Fifty-Three Reasons to Watch Mini-Camp

By John Harris
June 27, 2014

If you thought there was nothing to watch in the NFL these days, you could be missing next year's sleeper hit. John Harris takes a look at the hidden gems of the undrafted free agents.

Leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft, NFL Films created a new series called "Caught in the Draft." It was flat out brilliant as most, if not all, NFL Films' projects are. The concept of the series was that NFL Films looked back at the key moments, key figures and interesting pivot spots in the 1964, 1974, 1984, 1994 and 2004 NFL Drafts. Watching them, in that order, gave a wonderful history lesson showing how the draft evolved into the most important non-playing event in the league.

One thing that I took out of the series, whether it was meant to be implicitly stated or not, was the number of rounds in the draft. In 1994, the NFL Draft moved to seven rounds, whereas there were as many as 20 rounds in earlier decades. Twenty rounds? Can you imagine 32 teams picking for 20 rounds? Six-hundred forty selections? The NFL Draft would be a week long event, not that I'd have any quibble with it, but the current structure works just fine. 

Throughout the threeday draft bonanza, there are hundreds of players that spent the weekend waiting for the call that never came. Unfortunately, undrafted rookie free agents just don't gather the same respect as the draftees. But, it hit me watching a three-day rookie mini-camp in Houston that someone on that field could be an NFL star-in-the-making. Perhaps it's not that year to find a diamond in the rough; we can't get greedy. We had one of those years just recently in 2009 when Arian Foster jogged on that field for the first time.

It got me thinking about current key undrafted free agents in the NFL. I compiled a list of guys that all 32 teams passed on during a respective draft. Of course, the godfather of all undrafted free agents is former Rams/Cardinals QB Kurt Warner who may one day see his bust in Canton. I may have missed some along the way, but there'll be a few guys on this list that'll elicit the "he wasn't drafted?" dog head turn for certain.

  • Cincinnati - Vontaze Burfict, Arizona State; James Harrison, Kent State
  • Houston - Arian Foster, Tennessee; Elbert Mack, Troy
  • Dallas - Tony Romo, Eastern Illinois
  • Denver - Wes Welker, Texas Tech
  • Philadelphia - Jason Peters, Arkansas
  • Cleveland - Brian Hoyer, Michigan State; Miles Austin, Monmouth
  • Denver - Wesley Woodyard, Kentucky
  • Detroit - LaAdrian Waddle, Texas Tech; Joseph Fauria, UCLA
  • Jacksonville - Chris Clemons, Georgia
  • Oakland - Marcel Reece, Washington; Donald Penn, Utah State
  • San Diego - Danny Woodhead, Chadron State; Antonio Gates, Kent State
  • Minnesota - Erin Henderson, Maryland
  • Baltimore - Vonta Leach, East Carolina; Justin Tucker, Texas
  • Miami - Cameron Wake, Penn State; Brent Grimes, Shippensburg; Dannell Ellerbe, Georgia
  • Green Bay - John Kuhn, Shippensburg, Tramon Williams, La. Tech
  • New York Giants - Victor Cruz, U Mass; Cullen Jenkins, Central Michigan
  • New England - Danny Amendola, Texas Tech; Brandon Browner, Oregon State
  • New Orleans - Junior Galette, Stillman (12 sacks in 2013); Pierre Thomas, Illinois
  • Seattle - Doug Baldwin, Stanford; Michael Bennett, Texas A&M
  • Carolina - Quentin Mikell, Boise State
  • Washington - Ryan Clark, LSU (most of career with Pittsburgh)
  • Buffalo - Fred Jackson, Coe College
  • New York Jets - Josh Cribbs, Kent State (coming off injury in 2013)

Recently retired or unsigned:

  • Jim Leonhard, Wisconsin

Let me do some math. Twenty players on this list made the Pro Bowl a staggering 53 times. Nine of these players registered 16 All-Pro seasons. There was one NFL Defensive Player of the Year, one who led the league in rushing, one who led the league in receptions three times, one who led the league in field goals made and one who is the active leader in kick returns, kick return yards and kick return TD, not to mention being the all-time leader with eight kick return touchdowns.

Will an undrafted player make a roster in your town/for your team and perhaps start a Pro Bowl career? Maybe, but before you write that annual "these players will make the 53 man roster" article (and all of us will), don't be surprised if a few undrafted rookie free agents find a way into that piece. That's just step one.