COMMENTARY | First round-level talent garners headlines every April in anticipation of the National Football League draft. The brightest stars of a given draft class are not necessarily those most celebrated at the outset of their professional careers, though.
Some of the most promising prospects fly under the radar up to and during draft weekend but arrive in the NFL with profound impact. Fifteen undrafted free agents are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Others will almost certainly add to the list, including one of the San Diego Chargers' best undrafted players in franchise history.
In 2002, Antonio Gates was a name better known for grabbing rebounds on the hardwood than for grabbing passes on the football field.
Gates was the Kent State Golden Flashes' second leading scorer and top rebounder, and he earned notoriety via his March heroics. But that fame among college basketball followers carried little clout with NFL general managers.
No matter for Gates; he made good on an opportunity with the San Diego Chargers in 2003. As an undrafted free agent, Gates was an immediate revelation. He caught 24 passes his first season with two touchdowns, and he then erupted for 81 grabs and 13 scores the next season.
Gates has at least 50 catches and no fewer than seven touchdowns every campaign since his rookie season. He is one of the forerunners in the NFL's recent receiving tight end revolution and headed for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
He will have company in Canton, Ohio, from some of his Chargers teammates.
LaDainian Tomlinson rushed to the Most Valuable Player Award in 2006. While Tomlinson was a transcendent, Hall of Fame talent at the peak of his career, a great supporting cast made his success possible like any football great.
Among those facilitating Tomlinson's 1,815 yards and 28 touchdowns was offensive lineman Kris Dielman. Playing on the interior of the San Diego Chargers' front five, Dielman had a knack for opening holes up the middle that gave Tomlinson that inch he so adeptly turned into the proverbial mile.
Dielman won Pro Bowl invitations each of the following four seasons. Not bad for an Indiana Hoosier whom scouts and general managers missed out on int every round of the 2003 NFL draft.
And one can forgive those who missed on Dielman. He played defensive tackle at IU, not guard, where he became an all-time Chargers great. Credit those in the organization, which recognized Dielman's natural abilities that translated to the offensive line.
Every draft class has hidden gems missed during the draft but make impacts when given their opportunities later. Charger GM Tom Telesco banked on the talents of one such player this spring during free agency, signing running back Danny Woodhead to a two-year contract.
The San Diego organization's fortune with undrafted talent dates back five decades to the American Football League.
In 1964, the Chargers added Jackson State product Leslie Duncan to the roster. Duncan earned the nickname Speedy through his explosion both as a kick returner and in the secondary at defensive back.
Duncan was a three-time AFL All-Star, including in 1966. That season, he had a performance that lives in Charger lores, snagging three interceptions in a defeat of San Diego's bitter rival, the Oakland Raiders.
In 1967, Duncan scored two defensive touchdowns and ran a third back on a punt return.
The impact of the NFL's 2013 rookie class doesn't end when the last name is called on draft weekend. Somewhere in the undrafted free agency pool waits the next Gates, Dielman or Duncan.
Kyle Kensing is a freelance sports journalist and blogger. He covers the University of Arizona for the Rivals.com network site GoAZCATS.com, and is the founder/managing editor of the college football site SaturdayBlitz.com. Follow Kyle on Twitter @kensing45.
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- San Diego Chargers
- Antonio Gates
- Pro Football Hall of Fame
- Kris Dielman