Antonio Gates and Sam Shields are among the best players on their teams.
Gates, the San Diego Chargers standout, ranks fourth all time among NFL tight ends in receptions (797) and second in touchdowns (101). He’s a good bet for the Pro Football Hall of Fame unless his four-game suspension for PED use to start this season derails him.
And at age 35 he’s still good enough to have returned from his suspension last week and caught nine passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Shields is the Green Bay Packers’ No. 1 cornerback and went to the Pro Bowl last year. With his career-best start this season, he’s probably the fourth-best player (behind Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and Mike Daniels) on a Packers defense that ranks No. 3 in the NFL in fewest points allowed and No. 7 in fewest yards.
Gates and Shields also share a common path to their key roles for their teams, who meet Sunday at Lambeau Field: Both entered the NFL as undrafted rookies.
If their drafts were held over and teams knew what they know now, Gates would be one of the first few picks in 2003. Shields wouldn’t last past the middle of what was an exceptional first round in 2010.
Yes, undrafted free agents who hit it big are like free money for their teams and the stuff of scouts’ dreams.
“When you’re able to identify (a standout undrafted free agent) and watch him grow, then as an organization you feel like your guys are doing a good job,” a high-ranking scout for an AFC team said. “You always like to find one or two of those guys, because you know they’re out there.”
In fact, the NFL is full of undrafted players. A study by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette found that there were 456 among the 1,696 available roster spots in Week 1 of 2014. That’s about 27 percent of the players in the league.
And Gates and Shields are far from alone as undrafted players who became much more than roster fillers. In consultation with two pro scouts for NFL teams, we put together an All-Undrafted NFL team for 2015, and it’s a good one. That team is listed below.
Gates, in fact, is one of two Chargers on it — receiver Malcom Floyd (Class of ’04) is the other. But he is the only member who has a chance make it to the Hall of Fame, where he would join 15 other undrafted enshrinees, including the Packers’ Willie Wood.
Gates’ undrafted route to stardom was unusual because he didn’t play college football. He was a high school football star who was going to play football and basketball at Michigan State, until former Spartans coach Nick Saban told him he could play only football. If allowed only one sport Gates wanted basketball, so he transferred and went on to a decorated career at Kent State.
As a 6-foot-4 power player, he was too much of a ‘tweener for the NBA, so he worked out for NFL teams and signed with the Chargers after the 2003 draft.
Shields’ path to the NFL included a switch from receiver to cornerback his senior season in college at Miami. Because of his raw speed, he probably had a shot at being a late-round pick in 2010, but he was arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession that spring. Though the charges were dropped before the draft, he went unselected.
By last year Shields had surpassed Tramon Williams as the Packers’ top cover man — in 2014 he signed a new contract that ties him for the eighth-highest average salary at cornerback in the NFL at $9.75 million — and early this season he has played the best of his career despite a poor opener at Chicago. According to Pro Football Focus, Shields has the seventh-best coverage grades of all cornerbacks in the NFL and allowed the sixth-lowest passer rating (44.2) on throws directed at him.
He also has passed the eye test. Though Shields’ tackling remains suspect, his downfield coverage has stood out in recent weeks. There’s just no substitute for being one of the fastest players in the NFL – Shields ran the 40 in 4.30 seconds at his campus workout coming out of Miami.
He showed that catch-up speed at San Francisco two weeks ago on his leaping interception of a deep ball to Anquan Boldin. And last week he made two thoroughbred breakups in one-on-one coverage. One was a jump-ball fade to 6-foot-3 Brian Quick in the end zone; on the other he ran step for step with speedster Tavon Austin before nearly intercepting a deep throw.
“Over the years you’ve watched him grow in terms of discipline in coverage,” the scout said. “But really his thing has always been speed.”
In honor of Gates and Shields and all the undrafted players who make it to the NFL, below is the All-Undrafted team for 2015, based on consultation with the two pro scouts. It’s a good one.
Most importantly, there’s a legit franchise quarterback, Tony Romo. But there are enough playmakers at other positions to think at minimum it would be a playoff team.
“You’d like to coach that team and you’d like to be the GM,” one of the scouts said after hearing the final starting lineup. “They ought to have an all-star game with those guys.”
The offense includes three receivers and no fullback; the defense is a 4-3 scheme. The players’ draft class is in parenthesis.
Quarterback: Tony Romo (’03), Dallas. Behind him, this position is thin. Miami’s Matt Moore (’07) probably is the next best.
Wide Receivers: Victor Cruz (’10), New York Giants; Doug Baldwin (’11), Seattle; Malcom Floyd (’04), San Diego. The position gets a little thin after that. New England’s Danny Amendola (’08) probably would be the No. 4. Wes Welker (’04) would have been a great choice for slot receiver, but it appears concussion issues have ended his career.
Tight end: Antonio Gates (’03), San Diego. He might be the second-best tight end of his generation behind Tony Gonzalez.
Running back: Arian Foster (’09), Houston. Foster is getting up there in age (29) and has injury issues, but from 2010-14 he’s third in the NFL in rushing yards behind LeSean McCoy and Marshawn Lynch. The New York Jets’ Chris Ivory (’10), who’s averaging 104.7 yards rushing a game this season, was next.
Tackles: Jason Peters (’04), Phladelphia; Donald Penn (’06), Oakland. With two All-Pros and seven Pro Bowls, Peters has been one of the league’s best left tackles for a decade. Penn has played in one Pro Bowl. Oakland’s Austin Howard (’10) received consideration, as did Jacksonville’s Jermey Parnell (’09), who played basketball at Mississippi until his senior year in college.
Guards: Alex Boone (’09), San Francisco; Ramon Foster (’09), Pittsburgh. Boone is in his fourth season as a starter for the 49ers; Foster has started for the Steelers since the second half of the 2010 season.
Center: David Andrews (’15), New England. The rookie from Georgia has been a godsend for the Patriots with starter Bryan Stork on IR/designated for return and guard-center Ryan Wendell just returning from a shoulder injury. Tampa Bay’s Evan Smith (’09) – he was Evan Dietrich-Smith when he played for the Packers – finished second.
Defensive ends: Cameron Wake (’05), Miami; Michael Bennett (’09), Seattle. Both are difference makers. Wake, a CFL refugee, is a four-time Pro Bowler and had 57 1/2 sacks from 2010 through last season. Bennett’s numbers aren’t as impressive – 27 1/2 sacks in his last 53 games – but two scouts from the NFC West Division have told me he’s as important as anyone to the Seahawks’ defense. Tampa Bay’s Jacquies Smith (’12) looks like an up-and-comer (10 1/2 sacks in his last 20 games).
Defensive tackles: Desmond Bryant (’09), Cleveland; Damon Harrison (’12), New York Jets. Bryant, who played at Harvard, is a 3-4 end with 16 1/2 sacks from 2011-14. Harrison (6-foot-4, 350) is a true nose tackle and run stuffer in his third season as a starter.
Linebackers: Vontaze Burfict (’12), Cincinnati; Jerrell Freeman (’08), Indianapolis; Paul Worrilow (’13), Atlanta. Burfict has been a starter since his rookie season and went to the Pro Bowl last year. He’s expected to come off PUP soon. Freeman is the first player from Division III Mary Hardin-Baylor to sign an NFL contract, played in the CFL from 209-11 and has been a starter with the Colts since 2012. Worrilow in his third season as a starter.
Cornerbacks: Sam Shields (’10), Green Bay; Chris Harris (’11), Denver. Brent Grimes (’06), who was a teammate of the Packers’ John Kuhn at Shippensburg, is a three-time Pro Bowler and probably would be the nickel back. New Orleans’ Brandon Browner (’04) and former Packers player Tramon Williams (’06), now with Cleveland, also entered the league undrafted.
Safeties: Tashaun Gipson (’12), Cleveland; Will Hill (’11), Baltimore. Gipson went to the Pro Bowl last year and has 12 interceptions since becoming a starter in ’13. The Ravens signed Hill in the spring to a two-year deal worth $7 million, including $5 million guaranteed.
Kicker: Justin Tucker (’12), Baltimore. Was a high school teammate of Nick Foles’ in Texas and has made 89.3 percent of his field-goal attempts in three-plus seasons.
Punter: Britton Colquitt (’09), Denver. His father, Craig, punted seven years in the NFL, and brother, Dustin, is Kanas City’s punter.
Long-snapper: Beau Brinkley (’12), Tennessee. In March he signed a five-year deal worth $5.75 million.
firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.