By Steve Silverman
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It is the most unheralded way of building an NFL team.
Most fans look at the NFL Draft as the last offseason step when it comes to putting together a roster for the upcoming season.
The first step is stripping down and building up the coaching staff, usually on Black Monday, the day after the regular season ends.
Free agency is the next vital step, and that’s a huge area when it comes to turning a weakness into a strength, or a strength into an area of dominance.
After that effort, general managers, scouts and coaches concentrate on the draft, which is culminated with a three-day exercise in April.
However, there are a number of competent players who don’t get selected over the seven-round draft. These players are rookie free agents who can make a huge difference in winning, losing and building championship teams.
Some of the best players in the NFL who started off as undrafted rookies include Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler, Jaguars wide receiver Allen Hurns, Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake, Giants defensive tackle Damon Harrison, Eagles left tackle Jason Peters, Steelers linebacker James Harrison and Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard.
Peters and Harrison have had sensational careers, and in addition to ranking among the best undrafted players in the league right now, they belong on a list with the best undrafted players of all-time. Perhaps the best of those players was Kurt Warner, the Hall of Fame quarterback who led the “Greatest Shown on Turf” St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl victory following the 1999 season.
Other all-time greats include defensive back Dick “Night Train” Lane, quarterback Warren Moon, cornerback Willie Brown, Lou “The Toe” Groza, defensive tackle John Randle, quarterback Tony Romo, tight end Antonio Gates, wideout Rod Smith and offensive tackle Joe Jacoby.
These players have all been difference makers, and there may be similar players who were not drafted this year who can have a huge impact.
Here are five rookie free agents who have a chance to go from obscurity to significance in a short period of time.
HARDY NICKERSON, LB, CINCINNATI
The name is familiar because his father, Hardy Nickerson Sr., was a longtime linebacker for the Steelers and Buccaneers before closing out his career with the Jaguars and Packers.
There is a key similarity between son and father. The younger Nickerson has a nonstop motor that was obvious during the 2016 season at Illinois. Nickerson had 107 tackles last season and 5½ tackles for loss.
In short, Nickerson moved like a shot from sideline to sideline for the Illini, and the primary reason he wasn’t drafted was a lack of size at 6 feet, 234 pounds.
He has found the right team to work with, because the Bengals want to get younger and more athletic at linebacker. Look for Nickerson to win his spot on the roster this summer and make a key contribution to the Bengals’ success shortly after the season starts.
ALEX BARRETT, DE, DETROIT
The Lions have a huge need to upgrade at defensive end, and even though they took a pair of pass rushers in Jeremiah Ledbetter (sixth round) and Pat O’Connor (seventh round) in the later rounds, Barrett represents a high level of achievement that was rarely seen in 2016.
The San Diego State product had 13 tackles for loss and 7½ sacks last year, and while he is on the small side at 6-2 and 254 pounds, he has excellent speed and understands how the offense wants to attack.
Barrett can play a variety of position on the defensive line, but his first-step quickness is his greatest asset, and it should help him make a name for himself in the NFL. While front-office types tended to dismiss him because of his size, scouts loved him because of his productivity.
JORDAN STERNS, S, KANSAS CITY
The key aspect that separates elite strong safeties from the average ones is the football savvy that comes from film study and knowing how opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators think.
In the offense-heavy Big 12 with Oklahoma State, Sterns figured it out quickly. He is an aggressive, hard-hitting tackler who arrives at the right place at the same instant as the ball carrier.
The NFL is clearly a much more difficult league to figure than the Big 12, and if Sterns can decipher what he sees, he has a chance to have an impact.
Look for him to have an immediate impact as a special teamer because he excels in coverage, and then show what he can do in the secondary.
TRAVIN DURAL, WR, NEW ORLEANS
Dural does not come into the league with a history of brilliance while playing college football at Louisiana State. The running game was the thing in Baton Rouge, and the Tigers went to the air only when necessary.
Receivers have a hard time showing off their skills because the QB play was limited, but the Saints learned that Dural is a talented individual who is ready for the next level. He will have a chance to play a key role this year if he can show early in training camp that he belongs.
If he can impress the coaching staff early, he will get the opportunity to catch passes from Drew Brees, and that will be a dramatic upgrade for this 6-2, 192-pound wideout.
ETHAN COOPER, OG, PITTSBURGH
The Steelers have been quite successful with undrafted free agents over the years with players such as Harrison, safety Donnie Shell, defensive end Keith Willis, running back Willie Parker and wideout Nate Washington. Cooper has a chance to play regularly even though he was not drafted.
The Indiana-Pennsylvania product checks in at 6-2 and 324 pounds, and he has excellent footwork and overall technique. More than that, he is a nasty competitor who wants to beat and beat up the competitor on the opposite side of the line.
The Steelers have a strong offensive line, but depth is always an issue at the NFL level. Cooper should have the opportunity to make the Pittsburgh interior line more productive and consistent.
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