Odds are likely that fantasy owners won't have to know about players whose names weren't called during the NFL Draft but as with every game, it is the exceptions to the rule that make all of the difference. Despite multiple college all-star games, scouts with the benefit of air travel and DVD players, a scouting combine, pro days and a three-day draft that has moved from January to the end of April, pro football evaluation in the modern era continues to overlook prospects that eventually develop into the league's biggest stars.
Here are twelve players from the last decade who rose from anonymity to the top of cheat sheets for fantasy owners everywhere: Kurt Warner, Tony Romo, Priest Holmes, Willie Parker, Rod Smith, Wayne Chrebet, Miles Austin, Joshua Cribbs, Antonio Gates, James Harrison, Bart Scott and Pat Williams.
Pretty good makings for a fantasy roster, isn't it?
This year might be an especially fruitful one for undrafted free agents at the offensive fantasy positions, because there was so much depth at defensive line and defensive back that even the marquee backs, receivers and tight ends dropped further than usual.
To kick off the preseason, I'm introducing you to the undrafted players that I believe you should at least be familiar with their name. If you want more detail on some of these players, download the 2010 Rookie Scouting Portfolio. It's 740 pages of film analysis of over 170 rookies at the positions of QB, RB, WR and TE.
I'm giving each player one of three designations:
- Monitor closely: I believe these players have the best chance to make noise in camp and challenged for playing time of everything comes together in their favor.
- Watch: These players have talent, but they need more development time, or they are not good matches with their current teams. Watch their movement in the preseason and stay familiar with their status because in a few seasons they might be the players to "come out of nowhere."
- Familiarize: You should know them by name on the off chance they develop their game, but they are the longest of long shots.
If I don't mention a team, it's because there weren't any players I believed worth introducing.
San Francisco 49ers
WR Scott Long, Louisville: I provide more detail here, but what you need to know about Long in the context of trying to stick with San Francisco is that he is every bit as athletic as Josh Morgan and he has more consistent hands than Morgan did at Virginia Tech. Michael Crabtree the only player I believe is a lock to develop into a strong fantasy receiver in this offense. Morgan should, but this is a pivotal year for him to deliver on his promise. Jason Hill is one of my favorite players from the 2007 draft who, a long with the Giants Steve Smith, I liked a great deal but has only shown flashes. Even if Isaac Bruce continues to stick around, he's retiring much sooner than later. I think Long has the best chance of any undrafted 49er to stick. Monitor Closely.
WR Shay Hodge, Ole Miss: Hodge was the deep threat for Jevon Snead this year, but he lacks NFL-caliber separation skills. He can catch the football with his hands, but he tends to allow the ball too far into his body. His routes were also limited to crossers and sideline routes. I doubt he makes it through camp. Familiarize.
WR Jared Perry, Missouri: Perry was an effective possession receiver for the Tigers with enough speed to occasionally get deep. He has good concentration and body control to make tough catches. The reason I think he wasn't drafted is because he is pretty average in every area of his game and he lacks the physical upside to differentiate himself from the pack. If Michael Irvin has his Spike TV show in 2010, Perry is the type of player who might be on it. Watch.
QB Jarrett Brown, West Virginia: Brown impressed observers at the Senior Bowl with his powerful arm and athletic frame. With Alex Smith, David Carr and Nate Davis holding down the depth chart, Brown is destined for a spot on the 49ers practice squad even if he manages to show enough during the preseason. This has less to do with the quality of quarterbacks ahead of him as it does the need for Brown to address deficiencies with his fundamentals such as dropping back, setting his feet and delivering short and intermediate passes with touch, timing and accuracy. I still think the most promising quarterback in San Francisco will prove to be Nate Davis, but Brown has the physical skills of a starter. If the 49ers jettison Smith and Brown can develop, there's a chance for him to have a career. Watch.
QB Juice Williams, Illinois: Williams was invited for a tryout and if Mike Martz sees something in the quarterback that he can develop, he could be a major surprise. Admittedly it's a big if, because consistency is his issue. At this point Williams' nickname should be Dr. McNabb/Mr. Leaf. When he's on, Williams has made throws of every type that could have easily come from the arm of an NFL All Pro. Unfortunately, Williams' moments of greatness are couched in poor decisions and technical lapses that could be a coach-killer if not corrected. The problem is whether his deficiencies are coachable. Watch.
WR Greg Mathews, Michigan: Mathews has the height and body control to be a perimeter threat, but in Mike Martz's offense he'll need to prove he can run the intermediate routes and make adjustments with his quarterback at the line of scrimmage. His experience in this area is limited. Watch.
WR Freddie Barnes, Bowling Green: Give Mathews Barnes' hands, route savvy, and balance as a runner and Mathews would have been a first-day pick. Unfortunately Barnes might lack the speed to earn an opportunity in the NFL. If he proves naysayers wrong, the rest of his game is good enough to surprise. Watch.
RB Brandon Minor, Michigan: Minor is a physical back with great, straight-line balance and power. He runs a lot like Larry Csonka did in the 70s, and I think he would be best converted into a fullback. He lacks the speed and agility to be a long-term option at tailback, but he is a very physical blocker. Durability might keep Minor from sticking anywhere but if he does, I think he'll be converting to a lead blocker. Familiarize.
WR Naaman Roosevelt, Buffalo: Roosevelt is a quick, shifty receiver who has excellent body control to win battles one-on-one. He lacks top breakaway speed, but if he can show more consistency, he might develop into a reserve that flashes Derrick Mason-like skills. Watch.
RB Joique Bell, Wayne State: If Bell comes into Buffalo's minicamp and plays like he did at the Senior Bowl, he will make Marshawn Lynch expendable and eventually challenge for playing time. Bell reminds me a lot of Marion Barber. If you look at him from just the waist down, you might mistake him for a strong side linebacker or athletic defensive end. He has excellent balance and did a nice job of spotting cutback lanes. I believe he'll make an NFL roster or practice squad. Monitor Closely.
WR David Nelson, Florida: Nelson's role at Florida was the check-down option for Tebow. He has good hands and the size to be a mismatch against smaller corners. The question is whether he was made the check-down option because he couldn't do much else or his skills weren't apparent because he was a good soldier. I'm inclined to think its more the former than the latter. Familiarize.
RB Toney Baker, N.C. State: See the same article I mentioned with Scott Long. Correll Buckhalter looked as quick as ever when healthy, but he is at the tail end of his career. Baker has the versatility of the Broncos backs at the top of the depth chart. If he can stay healthy, I like Baker's chances to stick. Monitor Closely.
RB Chris Brown, Oklahoma: I personally don't see a lot of redeeming qualities in Brown's game. I see him as the type of player that gets what a line blocks for him and nothing more, but that means he's good enough to make a roster if he's consistent enough to do that in the NFL. Watch.
WR Alric Arnett, West Virginia: Arnett has the physical potential to develop, but he relied on his athleticism on the perimeter in college football and he will need to address his releases, routes and hands technique to develop. Familiarize.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
RB Darius Marshall, Marshall: He's a shifty back with vision, but that describes a multitude of NFL hopefuls at the position. He did land on a team where Cadillac Williams, the only back on the depth chart with big-time talent is its most brittle. It means there isn't as much separation between Earnest Graham, Derrick Ward and a decent undrafted free agent. Familiarize.
WR Preston Parker, Northern Alabama: The former Florida State receiver has some big-play agility and burst, but he lacked the maturity to last at a big-time program. Familiarize.
QB Max Hall, BYU: If Hall continues to develop physically and his long game catches up with his short and intermediate accuracy, he has the ball skills to develop into a system quarterback. Familiarize.
WR Stephen Williams, Toledo: Williams has the size (6'5", 210 lbs.), strength and quick first step, but his effort was not consistent. He has the natural talent to be a developmental project like the Redskins Marko Mitchell. Familiarize.
San Diego Chargers
WR Seyi Ajirotutu, Fresno State: It's not shock that the Chargers took Ajirotutu, who received individual instruction at the Shrine Game from San Diego receivers coach Keenan McCardell. Cecil Lammey noted that Ajirotutu was a quick study and combined with his fluid athleticism, there's a good chance he'll stick. Ajirotutu's potential is that of a slower Chad Ochocinco. Watch.
RB Shawnbrey McNeal, SMU: Another player I profiled in the New York Times Fifth Down Blog. Personally, McNeal is probably the biggest surprise when it comes to undrafted players. I could see McNeal winning the No. 3 spot and eventually succeeding Darren Sproles as the change of pace back if San Diego chooses to part ways with the Kansas State star. Monitor Closely.
WR Jeremy Williams, Tulane: Williams actually reminds me of Keenan McCardell. He's a strong player in single coverage with better deep skills than credited. He's not far behind McNeal as a player I expected a team to draft. I believe Williams will not only make a club, but within a few years he will be a No. 3 receiver with upside. Monitor Closely.
Kansas City Chiefs
WR Menelik Holt, Nebraska: Holt is a physical stud at 6'4", 220 pounds, but he never maximized his potential at Nebraska during a time that underwent several changes throughout the course of his career. With Dwayne Bowe having initial problems endearing himself to the new regime in Kansas City, Holt could be the heir apparent if he can work himself onto the team. Monitor Closely.
WR Rich Gunnell, Boston College: Gunnell is a smart player with good hands and a solid understanding of getting open in zone coverage. On the right team, he could become a productive slot receiver along the lines of Bobby Engram, but Kansas City isn't likely his final stop. Watch.
WR Blair White, Michigan State: Cecil Lammey does White justice in his New York Times Fifth Down Blog. He's another player I was shocked didn't get drafted. Indianapolis is the perfect place for White and if Anthony Gonzalez struggles to return to form or Austin Collie slumps, the rookie will be breathing his neck. Monitor Closely.
RB Javarris James, Miami: James' running style is a lot like his cousin Edgerrin's, but he lacks the physical talent that the former Colt possessed. He might give Mike Hart some competition, and could be serviceable in the right situation. I'm really only mentioning him so I don't get tons of emails asking me why I didn't. He's a career back up capable of decent moments – at best. Watch.
QB Tim Hiller, Western Michigan: A lot of evaluators like Hiller as a developmental project. I liken him physically to Drew Bledsoe at the end of Bledsoe's career. The arm and basic accuracy is there for improvement, but he'll need a lot of surrounding talent to succeed in game conditions. Familiarize.
RB Lonyae Miller, Fresno State: Unless the Cowboys get rid of Marion Barber, I doubt Miller has what it takes to beat out Tashard Choice. Miller lacks Choice's excellent vision, but he does have the physical skills to be a contributor in the NFL. If he can improve his decision-making, Miller could surprise. Watch.
QB Joey Elliott, Purdue: Despite a small wind up with his delivery, I was impressed with Elliott's pocket presence, accuracy and arm strength. As a one-year starter from a program that has produced quality NFL quarterbacks (starters and back ups like Drew Brees, Kyle Orton and Curtis Painter), he could be the next one. I just don't believe it will be in Philadelphia unless rookie Mike Kafka bombs. If Elliot can correct his mechanical flaws and stick with a team, I think he could develop into true contributor. Watch.
RB Dimitri Nance, Arizona State: Jason Snelling is a solid 'tweener back who caught the eye of the fantasy football community with a strong, downhill style while subbing for Michael Turner and Jerrious Norwood. If Nance can do a better job protecting the football, he's a more instinctive, shifty and versatile runner than Snelling. Watch.
New York Giants
WR Duke Calhoun, Memphis: Yet another Fifth Down Blog subject, Calhoun has the speed and hands to develop into an NFL receiver. However with a team that has Ramses Barden and Mario Manningham battling for playing time, Calhoun will need to wow the Giants to get a chance here. As undisciplined as Manningham was last year and as raw as Barden is, it could happen but I expect him to catch on elsewhere and develop. Watch.
QB Riley Skinner, Wake Forest: Skinner's maneuverability and accuracy are strong points, but short quarterbacks from spread offenses don't get a lot of opportunities unless they played at a top-notch program. If Skinner doesn't panic in he preseason and limits his risk-taking, he could win the No. 3 job. I wouldn't be surprised if he's singled out for good play this summer. Watch.
WR Chris McGaha, Arizona State: McGaha reminds me of Austin Collie. He has excellent hands, runs sharp routes and he has enough speed to get deep. McGaha's leaping ability is excellent and I think his production suffered due to subpar quarterback play. I was mildly surprised a team didn't draft him. He's not as explosive as Collie, but his build-up speed is good enough to contribute as a slot receiver. If he can continue to develop his physical talents, he has skills to play outside. The Jaguars are loaded with young talent so McGaha will have to relentlessly turn heads to stick around here. Watch.
St. Louis Rams
QB Thaddeus Lewis, Duke: I loved what I saw from Lewis as a senior. He knows how to climb the pocket and he is capable of pinpoint accuracy in the short and intermediate range of the field, even under pressure. Former quarterback coach of both Manning brothers, David Cutcliffe said that in 2009 Lewis played the best game of any QB he's ever coached. I think Lewis could develop into a capable back up to Sam Bradford and play well if called upon. Watch.
RB DeMaundray Woolridge, Idaho: A short, but powerful back that gained a lot of weight after transferring from Washington State, Woolridge is a savvy runner with enough power and balance to make Chris Ogbonnaya fight for his job. Familiarize.
WR Rod Owens, Florida State: The Rams really need help at this position, so Owens gets a mention where I wouldn't if he were on another team. He's a high-effort player in the run game, and makes catches in traffic. He needs to work on his routes. Familiarize.
RB Curtis Steele, Memphis: One of my favorite backs to watch this year, Steele has good balance, shiftiness, and a nice burst. He's an aggressive runner with versatility. He needs to learn to make cuts off the correct foot and he lacks top-end speed. However, I fully expect him to make a team. If Willis McGahee or Jalen Parmalee gets hurt, Steele could make the roster. Watch.
QB Darryl Clark, Penn State: A big, tough and athletic quarterback, Clark played in a Penn State system that employed a simple passing game even by some college team standards, disguising some one-read plays to look like a two-read options. He's a project, but I like his instincts. Familiarize.
RB Keiland Williams, LSU: Williams reminds me of the recent backs Mike Shanahan seems to like but underachieve like Laurence Maroney and Kevan Barlow. Williams has that kind of physical talent and versatility, but he has never put it together. If he looks good in camp, the Redskin's coach will have no problem making room for him. Watch.
RB Stafon Johnson, USC: Unless you don't even monitor sports news, you probably know about Johnson's near-fatal weightlifting accident that crushed his larynx. When healthy, Johnson is a versatile downhill runner with some power and enough burst to produce in the NFL if called upon. He'll compete with LaGarrette Blount for a roster spot. Watch.
RB LaGarrette Blount, Oregon: Blount's story is as well known as Johnson's. A big back with good feet and sound instincts, Blount has the physical tools to at least develop into a situational starter. What he has lacked is the work ethic and discipline to refine his techniques as a runner. He is naturally more talented than Johnson, but its questionable he has the will to outwork the USC runner. If he does, he could give Javon Ringer competition for the No. 2 role and earn time spelling Chris Johnson as a change of pace. Monitor Closely.
RB Dominique Lindsay, East Carolina: Lindsay returned from a knee injury earlier than expected and started his senior year. He has some burst and he makes good decisions as a runner who got a lot of opportunities from the I formation. Familiarize.
QB Ryan Perriloux, Jackson State: Lammey also focused on Perriloux during draft week in his Fifth Down Blog. The raw talent is definitely there and if he shows the capacity to work, the Vikings depth chart isn't that impressive after Brett Favre. Watch.
QB Greg Paulus, Syracuse: The lead player in the story linked earlier in the Long, Baker and McNeal entries. I'm not surprised he went undrafted, but I still expect him to get a chance somewhere. Familiarize.
RB Roy Upchurch, Alabama: Upchurch is a tough runner with enough burst to contribute. I like him more than Chris Brown, who is getting a shot. Familiarize.
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