple injuries and iffy production got in his way, though he did amass 13 sacks in 2013. The Seahawks, always looking for underrated talent, signed Jeffcoat and will turn him loose through the preseason to see what he can do. He's a tweener at 6-3 and 247 pounds, but Pete Carroll has a knack for taking atypically sized players and maximizing their abilities.
Kelcy Quarles, DL, South Carolina: Of course Jadeveon Clowney was the man of the moment in South Carolina’s defense, but Quarles was nobody to ignore. The 6-foot-4, 297-pound junior put up 9.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss, and while you could say this was the product of opposing offenses teeing off on Clowney, the tape shows Quarles has some intriguing qualities as well. He projects well as a hybrid defender at the NFL level, and the Giants will give him that chance.
George Uko, DT, USC: In the third round of the 2011 draft, the Titans took a shot on USC defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, and watched him become one of the league’s most disruptive forces at his position. Uko replaced Casey as the Trojans’ primary under tackle, and he’s been pretty disruptive himself, racking up five sacks in each of his last two seasons. Uko is a different type of player — he’s two inches taller and 15 pounds lighter than Casey, and as a result, he’s not as powerful against double teams. But he’s quick and agile around the edge, and could be a real force in any line involving heavy stunts and twists. The Saints, who do feature defensive complexity in Rob Ryan's schemes, gave Uko a shot.
Christian Jones, LB, Florida State: Perhaps the reason no NFL team drafted Jones is that there wasn't enough tape of him in one place -- he played strong-side in 2011, weak-side in 2012 and in the middle in 2013. But at 6-3 and 240 pounds, and with 223 tackles and eight sacks through his collegiate career, Jones could prove to be a versatile and productive NFL defender. The Bears have signed on to find out.
Howard Jones, OLB, Shepherd: It’s hard to get national attention when you’re balling out in the Mountain East, but this Cliff Harris Award finalist earned the looks he got at the combine. In 2013, he amassed eight sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and a fumble return for a touchdown. The Steelers will see what they can get from the raw, but physically gifted, pass-rushing linebacker.
Shayne Skov, ILB, Stanford: Skov was bound to be limited in his draft prospects because he’s a forward-motion player for the most part. He hits run fits with authority but is a relative liability in coverage. The 49ers, who generally want their inside 'backers to be more mobile and rangy, may have signed Skov as a special-teamer and developmental prospect.
Rashaad Reynolds, CB, Oregon State: Reynolds' 5-9 frame will be a liability when covering bigger receivers, and he has been downgraded for a lack of downfield speed, but there are few defensive backs in this class who are able and willing to to as many different things as he has been. He can cover in the slot and outside, provides a pop in run support and is familiar with different coverage schemes. He could find some starting or nickel time in Jacksonville's secondary, and that's where he'll start his NFL career.
Marcus Roberson, CB, Florida: Roberson plays a lot of bail technique, where he starts in off-coverage and is asked to read his receiver at the boundary. He does this well, and though he’ll give up receptions on comebacks and curls, he seems to have the skill and instincts to play the kinds of off-coverage concepts most effective against multi-receiver formations and combos you see more and more at the NFL level. While Roberson’s athleticism is impressive, he’s got to get it under control — the best corners understand how to use their bodies to recover quickly if they’ve been burned, and he’s too aggressive at times, leading to more yardage allowed. At this point, no NFL team has signed him, which is a rather large surprise.
Dion Bailey, S, USC: With five interceptions and six passes defensed in 2013, Bailey made his case as one of the better defensive backs in the Pac-12, and he shows up as a versatile, fluid player on tape. He will get a bit too aggressive at times, and he shows up a hair late in coverage occasionally, but as a coverage safety in any scheme, he’s got a lot of potential. The Seahawks will take a shot and see what he's got.