With the advent of August comes the start of another NFL season. For players, coaches, scouts and prospects, the season never really ends. The long off-season is punctuated by coaches meetings, contract talks, free agency, pro days, and the NFL Draft. Many of the most well-known players in the league are selected in the draft. There are many other players who are not selected in the draft who go on to have successful NFL careers. This post focuses on them. We'll take a look at some of the best UDFAs (and one ultra late round pick) in the history of the sport, and also at some current UDFAs fighting to make a name for themselves in the league. These are the guys who beat the odds and prove that dreams can come true.
Ben Beckwith is a guy who has been under-hyped throughout his entire football career. After high school, he made the Mississippi State football team as a walk-on. He worked hard throughout college to become one of the best interior offensive linemen in the nation. However, history repeated itself in the 2015 NFL Draft for Ben. He went undrafted, and signed with the San Diego Chargers following the draft. Although he missed his rookie season due to injury, Beckwith is a player to watch moving forward. Ben Beckwith has both the talent and the versatility to be a key piece of an NFL offensive line for years to come, especially as an interior lineman. Beckwith would not be the first undrafted interior offensive lineman to prosper in the NFL.
Jeff Saturday was signed by the Baltimore Ravens following the 1998 NFL Draft. He was cut by the team without playing in a single game. The Colts decided to take a chance on him, and he responded with a brilliant 13-year run with the team that vaulted him into consideration as a potential Hall of Famer. When the Colts finally did sign Saturday, he was working at a manager at an electrical supply store. Jeff Saturday propelled himself into six Pro Bowls through hard work and a drive to improve. This is a player who was cut by his first team after going undrafted, and now stands as one of the few offensive linemen that most NFL fans recognize by name.
Oakland Raiders UDFA defensive end Branden Jackson has had a long road to the NFL. Branden played multiple positions at Texas Tech, starting out at linebacker and shifting to defensive end. He is one of the best character players out of the entire 2016 draft class. After losing his brother Chauncey Williams in college, Branden changed his number to 9 (Chauncey's number) to "honor him and every other kid who was taken too soon." (Quote taken from this interview with Branden Jackson). Heading into the draft, Branden described a desire to use football to help others, in his case by raising diabetes awareness and helping youth in need. A projected late-round pick, Branden went undrafted. While many talented undrafted players were signed directly following the Draft, Branden waited. He was invited to camp by the Seahawks, and nearly stuck with the team. After leaving Seattle, he finally reached a deal with the Raiders, where he is re-united with his college teammate DeAndre Washington. Jackson is an extremely versatile player, and that versatility will be an asset to him as his NFL career begins. Many young men crumble under pressure, but in Branden Jackson's case, the pressure has created a diamond, a driven young man with a soul on fire. Soon, he'll set the league on fire.
Defensive end Cameron Wake signed with the Giants following the 2005 NFL Draft. He was released in June, and finally signed a free agent CFL contract with the BC Lions in May 2007. While Wake played mostly linebacker in college, he focused on defensive end in the CFL, and quickly made a name for himself as a pass rusher. He signed with the Miami Dolphins in 2009, and has recorded 70 sacks and four Pro Bowl appearances over seven seasons of NFL action. Cameron Wake had a long and winding path to the NFL, but once he arrived, he dominated. As Wake's career shows, it's not how you start, it's how you finish.
Speaking of finishing strong, undrafted free agent John Randle's career ended with such a strong record of excellence that he was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2010. John Randle went undrafted in 1990, and failed to secure a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after a tryout because he was viewed as "too small" by the coaching staff. The Vikings decide to take a chance on Randle, and he responded with 7 career Pro Bowl appearances and 137.5 career sacks. Although the Buccaneers wrote him off as being too small to play defensive tackle in the NFL, Randle's impact as a player was huge. This shows that the scouts are not always right when they use some superficial wart or another to discount a player.
Another player who was "too small" to succeed in the NFL was Baltimore Colts wide receiver Raymond Berry. While Berry did not go undrafted, he was a 20th round pick in the draft in 1954. He went so late for a few reasons. First, college teams just didn't pass a lot in the 1950s (Berry caught 33 passes total as a college player). Second, Berry was often deemed as undersized. Once he landed with the Colts, he developed a strong relationship with quarterback Johnny Unitas. The two players worked hard to perfect routes, often working together after practice. Berry's career ended with two Super Bowl rings as a player, six Pro Bowls, and a legacy as one of the best wide receivers in the history of the sport. Berry also didn't miss a single game until his 8th season in the NFL, showing a strong record of longevity as a player. Raymond Berry's strong work ethic and close attention to detail led to a Hall of Fame selection in 1973 and also to a successful coaching career.
One current NFL UDFA who's college numbers weren't perfect is Russell Hansbrough. Russell had a strong 2014 season at Missouri with 10 rushing touchdowns and 1084 rushing yards. Hansbrough's 2015 season was a tough one in which he finished with 1 rushing touchdown and 436 rushing yards. However, he was dealing with an ankle injury through the season, which accounts for the decline in production. Although that decline in production may have contributed to him going undrafted in 2015, he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers immediately following the 2015 NFL Draft. He's made some nice plays so far this pre-season, and has the talent to make the team. When you turn on the film, he's a shifty, fast player who excels at making guys miss. He enjoys watching Tavon Austin and grew up watching Barry Sanders, Marcus Allen, and Walter Payton. Russell Hansbrough is a guy that could make a name for himself early on as a third down back and even potentially a kick returner. He also has the talent to carry the load in an NFL backfield as a three down back. Heading into the first week of pre-season games, Russell is a player with a self-described monkey on his back following his 2015 season, and can't wait to prove that he can play in the NFL. He's going to be exciting to watch.
Much like Russell Hansbrough, Arian Foster struggled with an underwhelming senior season which caused his draft stock to drop (he was given a 2nd round grade by the NFL Draft advisory board before his senior season but opted to return for his senior season and wound up going undrafted). Foster's biggest problem was that his performance was streaky. Sometimes he looked like an early-round pick. Other times, he looked like he wasn't ready for the NFL. His sub-par senior season is arguably what killed his draft stock, according to many experts. Foster has had a strong NFL career, establishing himself as one of the best running backs in the NFL when healthy. Although he has struggled with injuries throughout his career, Foster has put up some extremely strong numbers. Foster's career totals are impressive; he currently stands at 6472 career rushing yards, 5 career rushing touchdowns, 2268 career receiving yards, and 14 career receiving touchdowns. He'll add to those numbers this season as a Miami Dolphin. Impressive for a player that was undrafted.
Current Minnesota Vikings UDFA Jhurell Pressley is in a perfect situation to succeed, and he should be extremely fun to watch heading into the preseason. He was a great college player who's football career was nearly ended as the result of a blood clot. Jhurell fought back hard, and overcame the clot. He established himself (in my eyes) as one of the best running backs in the 2016 draft, yet inexplicably went undrafted, much like Zach Zenner in 2015. Pressley gets the chance to learn from one of the greatest running backs in NFL history in Adrian Peterson, and has the strong work ethic, passion, and drive to succeed under head coach Mike Zimmer. Pressley was a dominant running back in college at New Mexico. 2725 career rushing yards on 394 attempts for a 6.9 yard per carry average and 35 rushing touchdowns is a pretty solid college record. In 2014, Jhurell Pressley averaged 9.5 yards per carry en route to a 1083 yard, 12 rushing touchdown season. Although he went undrafted, Pressley should be a key cog in the Vikings offense early in his career. He's an extremely versatile player who will make strong contributions on offense and special teams from day one.
Priest Holmes is perhaps the best-known Kansas City Chief in recent years. He was also an undrafted player. As a college player, Holmes missed the 1995 season due to injury, and spent his final season as a college player as the third string running back on his team. However, he still found ways to shine, scoring 13 touchdowns on 59 carries. He ultimately went undrafted. His career began with the Ravens in 1997; he would stay in Baltimore until 2000. His career continued with the Chiefs from 2001 until 2007. Holmes led the NFL in rushing yards in 2001,in rushing touchdowns in 2002 and 2003, made three Pro Bowls, and won (Super Bowl XXXV as a Raven). Priest Holmes is remembered today as one of the greatest Kansas City Chiefs in team history. Although he went undrafted, he retired a legend.
Clearly, undrafted players matter. James Harrison is a dominant defensive player responsible for some of the most iconic plays in recent Pittsburgh Steelers history. Malcolm Butler picked off a Russell Wilson pass with 20 seconds left in Super Bowl XLIX to preserve a Patriots lead (and eventually, victory) over the Seattle Seahawks. Brian Waters retired as one of the best offensive guards ever to play the game. There are many, many more great undrafted players left unmentioned in this post due to space. Undrafted players matter, and they do make very real contributions to NFL teams. As we head into the 2016 NFL pre-season, it's time to look for the next great undrafted players. I've named a few candidates, and there are many more across the league. Players like Branden Jackson, Russell Hansbrough, Jhurell Pressley, and Ben Beckwith are part of a long list of players who have attempted to make it in the NFL as undrafted free agents. Historically, some of these players have succeeded, some have not. One thing is for certain. All of these players have made it to the NFL, and all will be working hard to working hard to make a name for themselves with the opportunities that lay ahead. The pre-season is upon us. Football is back! --Mike B.
Sports give us as the human race something to cheer for and support and give hope to all of us.