With the 2015 NFL Draft coming up in May, many would be NFL draftees continue to their march towards possible selection in rounds 1 through 7. But a number of college prospects won’t hear their name called out at all, yet enjoy very fruitful and lucrative careers as a professional football players.
How is that?
The Football Educator sat down with Jon Heath to explore the somewhat uncommon success of Denver Broncos undrafted free agents C.J. Anderson and Chris Harris.
Q1: Both C.J. Anderson and Chris Harris made the Pro Bowl this year, how in the world did they go undrafted?
When you initially look at Anderson’s college career, there’s not much that stands out overall. He transferred to Cal from Laney College, where he was a decorated JUCO standout. He was the backup to Isi Sofele (1322 yards) and averaged just 5 carries a game as a junior. His senior season was solid, yet unspectacular. His 790 yards ranked 99th in the NCAA, 9th in the PAC-12. At 5’8” he’s a bit short for the position, but his 224 lbs fills out that frame nicely.
His Combine numbers were again solid, yet unspectacular. There are elements to the overall evaluation that we don’t have access to; medical, drugs, off the field. These all can play a factor in how a player is ranked, and I have no information as to how that played out for Anderson.
As for his Pro Bowl selection, Anderson was a replacement for Le’Veon Bell and though his 2014 season was impressive, I didn’t see him at that level. Denver’s overall offensive notoriety played a big role in his selection.
Chris Harris, Jr. was likely lost in the futility of Kansas his senior season (3-9). Right or wrong, that can at times sway the message coming out of a school. Harris certainly had productive numbers for the Jayhawks, though had just 1 career INT as a sophomore, and recorded 1 PBU as a senior. Opponents likely attacked the other DC vs Kansas, and you probably would have had to go to JR tape to see him shine. Harris was a “tackling machine” as an outside defender, recording over 80+ his junior & senior seasons.
He was listed at 6’0” in college and later measured 5’9” at his Pro Day, and his numbers were pretty good for the position, the 4.48 a solid 40-yard time. With 33.5” arms, that combination plays well with a 34” VJ.
Players like Anderson and Harris are often judged by what they “can’t do” and not what the “can do.” It’s inherent in the evaluation process, as clubs make their way down the list at each position. Frequently you get to the back end of the draft pool and you hear all the weaknesses brought out in a scouting report, while at times failing to focus on the positives.
Once the draft is over, it’s the job of the scouts to sell the remaining players to their decision makers (GM, Head Coach, or Personnel Director) and suddenly all the positive aspects are brought out on the player and how those play into what your respective offensive & defensive schemes could use.
Q2: It seems like every year we see another undrafted player emerge as a star, why do you think that is?
There’s not as much pressure on the undrafted player to shine from the outside. That is expectations are much lower from the staff and media. Many times nobody even knows who the player is, and so it’s incumbent on the individual to do something to standout and get noticed.
Many of these players come to camp with their egos bruised and chip on their shoulder. When you start to breakdown a position group, often very little separates a 1st round “talent” from 7th or Free Agent “talent”.
A lot of production at the college level has to do with circumstance and scenario. Players at Alabama are going to be surrounded (for the most part) with other talented players, and that helps them compete & produce on the field. Often the college Free Agent is the most talented player on his team & is forced to carry the load each week. Opponents line up their best on him to neutralize his production.
A study has shown that the top 3 sources for 2-Deep talent in the NFL are 1st & 2nd round selections, then undrafted free agents. Clubs can zero in on players that fill a particular need and often these players are put into positive positions as far as the roster goes.
Q3: How do players like that go undrafted in the first place? Do teams not do a good enough job scouting?
Teams do a GREAT job scouting their entire board, but most clubs don’t go with the best available player at the time. GM’s and Head Coaches are filling out their rosters “after” Pro Free Agency, and need is the driving force (regardless what they might tell you).
On average there are only so many players taken at each position over the course of a draft, and at times you’re just going to see some talented players get squeezed out. Not because they’re not physically capable of competing, but more likely because of some of the aspects I mentioned with Anderson and Harris.
The same amount of information is gathered on undrafted players as is with drafted players. The Combine normally invites upwards of 350 to its annual workout, while the draft is going to select just around 250. That leaves at least 100 players that were selected to come to INDY on the outside, but the same amount of scrutiny is given and the same amount of data collected.
Q4: Denver seems to have had a lot of success finding undrafted players and turning them into stars. Is that merely coincidental, or do you think they are doing something right? If your answer is the latter, what do you think they are doing?
I don’t think Denver is any more or less better at finding undrafted free agents than the rest of the NFL. I do think with their success as of late, they’ve been given an opportunity to be a bit more patient with the development of these type players and haven’t felt forced to play their draft choices right away, or to push out youth for quick veteran productivity. The Broncos certainly know what types of players they’re looking for on offense and defense, and that helps when scouts go out and scour the country. But it’s nothing new to this regime. WR Rod Smith was an undrafted free agent, as was LT Matt Lepsis & TE Dwayne Carswell. CSU’s Erik Pears (OT) is another notable former Bronco undrafted free agent that has had a successful NFL career.
Q5: Can you tell me how Anderson and Harris overcame being undrafted and tell me a little about their stories?
C.J. Anderson fell into a great situation. The Broncos had drafted Montee Ball out of Wisconsin with their 2nd round pick in 2013, then let former #1 Knowshon Moreno go in Free Agency in 2014. Anderson was little more than a footnote his rookie season, appearing in 5 games & only 7 carries. But when Ball went down with an injury in ’14, Ronnie Hillman had already proven not to be the guy to carry the primary load. Anderson’s build and subsequent ability once in the open field made him a valuable asset to the Broncos attack, especially running on 1st & 2nd down (732 yds).
Chris Harris, Jr’s situation was a little different. As a rookie, Harris saw action in Dennis Allen’s defense predominantly at the nickel position. His physical demeanor and solid athleticism made him a good defender over the slot receivers. Champ Bailey and Andre Goodman were the established veteran starters, and Harris was allowed to develop without being thrown out on to the island right away. Harris flashed at times, but might have been a liability late in the season, and certainly was exposed some by Tom Brady and the Patriots in the Divisional Playoff loss.
Tracy Porter was signed via Free Agency from the Saints to fill the void left by Goodman after 2011, but when an injury took him down in Week 4, Harris became the starter and never looked back. Jack Del Rio’s confidence grew in Harris as the season progressed, though Harris was certainly the target of most opponents with Bailey on the other side. But I feel this only accelerated his learning curve and made him a more confident player.
Q6: Do you think it would be appropriate for another round to be added to the draft so more players like Anderson and Harris would be drafted?
No, I don’t. The draft was 8 rounds back in 1993 and the new format was agreed upon with the emergence of Free Agency in the NFL and the resulting Collective Bargaining Agreement. The Union will always like FREEDOM of choice.
Despite the “compelling stories” of players like C.J. Anderson and Chris Harris, Jr., most undrafted college free agents don’t hang around all that long. My argument for keeping things the way they are is the opportunity for these players with some “holes” in their game to essentially be recruited by the teams that see the positives in their abilities and will ultimately work to make them fit their systems.
Most NFL clubs look to get undrafted free agents “on the cheap”, but while I was in Denver we paid them a very competitive & similar signing bonus to 7th round picks. We took more quality over quantity. In the end, what does it matter if you’re drafted or not, especially on the backend where guaranteed money isn’t that much and base salary is going to be the same regardless of where you’re selected?
Besides, it makes for the opportunity for more stories like Anderson and Harris.