Undrafted talent can be key to NFL success

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham
They weren't good enough to be Mr. Irrelevant.

Some probably avoided watching the NFL draft when it was their year to be called. Those who did watched and waited and waited and waited ...

Never did they hear that ESPN jingle alert and then witness their names triumphantly flash at the bottom of a television screen. Mel Kiper didn't get to say what astute late-round steals they were.

So many players don't get selected, but undrafted doesn't always equate to unwanted or unable.

The NFL is rife with examples of undrafted players who develop into weekly contributors or maybe even stars, and the AFC East is loaded with them this year.

The NFL average for undrafted players is about 13 per roster. The New England Patriots have 18 of them. The Buffalo Bills have 17. The New York Jets have 16. The Miami Dolphins have 14.

"From Day One, we put some of those guys out there potentially to make a difference," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said. "Right now, we're seeing some of that happen out there."

They've played a significant role in making it the most competitive division. Only two games separate first place from last place, and it's one of just two divisions in which each team has outscored the opposition.

Coaches admit a special satisfaction when rummage-bin players develop into reliable contributors.

"Guys that are undrafted have a certain degree of underdog status or long shot," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "It's great to see those guys that nobody talks about, nobody has
any hype for do well and be able to play and compete and have a job and a position in this league.

"To me, that's what the NFL is all about. It's about competition, and it's about performance. That's not necessarily the way it is in everything else, but on the football field, that's the way I see it.

"The guys that start from the bottom and come all the way up and earn it as a free agent, kind of like a lot of have -- players and coaches -- that is gratifying for them and overall for the system."

Both AFC East victories in Week 11 were off the right foot of an undrafted player. Jets kicker Jay Feely made a 34-yard field goal in overtime to beat the Patriots on Thursday night. Rookie Dan Carpenter kicked a 38-yard field goal inside the final 40 seconds to beat the Oakland Raiders.

Four players in the Patriots' starting offensive lineup Thursday were draft orphans, including Wes Welker. He's second in the NFL with 72 catches. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis has been remarkable. Two more started on defense.

Three-quarters of the Dolphins' active receiving corps wasn't drafted. Greg Camarillo is one of them. He leads the Dolphins with 49 receptions. Davone Bess has been their most productive punt and kickoff returner. Third running back Patrick Cobbs, also undrafted, is second only to starter Ronnie Brown in nonkicker scoring with three touchdowns.

Buffalo's Pro Bowl left tackle, Jason Peters, wasn't drafted. Neither was top cornerback Jabari Greer or starting safety George Wilson.

The Jets signed right guard Brandon Moore as a rookie free agent in 2002. He has started 72 games and counting. Pro Bowl fullback Tony Richardson and starting safety Abram Elam also were passed over.

"When you stop and think about the number of guys in the draft, you got about 1,500 guys in the pool and each team can take only about seven of them," said Charley Armey, a retired player personnel man who spent seven years in the Patriots' front office in the 1990s.

"There's a huge area for guys to slip through the cracks."

Armey is associated with one of the most famous undrafted players in NFL history. Armey was the St. Louis Rams' director of player personnel in 1998, when they signed Arena Football League quarterback Kurt Warner. Another of Armey's favorite discoveries is linebacker London Fletcher from Division III John Carroll University.

"It never surprises me because I know there are so many factors that can keep them getting drafted," Armey said from his home in Sun City, Ariz. "As much energy as we put into the NFL draft, one thing you can't predict is how a player is going to make that jump from college to the NFL."

Undrafted players are more than roster spackle. They're necessary to the foundation of any organization.

They're cheap labor, for one.

"Because of the salary cap you have to have some of these lower-end guys make your team and develop or your salary cap won't work," Armey said.

Said Sparano: "We're kind of looking for something for nothing in some of those situations."

While some teams concentrate on acquiring as much star power as possible (and then struggle to pay them all), Armey noted a philosophy Dick Vermeil brought to the Rams.

Vermeil, as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, signed Vince Papale, a bartender and part-time teacher who became an NFL receiver and special-teamer. Papale's uplifting story was the subject of the 2006 motion picture "Invincible."

"Dick was a firm believer of working the bottom of the roster," Armey said. "You have to be in the business of developing players and rotating them in and work the bottom of your roster as hard as you work the top."

The process of developing undrafted prospects will be more difficult without NFL Europa. More players will emerge from arena leagues -- something called the U.S. Indoor Football League spawned backup Bills running back Fred Jackson -- or the Canadian Football League.

With so much competition among scouting staffs, unearthing a hidden gem is virtually impossible. Teams evaluate more players than ever. When a personnel director identifies someone he wants to sign, chances are other clubs have contacted the agent already.

In that regard, acquiring a rookie free agent resembles the college recruiting process for a blue chipper.

The Dolphins out-jockeyed several teams to land Bess, who was Colt Brennan's top target at Hawaii. The Dolphins thought Bess would be drafted, and when he wasn't they sprung into action.

"It's maybe not so much being first, but selling your depth chart," Sparano said. "For us this year, that was easier. We're selling opportunity. Kids are looking, and maybe they're favorite team might've been the Pittsburgh Steelers, but at the end of the day they've got to go where they think they got the best chance of making the team.

"They have five receivers and this team has three receivers ... For a guy like Bess, he had a lot of people calling him. We were fortunate, and he was fortunate."

A reputation of fair treatment is another strong selling point when it comes to free agents. The Patriots are known as an organization that values performance over pedigree.

Not only do the Patriots give undrafted players an honest look in training camp, but they also have a tendency to trust their young reserves and look at their practice squad before considering outside help when injuries strike.

"If you sign with us, you're going to get a chance," Belichick said. "If you play good enough, you're going to get a roster spot. If that means some other higher draft choice or some other big-name, higher-profile guy doesn't play as well, then that's competition. That's what this league's about."

And when the process yields results on a regular basis, the results can be more rewarding than hitting on draft picks.

"The pride factor is in the player, that he was willing to do what he had to do," Armey said. "I picked up a lot of guys that I knew had the talent but didn't do what they had to do. But when you get a guy with a competitive edge and he wants to overcome being 5-foot-9 or slow, you can find a great player.

"It can pay you off in dividends."