Every spring, more than 250 players are selected in the NFL draft. The league's 32 teams have dozens of scouts who spend months researching virtually every college football player in the world. Most players taken in the draft come from the NCAA's "power conferences," which include schools like Florida State, Alabama, and Ohio State.
But in 2015 alone, there were players selected from some of the tiniest programs: Central Arkansas, Monmouth, Samford, Towson, William & Mary, Delaware — and Delaware State! Mars Hill University is in fact located on Earth (North Carolina, to be exact). And that is where Denzelle Good, taken by the Indianapolis Colts with the second-to-last pick of the draft, played college ball. Buccaneers offensive lineman Ali Marpet of Hobart College became the first Division III player selected since 2012.
There was a time when a player might have gone undrafted because no one in the NFL saw him play, but that's no longer the case. For those not drafted, the 32 teams saw you and just decided you weren't worth a pick.
That's bad news for your NFL future, but it doesn't mean you're hopeless. Many stars never heard their names called in the draft. There are a number of reasons they slipped through the cracks.
While the NFL is finding more small-school stars than ever, those players from FCS or Division II or III schools are still making a huge leap when it comes to level of competition. That makes a small-school prospect a risk. For instance, in 2002, Eastern Illinois quarterback Tony Romo won the Walter Payton Award as the top player in Division I-AA (now known as FCS), college football's second-highest division. He was invited to the NFL combine to try out for teams before the draft but failed to impress. However, Romo had a connection in the NFL: Another former Eastern Illinois quarterback, Sean Payton, was a popular young assistant coach for the Dallas Cowboys. Payton persuaded the Cowboys to sign Romo as an undrafted free agent. Of course, Romo still sat on the bench for the first three years of his NFL career, which helped his development. But now the veteran signal-caller is considered a true franchise quarterback.
The simple fact is that NFL football is a physical sport played by a lot of huge men, especially on defense. Heading into the 2002 draft, 6-foot, 242-pound Kent State linebacker James Harrison was considered too little to play in the NFL. In fact, even after being signed as an undrafted free agent by the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was released by the team and later cut by the Baltimore Ravens. It wasn't until '04 that Harrison got any real playing time in the NFL, and he wasn't a starter until '07. Once he got onto the field, though, his small stature wasn't an issue anymore. Among the highlights: Harrison was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, twice a first-team All-Pro, and he had the longest play in Super Bowl history when he returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII.
Arian Foster finished his collegiate career as the second-leading rusher in University of Tennessee history. Had he entered the NFL draft after his junior season, he was expected to be a first- or second-round pick. He returned for his senior season, though, and struggled through knee and thigh injuries. He had also suffered through injuries as a sophomore two seasons earlier, and a pulled hamstring kept him from performing at the NFL scouting combine. It all added up to Foster going unpicked in 2009. The Texans scooped him up as a free agent after the draft, and after sitting for most of his rookie year he emerged as one of the NFL's top running backs in '10.
Jason Peters started his college football career as a defensive lineman for Arkansas. But he soon switched to the offensive side of the ball, becoming a hard-nosed blocking tight end who also caught 21 passes in his final season with the Razorbacks. While he was an All-SEC tight end, Peters was already more than 300 pounds. His NFL future would be as an offensive lineman. No one was quite sure just how Peters would fare after another position switch, so he went undrafted in 2004. The Bills picked him up as a free agent, using him at tight end and offensive tackle. Before the '06 season, Peters beat out Mike Williams, the fourth overall pick of the '02 draft, for the starting right tackle job. Peters immediately became one of the NFL's elite offensive linemen, making back-to-back Pro Bowls in 2007 and '08. He was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles before the '09 season for three draft picks, including a first-rounder. Peters has made five more Pro Bowls since joining Philly.
Antonio Gates wasn't exactly new to football. He was an accomplished high school player who planned on playing two sports, including football, at Michigan State University. But when Nick Saban, then the coach at MSU, told him he wasn't allowed to play basketball, Gates ended up leaving. He bounced around between a few schools before landing at Kent State to play basketball only. And he was a great basketball player, a double-double machine who helped Kent State reach the Elite Eight in 2002.
Considered too short to be an NBA power forward, Gates accepted an invitation to try out for the San Diego Chargers after his senior season. He hadn't been drafted because he hadn't played football in years. Gates made the Chargers as a reserve tight end in 2003, and his career really took off when he caught 13 touchdowns in his second season. Last year, he became the fourth tight end in NFL history with more than 10,000 career receiving yards.
After a forgettable career as a linebacker at Penn State led to his going undrafted, a young man named Derek Wake got a tryout with the New York Giants. After he was cut, he took a job at a local gym and tried to figure out what he should do next. Because of a paperwork mixup at the gym, he had his middle name on his name tag, so everyone knew him as Cameron. That even included his agent, who landed him a contract with the Canadian Football League's British Columbia Lions. He had a new name, Cameron Wake and a new position (defensive end). Suddenly something just clicked like it never had in college. He became one of the CFL's stars, winning defensive player of the year honors in two straight seasons, and soon started getting attention from NFL teams. The Miami Dolphins signed him after the 2008 season, and Wake has since emerged as one of NFL's best pass rushers, making the Pro Bowl four times in six seasons and averaging more than 10 sacks per year.
Photos: John W. McDonough for Sports Illustrated (Romo, Gates), Heinz Kluetmeier for Sports Illustrated (Harrison), Ronald C. Modra for Sports Illustrated (Foster), Al Bello/Getty Images (Peters), Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/Getty Images (Wake)
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