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AFC rookie long shots to watch

Pro Football Weekly
AFC rookie long shots to watch
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AFC rookie long shots to watch

Updated on Tuesday, May 29 at 3:20 p.m. ET

It is no easy chore for seventh-round picks to make NFL rosters, and the task is no less daunting for undrafted free agents. But it can happen. Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin, who led Seattle in catches, yards and receiving TDs after going unselected out of Stanford in 2011, is a shining example of a player making the most of an opportunity.

Seventh-rounders and undrafted free agents don't come without ready-made selling points for clubs. They are cheaper to keep on the roster than veteran players. Their youth is appealing, too. The hungry, healthy and skilled have a chance to make a club no matter how they arrive. 

We now take a closer look at one seventh-round pick or undrafted free agent who could stick with each AFC club in 2012:  

AFC EAST

Patriots CB Alfonzo Dennard (seventh-round pick)

Dennard’s draft stock fluctuated often in the months leading up to the draft. At times considered to be a second-round talent, an April arrest knocked Dennard to the 224th overall pick, but he enters a favorable situation with a veteran locker room in New England — not to mention a team always looking for more help at corner. Dennard’s skill set would fit best for the Pats at the nickel corner spot, and Bill Belichick said during the draft that the team was in the nickel more than 50 percent of the time in 2011. There are a lot of cornerbacks for Dennard to compete with, but he has the talent to cover opposing slot receivers.

Jets CB Ryan Steed (undrafted)

In PFW's 2012 Draft Guide, Steed was projected as a second- to third-round pick as one of the top man cornerbacks in the draft. But a time of 4.70 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine drastically dropped his draft stock. We know Rex Ryan loves to have a deep stable of cornerbacks, and without a lot of good cover safeties, he will be looking to maintain depth at corner. Steed will have competition, including from another undrafted corner, Donnie Fletcher, but if Steed can make contributions on Mike Westhoff’s special-teams unit early, he eventually could find his way onto the field to play defense in nickel and dime packages.

Dolphins WR Jeff Fuller (undrafted)

As a junior, Fuller piled up 72-1,066-12 receiving but his draft stock plummeted throughout his senior year as he finished with a disappointing 70-828-6 receiving and wound up being one of the more high-profile undrafted rookies. Brian Hartline and Davone Bess are cemented as starters, but there is plenty of competition at wideout to see the field. Fuller’s size — at 6-foot-4, he would be one of the Dolphins’ tallest receivers — and, maybe most importantly, rapport with former Texas A&M teammate Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins’ top pick, give him a leg up. Fuller has the opportunity to be a red-zone threat for a Dolphins team with plenty of questions at wide receiver.

Bills P Shawn Powell (undrafted)

Teams don’t carry two punters, and the Bills have veteran Brian Moorman, but Powell has a big leg and quite the college résumé. He set records at Florida State for single-season punting average and career punting average (47.0 yards). Moorman, 36, has played in every game since joining the Bills in 2001. He had a career-high punting average of 48.2 yards last season, but his net was a mediocre 38.1 yards. "I just know that he was one of the higher-rated punters out there, and the two times he punted for us this weekend he did a very, very good job," Bills head coach Chan Gailey said after the team's rookie minicamp. "So he's put himself in a position to compete for the job, for sure."

 

AFC NORTH

Ravens DL DeAngelo Tyson (seventh-round pick)

The Ravens’ defensive-line depth took a hit with the departure of Cory Redding in free agency. Veteran Ryan McBean, whom Baltimore signed in May, will miss the first three games because of an NFL suspension. A team captain at Georgia, the tough and hardworking Tyson would not be the most unlikely seventh-rounder to make a roster out of camp. The Ravens did not draft another defensive lineman. 

Bengals LB Vontaze Burfict (undrafted)

The Bengals took a flier on Burfict, the much-hyped, big-hitting former Arizona State star. Character concerns, along with a poor Combine performance and some less-than-rave reviews of his play, contributed to his steep slide out of the draft, but the Bengals repeatedly have been willing to give players chances to prove themselves anew. If Burfict makes the most of this opportunity, he could stick as a backup, as the Bengals’ LB depth isn’t as strong as that of other positions.  

Browns FB-TE Brad Smelley (seventh-round pick)

Smelley catches the ball well, and he could contribute as a fullback/H-back. The more roles a reserve can fill, the better, and Smelley’s versatility could be his greatest asset as he tries to make the club. The Browns don’t have any standouts at fullback or tight end, and a fresh face could have a chance to stick on the 53-man roster. Cleveland kept four tight ends a season ago as well as a fullback. Currently, the Browns have five tight ends and three fullbacks on the roster. 

Steelers P Drew Butler (undrafted)

One of the most highly regarded punters in the draft, Butler will compete with Jeremy Kapinos to replace Daniel Sepulveda, who was not re-signed. The son of former Bears PK Kevin Butler, Drew Butler has a strong leg and good technique. “He’s an efficient kicker,” Kevin Butler said of his son before the draft. “As a punter goes, you have to be efficient.” As it usually is with rookie specialists, consistency will be a key for Butler, who won the Ray Guy Award as college football's best punter in 2009. 

AFC SOUTH

Texans DT Hebron Fangupo (undrafted)

When Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips installed his 3-4 defense last summer, one of the biggest questions fans openly asked was, “who will play nose tackle?” Without a traditional nose, Houston relied on the tandem of Shaun Cody and Earl Mitchell to man the interior of Phillips’ one-gap system. In undrafted free agent Hebron Fangupo, the Texans might have found themselves a space eater who can help stuff the run if he can stay healthy. The 27-year-old former BYU product is unlikely to beat out Cody or Mitchell on the depth chart anytime soon, but he has the strength and stoutness to potentially carve out a small niche on a very talented defense.

Colts OT Steven Baker (undrafted)

First-year GM Ryan Grigson scoured the bargain bin before the draft, snatching up OL castoffs who fizzled out in previous stops. In other words, very few players on the Indianapolis front wall are what you might call “entrenched,” which could open the door for Baker to make an immediate splash if Winston Justice continues to underachieve or Anthony Castonzo doesn’t progress in Year Two. The towering Baker (who stands 6-foot-8) drew a comparison to undrafted OLT Jason Peters, a five-time Pro Bowler, from NFL analyst Gil Brandt.

Jaguars DT Jeris Pendleton (seventh-round pick)

Pendleton is hardly your ordinary rookie — he is 28 years old and spent several years away from football before attending Division II Ashland University. The 6-2, 322-pound Pendleton is entering a great situation in North Florida, however, as the Jaguars have question marks along the interior of the D-line with Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu both rehabbing injuries. Jacksonville uses a deep lineman rotation, and Pendleton has a great shot to make an impact early, which would make his feel-good story that much better.

Titans DE Scott Solomon (seventh-round pick)

The Titans surprised most league observers by waiting until the seventh round to address the league’s 31st-ranked sack unit in 2011, but they might have gotten major bang for their buck with the selection of Solomon. The Rice product shows good explosion off the ball and a hustling trait that has become commonplace in recent Titans’ draft picks. Solomon joins a DE stable that is starved for pass-rush help behind Derrick Morgan and Kamerion Wimbley, and he could see plenty of action along a Tennessee defensive front that rotates linemen frequently.


AFC WEST

Broncos WR Eric Page (undrafted)

With Peyton Manning under center, the Broncos are expected to have a pass-first offense. Yet, their depth chart has only three wide receivers that had 20 or more receptions last season, and the team didn’t select a receiver with any of their seven draft choices in April. Enter Page, an undersized (5-9, 186 pounds) but highly productive college player at Toledo. A good route runner who has the ability to get open because of his quickness, Page could find a spot in the Broncos' offense, working out of the slot. Even if that doesn’t happen, look for him to challenge for a roster spot because of his play on special teams. The Broncos lost their primary punt returner, Eddie Royal, in free agency, and Page will be given the opportunity to be his replacement. 

Chiefs S Tysyn Hartman (undrafted)

Secondary depth was a problem for the Chiefs last season, a reason that Hartman has a solid chance to crack the roster and see the field in 2012. A local product who played his college ball at Kansas State, Hartman could supplant another former Wildcat, Jon McGraw, as the backup to starting FS Kendrick Lewis. Though not the pass defender McGraw is, the undrafted rookie is a strong tackler and a hard worker, two things Chiefs defensive coordinator and head coach Romeo Crennel will be looking for when filling out the bottom of the depth chart. If he doesn’t play a role on defense, there is a chance Hartman could make an impact as a "gunner" on the punt and kickoff coverage units.

Raiders OG Lucas Nix (undrafted)

Though the Raiders used their first selection of the draft, No. 95 overall, on OG Tony Bergstrom, depth on the offensive line is still an issue for the team. With Nix, they have a player who was projected to be a third- or fourth-round pick by PFW, but wound up slipping out of the draft altogether because of injury issues. An aggressive and tough blocker, Nix should be able to carve out a spot on Oakland’s second-string offense, assuming the pectoral injury that bothered him leading up to the draft is all right.  

Chargers RB Edwin Baker (seventh-round pick)

There’s a very strong chance that Baker, the 18th of the 19 running backs selected in April, could be No. 2 on the Chargers’ depth chart when the 2012 regular season kicks off. Standing just 5-foot-8, Baker earned the nickname “Rock” while at Michigan State because of a punishing running style, and his ability to pass-block and catch the ball out of the backfield could be a tremendous asset to the San Diego offense. If he can make his mark as a pass blocker, few would be surprised if "Rock" passed Curtis Brinkely to be Ryan Mathews’ primary backup.

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