It’s one of the best tales in all of sports. A high school football player works hard to earn himself a scholarship to college, sometimes to smaller and lesser known schools. The player works his way into a starter in college and has a very good career, but largely goes unnoticed by the draftniks and websites. The player doesn’t get drafted, but gets picked up by an NFL team as an undrafted free agent (UDFA). The odds are long that they’ll make it very far into camp, much less make the 53 man roster. Often times getting a practice squad spot is a great goal.
Although the likelihood is very small, undrafted free agents have not only made the practice squad, but even made the 53 man roster. The NFL at large is littered with a ton of undrafted free agents who have gone onto making rosters, earning playing time, and even stardom in the NFL. The Atlanta Falcons are no different. There have been many examples of players making the 53 man roster after going undrafted.
The two most successful examples are by far Brent Grimes and Tyson Clabo. Grimes went undrafted in 2006, signed with the Falcons as a rookie free agent in that year, but then played in NFL Europe and bounced back and forth from the practice squad before finally being called up to the active roster in 2007. The rest is history as Grimes eventually won the starting job, made the Pro Bowl, and just signed a franchise tender worth over $10 million dollars. The same goes for Tyson Clabo. Clabo originally signed with Denver after going undrafted and then caught on with the New York Giants before finally settling in with Atlanta. He earned a few starts before taking over for good both at guard and finally at right tackle, where he made the Pro Bowl in 2010. Clabo also earned a big payday signing a 4 year, $25 million deal.
Eric Weems went undrafted in 2007 and made the team as a return specialist and even made the Pro Bowl for special teams. He since has earned himself a new contract with the Chicago Bears. Harvey Dahl went undrafted in 2005 and caught on with the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers practice squads before earning himself a starting spot in Atlanta, becoming one of their best lineman, and getting a subsequent contract from the St. Louis Rams.
John Parker Wilson came on as an undrafted free agent in 2009 and beat out hometown favorite DJ Shockley for the 3rd QB spot. He has since been relegated back and forth with the practice squad, but still is a part of the Falcons roster in some capacity. Perhaps the biggest example of someone to make the jump has been TE Michael Palmer. Palmer went undrafted in 2010 and beat out Keith Zinger for the 3rd TE spot and then moved up the ranks to backup TE after Justin Peele received an injury settlement. Palmer may not be a future Hall of Famer to take over for Gonzalez, but he definitely is a part of the Falcons long-term plans.
Even though there are some examples of guys either making it to the 53 man roster or the practice squad after going undrafted, to say it’s still a long shot is a major understatement. Most teams sign anywhere between 10 – 20 undrafted free agents (the Falcons signed 23 this year) and only a handful will make the practice squad and very rarely will a player make the jump from not being drafted all the way up to the active roster, much less actually earning meaningful playing time. For every undrafted free agents success story, there’s at least 20 or so players who never make it out of training camp.
The Atlanta Falcons signed the following players as undrafted free agents (sorted by position):
QB Dominique Davis – East Carolina
Davis, 6-3, 210 pounds, completed 67.6 percent of his passes (334-of-494) for 3,225 yards with 25 touchdowns as a senior at East Carolina. In 2011, he was a fourth team preseason all-conference selection by Phil Steele and named to the watch lists for the Maxwell and Davey O’Brien awards.
RB Robbie Frey – Kutztown
Frey, 6-0, 203 pounds, played in 12 games in his senior year and posted a team-high 1,185 rushing yards on 189 carries in 2011. Also scored 11 touchdowns.
WR Marcus Jackson – Lamar College
Jackson, 6-1, 195 pounds, finished with 65 catches for 1,159 yards during his two seasons at Lamar. He posted 24 receptions for 432 yards and six touchdowns while leading the team with 18.0 yards per catch as a senior.
WR Michael Calvin – California
Calvin, 6-3, 215 pounds, played in 37 games with 10 starts and totaled 42 receptions for 528 yards with one touchdown during his career at California. He also recorded three tackles, a forced fumble and a blocked kick.
WR Cody Pearcy – Huntingdon
Pearcy, 5-11, 160 pounds, is Huntingdon’s all-time leader with 147 receptions, 2,632 receiving yards, 25 touchdown catches and a 17.9 yard per reception average. He caught a team-high 46 passes for 766 yards with eight touchdowns during his senior season. In 2010, Pearcy was a first team D-III Senior Classic Preseason All-American and rewrote the Hawks record books logging 51 catches for 1,078 yards with 12 touchdowns.
WR James Rodgers – Oregon State
Rodgers, 5-7, 188 pounds, finished his career as one of the greatest receivers and all-purpose players in Oregon State history. He established a school record with 222 career receptions, including an OSU record 91 catches in 2009. He also set the Oregon State career record with 6,377 all-purpose yards.
TE Lamark Brown – Minnesota-Mankato
Brown, 6-3, 220 pounds, caught 31 passes for 405 yards with five touchdowns during his senior season at Minnesota-Mankato.
TE Adam Nissley – Central Florida
Nissley, 6-6, 267 pounds, played in 51 games with 38 receptions for 465 yards with two touchdowns at Central Florida. He was a two time All-Conference USA honorable mention selection and his 21 receptions in 2011 were the fourth most in a single season in school history.
C Tyler Horn – Miami
Horn, 6-4, 305 pounds, started his final 25 games at center for Miami and was named a second team All-ACC selection, and team captain. Horn anchored an offensive line that allowed the Hurricanes to average 145.7 rushing yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry in 2011.
G Phillip Manley – Toledo
Manley, 6-5, 309 pounds, was a two-year starter at guard for Toledo. In 2011, he helped pave the way for the Rockets offense to rush for 2,777 yards.
LT Bryce Harris – Fresno State
6-6, 300 pounds, was selected to the All-WAC first team by the league coaches and named to Phil Steele’s All-WAC first team after starting in all 13 games at left tackle at Fresno State. Played for new OL coach Pat Hill.
LB Rico Council – Tennessee State
Council, 6-1, 255 pounds, was tabbed Ohio Valley Conference Preseason Co-Defensive Player of the Year as a senior at Tennessee State. In 2011, he posted a team-high 87 tackles (49 solo) with 8.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, one interception, 11 passes defensed, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.
LB Max Gruder – Pittsburgh
Gruder, 6-2, 230 pounds, notched a team-high 116 tackles (58 solo) with 8.5 tackles for loss, three passes defensed and one half sack in his senior season at Pittsburgh. A versatile linebacker, he played a starting role at both weak side and middle linebacker in 2010 and was the team’s starting weak side backer in 2009.
LB Jerrell Harris – Alabama
6-3, 242 pounds, started at strong side linebacker for the National Champion Alabama Crimson Tide and recorded 22 tackles (12 solo) with 2.5 tackles for loss. In 2010, he started at both strong and weak side linebacker and finished with 24 tackles.
LB Pat Schiller – Northern Illinois
Schiller, 6-2, 235 pounds, led the team with 115 tackles (42 solo), two sacks and 10 tackles for loss in 2011. In four seasons, Schiller collared 239 tackles (91 solo), three sacks, 19 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, seven passes defensed and one interception.
DE Louis Nzegwu – Wisconsin
6-4, 255 pounds, was a four-year letter winner for the Badgers appearing in 48 games with 27 starts and logging 100 tackles (53 solo) with 17.5 tackles for loss, 11.0 sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. He started all 14 games and led the Badgers with 4.5 sacks helping Wisconsin reach the Rose Bowl in 2011.
DT Ray Kibble – Kansas State
Kibble, 6-4, 305 pounds, notched 38 tackles (14 solo) with 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and one forced fumble during his senior season at Kansas State. In 2010, he appeared in all 13 games with nine starts and made 30 tackles (11 solo) with one half sack.
DT Micanor Regis – Miami
Regis, 6-3, 305 pounds, played in 46 career games with 112 tackles (52 solo), 5.5 sacks, 18 tackles for loss, one forced fumble and three interceptions at Miami.
S Chad Faulcon – Montclair
6-0, 190 pounds, earned NJAC and D3Football.com East Region Defensive Player of the Year honors as well as Division III All-America honors as a senior at Montclair State. Faulcon appeared totaled 169 tackles, 13 tackles for loss. He picked off seven passes in his career and tallied 17 passes defensed as well as four forced fumbles.
CB Marty Markett – South Carolina
Markett, 5-10, 162 pounds, played both cornerback and special teams after walking on to the Gamecocks as a sophomore in 2009. He made 26 stops (21 solo) in 2011. Markett earned All-America honors as part of South Carolina’s 4×100 meter relay team in 2008.
CB Peyton Thompson – San Jose State
Thompson, 5-11, 180 pounds, logged 186 tackles (125 solo), 10.5 tackles for loss, seven interceptions, one sack, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and 22 passes defensed in four seasons at San Jose State. He played in 47 games, including 33 starts.
LS Josh Harris – Auburn
6-1, 224 pounds, served as Auburn’s long snapper on field goals, punts and PATs for the last three seasons, including 2010 when the Tigers won the BCS National Championship.
P Dawson Zimmerman – Clemson
Zimmerman, 6-2, 205 pounds, was named team specialist of the year in 2010, posting a 42.7-yard average on 60 punts along with 19 punts inside the 20, nine punts of 50+ yards, and a 40.6-yard net average.
Although it’s a very long shot to make the practice squad, much less the 53 man active roster, there are a few positions where one of these undrafted free agents could catch on and take a backups spot.
The Falcons have been looking for a quarterback to develop behind Matt Ryan for years now. There was DJ Shockley and then there was John Parker Wilson, but neither were able to jump above 3rd string QB and prove they could legitimately be a starter someday in the NFL. Chris Redman is a very steady backup and veteran QB, but as the Eagles, Packers, and Texans have shown recently, it pays to develop a young guy you could possibly trade for draft picks at some point. It doesn’t hurt that Dominique Davis was actually Matt Ryan’s backup at Boston College.
By far and away the biggest chance for an undrafted free agent to catch on. There are two potential positions on the active roster for a player to earn a spot. The Falcons are set at the top with Roddy, Julio, and HD, but the Birds usually carry 5 receivers on their active roster and several on the practice squad. Kerry Meier, Drew Davis, and Kevin Cone are thought of as the favorites to win those two spots, but you never know. Eric Weems was undrafted and now he has a new contract in Chicago. Guys like Cody Pearcy and James Rodgers who offer special teams ability have an upper leg in the race. However, Weems has been the only receiver out of the 40 some odd undrafted receivers to make the jump.
Similar to wide receiver, the Falcons are set at the top with Spoon, Nicholas, Dent, and newly signed Lofa Tatupu. But if Mike Nolan decides to carry 6 linebackers as in the past, there could be a spot had by one of the free agents. Spencer Adkins and Robert James have been the backups for years, but if one of the LBs comes in and plays lights out, a spot could be available. Adkins will probably be favored to take one of the spots with his quality play at the end of the season, but 1 LB spot still remains. A special teams ace is a must and the picture is further clouded with Mike Nolan potentially moving guys like Kroy Biermann, Lawrence Sidbury, or Jonathan Massaquoi to OLB.
The undrafted tight end players can thank Thomas Dimitroff once again for not drafting a tight end in the draft for his 5th consecutive year (excluding 7th round pick Keith Zinger) and giving them a golden opportunity to make the team. Gonzalez has said this is his last year and Michael Palmer is only one of three tight ends that is a part of the Falcons long-term plans (they usually carry 3 TE’s on their active roster). If the tight end prospects can show some serious upside in camp, they may very well find themselves in Palmer’s old position only a few years ago.
It’s going to be next to impossible for a cornerback to make the team with Samuel, Grimes, Robinson, Franks, Owens, and likely even Walls set at that position. Safety, however, could be a good spot for someone to make a name for themselves considering the miniscule depth behind starters Thomas DeCoud and oft-injured William Moore. Charles Mitchell was taken in the 6th round and almost definitely will be considered a favorite to win one backup spot. The other spot is likely up for grabs with Shann Schillinger under-performing in preseason games.
1) Will any of these undrafted free agents make the 53 man roster?
2) Which players do you think will make the team, if any?
3) Is it a stretch to see any of these guys making the team?
4) What backups should be worried with these UDFA’s in camp?
5) Which positions are the best chances for some of these guys?
6) How about the practice squad: will any of these players get on it?