With the National Football League calendar year underway for 2011, there will be a flurry of player transactions almost like never before.
The only real comparison I can make is when the teams signed replacement players in 1987, thus putting an entire team together in a couple of days.
I figure that with the Denver Broncos’ signing of our own draft choices, undrafted college free agents, veteran free agents, possible trades and roster reductions re cuts, the Broncos will average a headline per hour for the next five or six days, basing that on the hours of a normal daylight working day.
It is going to be chaotic.
For a fan, stay tuned, and embrace the chaos. The football operations department has had a plan in place and will now be executing it.
A big component of that is the signing of undrafted college free agents—that is, players who were eligible for the college draft this year, but were not selected. In a lot of cases, the fans have not heard of the names, so the signings get announced without a lot of fanfare.
Do not let that mislead you. Talent comes from many places, and the NFL is a total meritocracy. No matter how or when they sign, or for how much money, they all go onto the field together, and the players determine their status.
In a lot of instances, most of them, actually, the players cut themselves and rise on the depth charts themselves. For eight years in a row, an undrafted college free agent has made the Broncos’ final regular season roster.
With that in mind, here are a few of my thoughts on some of the Broncos who started off as complete unknowns, undrafted college free agents. I think you will agree that their impact in undisputed.
Rod Smith is the greatest undrafted college FA at the side receiver position in football history. That truly is undisputed. He is the all-time leader in receptions, reception yardage, and reception touchdowns as an undrafted WR, and helped lead us to two Super Bowl rings.
Most recently, Cassius Vaughn made the team last year and is a young player with a lot of promise.
But while Vaughn has not become a household name thus far, there are a lot of other examples in the Rod Smith category.
How about Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown, who was an AFL all-star for the Broncos before gaining his greatest fame at Oakland?
Gene Mingo, the first African-American star in Broncos history and the game’s first black placekicker, who played here in the 1960’s.
Ring of Fame wide receiver Lionel Taylor.
Rich Karlis, who not only was an undrafted free agent but had to survive a 478-player tryout camp just to get his first contract.
David Treadwell succeeded Karlis and was a fine kicker for years as well.
Pro Bowl linebacker Bob Swenson, who started in Super Bowl XII.
Linebacker Joe Rizzo, who also started on that first Super Bowl team. While Swenson played his college ball at big time Cal, Rizzo came from King’s Point, which is the Merchant Marine Academy—the only pro player ever from the school!
Dave Studdard protected John Elway’s blind side for a decade as the Broncos’ left tackle.
When the 1987 replacement games ended, Keith Kartz had made the team and joined Studdard as a free agent starter on 1980’s Super Bowl teams.
Who can forget wide receiver Steve Watson, a great fan favorite still.
Greg Kragen was a Pro Bowl nose tackle here in the 1980’s. A great technician, regarded as the game’s best technical player at his position.
The Super Bowl teams were loaded with free agents who made an impact, including:
DE Maa Tanuvasa and DE Harald Hasselbach, who also helped the Broncos to those two rings.
TE Dwayne Carswell, nicknamed “House,” a fixture here for more than a decade.
That is only a partial list, but I think you get the idea.
So when someone tells you that no free agent ever amounts to anything, it is OK to respond with any or all names on this list, which proves that in terms of player evaluation, like everything else in life, it is often what you learn after you think you know it all that makes the biggest difference.