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Monday, 19 January 2015

Top 20 Rookie Undrafted Free Agents in 2014

Allen Hurns catching his first career touchdown pass against Philadelphia

Each season there are undrafted rookie players that not only are able to make a regular season roster in the NFL, but to start and make owners, general managers, scouts and coaches scratch their heads from why they weren't picked in that April's Draft. 

In the 2014 season there was no exception, so let's look at twenty (plus two honorable mentions) undrafted rookies (with the college they attended in parentheses) who made their mark in their first season in the National Football League:


1. Isaiah Crowell, running back, Cleveland Browns (Alabama State)

Crowell starred at Alabama State for two seasons, rushing for 15 touchdowns both in 2012 and 2013. He had transferred from the University of Georgia after his freshman season at Athens, due to an arrest on felony weapons charges. After his junior season with the Hornets, Crowell skipped his senior season to declare for the 2014 NFL Draft. Although he was undrafted (some say due to his troublesome past), he beat highly touted free agent acquisiton Ben Tate and was the Browns second leading rusher, with 607 yards and ran for 8 touchdowns, second best for a rookie in 2014 (Jeremy Hill of the Cincinnati Bengals led all rookies with 9 rushing touchdowns).


2. Branden Oliver, running back, San Diego Chargers (Buffalo)

Oliver had back-to-back 100-yard rushing games for the Chargers in weeks 5 and 6 (both San Diego wins) replacing the injured Ryan Mathews. He finished his rookie season with more than 850 rushing and receiving yards and scored four touchdowns.


3. Juwan Thompson, running back, Denver Broncos (Duke)


Thompson averaged over 5 yards rushing and scored three touchdowns in 2014 in a limited role in Denver behind C. J. Anderson, an undrafted running back in 2013. Thompson should vie for more playing time in 2015.


4. Allen Hurns, wide receiver, Jacksonville Jaguars (Miami, FL)

In week one, Hurns caught two touchdown passes against the Philadelphia Eagles with his first two receptions in his career, only the second player in NFL history to accomplish it (Hurns touchdowns were both in the first quarter, the first rookie player in league history to score twice in the first quarter of his first game). He finished the 2014 season with 52 receptions for 677 yards, and 6 touchdown receptions, good for sixth place amongst rookies.


5. Taylor Gabriel, wide receiver, Cleveland Browns (Abilene Christian)

Gabriel played well for the suspended Josh Gordon, with four games with more than 80 yards receiving, good for fourth place amongst rookie wide receivers (only first round draft picks Odell Beckham Jr., Kelvin Benjamin and Sammy Watkins had more). He was third in the NFL this season in yards per reception with 17.3.


6. Philly Brown, wide receiver/punt returner, Carolina Panthers  (Ohio State)

Corey Phillip "Philly" Brown was twice named 2nd team All-Big Ten while playing for the Ohio State Buckeyes. As a NFL rookie he scored one of the most unusual touchdowns of 2014 in a game against the Chicago Bears: while waiting to receive a Pat O'Donnell punt, he was tackled by Teddy Williams before the return, drawing a flag. But the ball became loose and Brown reacted and recovered it, racing 79 yards for a touchdown (it was the first punt return for a touchdown by Carolina since Steve Smith in 2003). He also had 21 receptions for 296 yards 2 receiving touchdowns in the season as a backup for rookie 1st round Draft pick Kelvin Benjamin and veteran Jerricho Cotchery. 

7. James Hurst, offensive tackle, Baltimore Ravens (North Carolina)

Hurst played in all 16 games for the Ravens and started 5 at left tackle in place of injured starter Eugene Monroe. He could challenge Monroe and right tackle Ricky Wagner for a starting spot next year. With the North Carolina Tar Heels, he was twice selected to the All-Atlantic Coast Conference first team and once to the second team.


8. Cornelius Lucas, offensive tackle, Detroit Lions (Kansas State)


The mammoth-sized Lucas (6-9, 328 lb.) played in 15 games for the Lions and started 3 at right tackle in place of injured starter LaAdrian Waddle. He could challenge Waddle for a starting spot next year.


9. Jonotthan Harrison, center, Indianapolis Colts (Florida)

Harrison became the Colts starting center in October due to injuries to Khaled Holmes and A. Q. Shipley, and started the last 11 games of the season for the Colts. He should challenge for a staring spot next year.


10. Zach Kerr, defensive end, Indianapolis Colts  (Delaware)

Kerr was one of the few undrafted rookies this year to gain votes to the All-Rookie team. He finished with 3 sacks, 4 quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. He was named to the All-Colonial Athletic Association team while playing for the Delaware Blue Hens, where he transferred from the University of Maryland after his sophomore season.


11. Christian Jones, linebacker, Chicago Bears (Florida State)

Jones led all undrafted rookies with 69 tackles (41 solo), and also had 2 sacks and one fumble recovered. He started 5 games for Chicago in place of the injured D. J. Williams. His father Willie Jones, also played college football for the Florida State Seminoles and was a starter at defensive end for the Oakland Raiders in 1980, when they won Super Bowl XV.


12. Marcus Williams, cornerback, New York Jets  (North Dakota State)

Williams was signed by the Jets from the Houston Texans practice squad on November due to the poor play of starter Antonio Allen, and to injuries to Dee Milliner and Darrin Walls, and started the last 8 games of the season at left cornerback for the Jets, intercepting 1 pass and recording 29 tackles.


13. K'Waun Williams, cornerback, Cleveland Browns (Pittsburgh)


Williams made an impact since the first game of the season against the Pittsburgh Steelers, recording 3 tackles in that game. He started 4 games at cornerback for the Browns (twice than much-heralded 1st round draft pick Justin Gilbert), and recorded 38 tackles (29 solo) and one sack.



14. Tyler Patmon, cornerback, Dallas Cowboys  (Oklahoma State)


Patmon beat former 4th-round draft choice B. W. Webb for the Cowboys' backup cornerback spot. He was one of only five rookies this season to return an interception for a touchdown (a 58-yard return against Arizona in week 9) and the only undrafted to do it.


15. Pierre Warren, safety, New Orleans Saints (Jacksonville State)

Warren was signed by the Saints from the Minnesota Vikings practice squad on November due to injuries to starter Jairus Byrd and backup Rafael Bush, and played the last 6 games of the season. He had two interceptions in a nationally televised Monday Night victory at Soldier Field against the Chicago Bears, and finished the season with 30 tackles (21 solo), four pass defended and one forced fumble.


16. Cody Parkey, kicker, Philadelphia Eagles (Auburn)

Despite being one of the top placekickers in all of college football while playing at Auburn, Parkey went undrafted in 2014. The Indianapolis Colts signed him as a free agent, but he was traded to the Eagles in the preseason and Parkey beat incumbent Alex Henery for Philadelphia's placekicker job. Parkey was second in the NFL with 150 points scored, and finished third in the league with 32 field goals (8th in field goal percentage). He was named a Pro Bowl alternate (he will play next Sunday replacing the Super Bowl-bound Stephen Gostkowski) and was selected to the All-Rookie team.


17. Chandler Catanzaro, kicker, Arizona Cardinals (Clemson)

Despite only missing one field goal in each of his junior and senior seasons at Clemson, Catanzaro went undrafted in 2014. The Cardinals signed him as a free agent and he beat incumbent Jay Feely for Arizona's placekicker job. He set a rookie record with 17 straight field goals made at the start of a career, and finished 10th this season in field goal percentage.


18. Cairo Santos, kicker, Kansas City Chiefs (Tulane)

Despite winning the Lou Groza Award as the Nation's top placekicker in 2012 while playing for the Tulane Green Wave, the Brazilian-born Santos went undrafted in 2014. The Chiefs signed him as a free agent and he beat incumbent Ryan Succop for Kansas City's placekicker job.


19. Solomon Patton, wide receiver/kick and punt returner, Tampa Bay Buccaneers/Arizona Cardinals  (Florida)

Labeled as too small (5-9, 177 lb.) to play in the National Football League, Patton was picked up by Tampa Bay as a free agent. Although he spent some time in October with Arizona, he returned to the Buccaneers. He finished with over 500 return yards, good for fifth place amongst rookies.

20. Chris Davis, cornerback/kick returner, San Diego Chargers  (Auburn)


Despite being named a first team All-American in 2013 and winning a National Championship in 2011 while playing at Auburn, Davis was undrafted despite being projected as a fifth round pick. He finished 2014 with 476 kickoff return yards, good for third place amongst rookies.


Honorable Mention 1. Connor Shaw, quarterback, Cleveland Browns (South Carolina)

Undrafted out of South Carolina, where he led the Gamecocks to three bowl titles, Shaw outplayed heralded 1st round draft pick Johnny Manziel, when starter Brian Hoyer and Manziel were hurt.


In Week 17 visiting the Baltimore Ravens, he became the only undrafted rookie quarterback to start a game in 2014. Although the Browns lost that game 20-10, Cleveland was leading until 8 minutes remaining in the game. Only time will tell if Shaw will have a better pro career than Manziel.


Honorable Mention 2. David Foucault, offensive tackle, Carolina Panthers (Montreal) 

Maybe it will seem odd to put someone who played college football in the Canadian Interuniversity Sports system instead of an NCAA/NAIA player, but the 6-8, 320 lb. Foucault made history when he started at left tackle for the Carolina Panthers on a nationally televised Thursday Night football game against the New Orleans Saints in week 9 in place of the injured Byron Bell. Although he is not the first Canadian-born offensive lineman who played Canadian football in college to start a game in the NFL (Mike Schad, who was a 1st round pick by the Los Angeles Rams in 1986 and played at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, started 55 games for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1989 through 1993), the former University of Montreal Carabins star is the first undrafted foreign-born rookie to start a game in the NFL without playing college football in the United States (for the record, another Canadian-born offensive tackle who played college football in Canada (and also a Quebecois) was drafted in 2014, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, from McGill University, in the sixth round (200th overall) by the Kansas City Chiefs, but he missed his rookie season with injury). Foucault did got drafted in the first round (5th overall) of the 2014 CFL Draft by the Montreal Alouettes, but he preferred the challenge to make an NFL roster and he did it.


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