Undrafted, Unwanted, Unstoppable: 5 Unknowns Making Noise in the NFL - Rolling Stone
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Undrafted, Unwanted, Unstoppable: 5 Unknowns Making Noise in the NFL

These pros were passed over on draft day, and they’re making NFL execs pay

Jonas GrayJonas Gray

Jonas Gray of the New England Patriots runs against the Indianapolis Colts on November 16th, 2014.

Andy Lyons/Getty

Draft day value is exactly what it says it is: Draft day value. Everything changes once that final name is called.

Every year, roughly 250 college athletes are drafted into the NFL. That number seems both incredibly high – after all, there are few starting positions in the pros and even fewer players ready to give them up – and impossibly low, since there are thousands upon thousands of college football players sleeping through class as you read this.

The reality is somewhere in between. Most of the greats get picked in the first three rounds of the draft (unless they’re Tom Brady), leaving many of the final 100 or so flailing for work on a football field. Of course, there are also those who slip through the cracks and still become important NFL contributors.

Case in point: On Sunday, Peyton Manning, first overall pick in 1998, lost 22-7 to the Rams, a team starting Shaun Hill, who was not drafted at all in 2002. Hill was starting in place of Austin Davis, a guy who went undrafted in 2012 – and both quarterbacks have proven more valuable than Sam Bradford, the first pick of the 2010 draft.

This seems to have been the week – if not the year – when draft position became insignificant. If you can play, you can play; for proof, just look at some guys who weren’t good enough to be drafted, but are now helping propel their teams to the playoffs.

Jonas Gray, Patriots: Undrafted 2012
Playing at Notre Dame didn’t carry quite the same cachet as it used to when Gray was there from 2008 to 2011 under Charlie Weis and Brian Kelly, but it was even harder for the running back: As a senior, he was a backup to Cierre Wood, overshadowed by names like Manti Te’o and Michael Floyd, and then tore his ACL against Boston College. Being drafted wasn’t even a consideration.

On Sunday night against the Colts, Gray ran for 199 yards and four touchdowns.

Gray spent 2012 on the PUP list with the Miami Dolphins, 2013 on the practice squad for the Baltimore Ravens and finally landed with the Patriots this year. Gray moved up the depth chart after Stevan Ridley landed on injured reserve, and Shane Vereen underwhelmed in his place, giving Gray his chance to have one of the biggest games in franchise history. How excited should fans get? To be fair, this was basically where LeGarrette Blount stood a year ago. But, hey – it’s better than where Gray stood a year ago.

Brent Grimes, Dolphins: Undrafted 2006
Two key contributors to Miami’s defense – arguably the best in the NFL, and a big reason why the Dolphins are in the hunt for their second playoff berth since 2001 – weren’t good enough to be picked in the draft.

One of those guys, Cameron Wake, you probably know about already. The other is turning 2014 into his coming out party as one of the league’s best corners.

Brent Grimes played at Shippensburg University, a school that has only produced five NFL players, and after going undrafted in 2006, he signed with the Falcons then joined the Hamburg Sea Devils (a short-lived NFL Europa squad) in 2007. After coming back to Atlanta, he began to make a name for himself – he’s a two-time Pro Bowler – and signed a $32 million deal with the Dolphins before this season. Already in the “shutdown corner” conversation, two weeks ago, he made the defensive play of the year against Calvin Johnson and the Detroit Lions.

Tony Jefferson, Cardinals: Undrafted 2013
Arizona is the league’s most curious surprise, but perhaps less surprising to a guy like Jefferson, who has quickly silenced the doubters that passed him over a year ago.

Coming out of high school in Chula Vista, California, Jefferson was listed by many as one of the top five secondary prospects in the country and chose to play at Oklahoma. He earned accolades as a freshman and started to get regarded as a future first round pick, but teams felt that he wasn’t ready to make the jump as an underclassman when he declared in 2013.

A year later he’s second on the Cardinals’ defense in tackles and arguably one of the top five safeties against the run. It sure didn’t take him long to get up to speed.

Brian Hoyer, Browns: Undrafted 2009
After years of whiffing on their first round picks, Cleveland’s current playoff run is being fueled by the unwanted. It all starts with Hoyer, a QB whose nine wins with the Browns are more than busts Brandon Weeden or Brady Quinn were able to muster.

Hoyer’s story is great for all the obvious reasons, but what’s more unbelievable is how many undrafted players are helping him through this incredible season. Of the five wide receivers on the team playing in the absence of Josh Gordon (who technically went in the supplemental draft), only one was drafted: Travis Benjamin, a fourth round pick in 2012. Rookie Taylor Gabriel has come from nowhere to gain 527 yards this year and free agent signee Andrew Hawkins leads the team with 601 yards.

It doesn’t stop there, either. Running back Isaiah Crowell – second on the team in rushing yards – wasn’t drafted either, and neither was safety Tashaun Gipson, currently leading the league with six interceptions.

Chris Harris, Broncos: Undrafted 2011
Sure, part of Denver’s recent rise has been the work of former first rounders Manning, Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Aqib Talib, Demaryius Thomas and Ryan Clady, but perhaps we should take a closer look at some of the guys who got far less recognition coming out of college.

In particular Harris, who had a standout career at Kansas but couldn’t even earn an invite to a pre-draft combine. The Broncos saw his potential, brought him into camp and he earned a spot on the 53-man roster. Harris saw extensive playing time as a rookie, and it’s fitting that his first start came in place of injured vet Champ Bailey, because he’s done an outstanding job of replacing his presence in the secondary.

He hasn’t let go of the starting spot since, and this year QBs have completed just 26 of 54 passes thrown to the receivers he’s covering, with zero touchdowns and a passer rating of 41.7 – lowest in the NFL against any corner.

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