|Keith Srakocic/Associated Press|
|Offensive lineman Chris Elkins (left) is fighting to stay with the Pittsburgh Steelers as an undrafted rookie.|
You don't have to be selected in the NFL draft to make your mark on the NFL.
Consider this: The Pro Football Hall of Fame currently includes 13 enshrinees who were drafted first overall -- and 15 who weren't drafted in the first place.
The ranks of the undrafted rookie free agents have produced many hidden gems over the years. Think of Tony Romo, Antonio Gates, Wes Welker, Arian Foster and Kurt Warner, all players who took the league by storm after being completely passed over on draft day. Last season, undrafted rookies who shined included guys like Detroit Lions tackle LaAdrian Waddle and Atlanta Falcons linebacker Paul Worrilow.
As training camps roll on across the NFL, I thought I'd scan the league for undrafted rookie free agents who are making their presence felt. Some of these players grabbed my attention when I saw them at camp, while others have generated strong word of mouth; all have a chance to contribute in some way at the pro level this season.
Here, in alphabetical order, are 12 undrafted free agents to keep an eye on as camps progress:
Atkinson didn't play a lot at Notre Dame, but he stuck out when I visited the Raiders as a size and speed guy who can help this team. He's going to be a very good kick returner and could contribute as a third running back, behind Darren McFadden and Maurice Jones-Drew. His father, George Atkinson Jr., was a longtime defensive back for the Raiders.
Black was signed fairly late -- just about a week ago, in fact -- but he's really made an impression in camp. The Michigan product is a bit undersized (checking in at 6-foot-2 and 278 pounds), but he brings speed and quickness, which is what everyone's looking for at his position.
Some had the former Michigan State Spartan, who was suspended for an undisclosed reason from the Rose Bowl, rated relatively well in the pre-draft evaluation period, but he went undrafted and ended up signing with the Texans. Bullough has lost about 20 pounds, and in so doing has become faster and is able to move around much better than he did in college.
While the defender out of Montana might not stick with the Seahawks, who have a lot of good linebackers, he'll be an active contributor for somebody. Coyle has adequate speed, and he's very competitive and very smart; in fact, he's even called the defense there in Seattle. He's a major player.
Davis, whom I might have originally pegged as a fourth-round pick, has a shot to be known as more than just the guy who returned a missed field goal 109 yards for a touchdown to lift Auburn past Alabama and into the SEC Championship Game. He looks really good in San Diego. He might not have 4.4 speed, but he does have excellent recognition skills. I saw four practices during my visit to Chargers camp, and I think Davis had an interception in each one.
The Youngstown State product is a big guy -- nearly 6-4 and 300 pounds -- who is strong and moves fairly well. Elkins is a typical Pittsburgh-type offensive lineman who can snap the ball, pull and lead.
Ikard was a very good center at Oklahoma -- a four-year starter at a major program -- but he was considered a bit undersized. Of course, while you can't make guys taller, you can put some weight on them; Ikard, who is now over 300 pounds, is a good example of this principle. He's strong, smart, has the speed necessary for the position and has a chance to really make an impact for the Titans.
Jacobs is rare in that he's a good receiver and a good blocker. Everybody's looking for tight end talent, and I could see him playing a role even on a team that already has one of the game's best tight ends in Jimmy Graham. Jacobs transferred to McNeese State after being suspended for the last four games of the season at LSU in 2012.
Jones, of Arkansas State, has great hands, good-not-great speed and a solid body, and I suggested to someone in the Falcons organization that they should maybe try him at defensive back. He's the kind of football player you want to make space for on your roster, and perhaps he could be one of those guys who successfully moves from receiver to corner.
I don't think Mandell can beat out incumbent starter Chris Jones in Dallas, but the former Alabama punter has a chance to stick somewhere after folks get a good look at what he can do in preseason action. Mandell has a strong leg and is an excellent directional punter.
Smith really surprised me. He's not very big -- 6-feet, 205 pounds -- but he has fine recognition skills and he's a hitter. Chris Davis' former Auburn teammate projects as a special teams standout and perhaps a third or fourth safety.
It was a bit of a surprise that Sorensen wasn't drafted, because he's better than your typical priority free agent. He gained good experience as a three-year starter at BYU. Sorensen's unique special teams ability will help him make an impact in that facet of the game, but he's also good enough to be a third safety if someone ahead of him on the depth chart were to go down.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.