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Undrafted in April, appreciated in December

12/19/2013
Lions rookie TE Joseph Fauria has made the most of his opportunities this season. AP Photo/David Richard

When the final selection of the NFL draft is announced, all 32 teams begin a mass scramble in an attempt to recruit the undrafted prospects on their short list. Coaches and front-office personnel get on the phones to sell their organization to players and agents alike.

Every year, a handful of players go undrafted but find a way onto a roster before turning into valuable contributors. Their careers range from strong reserves all the way to Pro Bowlers such as Kurt Warner, Tony Romo, Wes Welker and Antonio Gates -- and free-agent, Hall of Fame success stories that include John Randle.

Why do prospects get overlooked? There are multiple reasons and scenarios: durability, size or speed deficiency, character red flags, production drop-off and, at times, the level of competition. Texans RB Arian Foster is a more recent example of how a player with his type of skill set can slip through the cracks and go undrafted.

In 2007, after a breakout junior campaign when he rushed for 1,193 yards, Foster saw his role and production diminish as a senior under first-year offensive coordinator Dave Clawson, whose scheme was tailored to a change-of-pace-style runner.

In addition, Foster was unable to stay healthy throughout his college career, and these durability issues combined with some minor character concerns ultimately played a big factor in teams' electing to pass on him in 2009.

Through 15 weeks of the 2013 regular season, several undrafted free agents from the '13 draft class are making a big impact for their respective teams. Below are a few examples, along with the underlying factors as to why they didn't hear their names called in Radio City Music Hall at April's draft.

Baltimore Ravens WR Marlon Brown

After trading WR Anquan Boldin to San Francisco in the offseason and losing Dennis Pitta for the first 12 games due to a dislocated hip, Brown's surprising emergence helped ease the questions about the Ravens' receiving corps at the beginning of the season.

Brown was a highly touted prospect coming out of high school in 2009, but an injury-riddled career at Georgia prevented him from fully reaching his potential. A torn ACL late in his senior year required surgery, and these durability concerns combined with his inability to practice until training camp inevitably played a big role in teams' passing on him in April's draft.

Brown has quickly developed a strong rapport with franchise QB Joe Flacco. Brown is a smooth route-runner for his size (6-foot-5, 205) and displays above-average strength pulling in contested throws in traffic. He has appeared in 12 games with 11 starts, and ranks third on the team in receptions (40) and second in receiving yards (443). His six touchdown receptions lead the team and are second among rookie receivers behind San Diego WR Keenan Allen, who has seven.

Detroit Lions TE Joseph Fauria

Coming out of UCLA, Fauria checked in at 6-foot-7 and had a nice combination of length and athleticism. He possessed long arms (33¾ inches) to go along with a 35½-inch vertical leap, which provides him with a wide catching radius. On tape, he also flashed the ability to get downfield and win one-on-one jump-ball situations, a skill that could be seen on several of the 12 touchdowns he had as a senior in 2012.

At 260 pounds, Fauria has a linear and lean build, particularly in his lower half due to his height. He provided very little as an inline blocker, and there were questions in scouting circles about his toughness to do the dirty work the position requires. Fauria appeared more comfortable working in the open field than he did down the middle of the field in traffic, which is why teams elected to go a different direction in April.

This season, Fauria has tallied just 12 receptions but has made the most of them with seven touchdowns, tying Allen for tops amongst all rookies. Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has does a great job using Fauria's talents and puts him in position to maximize his strengths. Specifically, Linehan is using Fauria in the red zone by employing personnel packages and formations that put the TE in favorable one-on-one matchups with a linebacker or safety.

Buffalo CB Nickell Robey

Robey has appeared in all 14 games for Buffalo this year and has been a strong contributor as the starting nickelback in subpackages. The undersized defensive back has registered 34 tackles, 10 passes defended, a sack, and an interception returned for a touchdown against Miami in Week 7. He has displayed strong instincts and awareness that have allowed him to play fast and maintain quality positioning at the same time.

Pound for pound, Robey was one of the more gifted athletes coming out of USC last year. A jumper and sprinter on the track team, he showed above-average fluidity to go with excellent quickness and burst out of his cuts. In addition, we gave him a high grade in the instincts department; he flashed the recognition skills and anticipation to get a quick break on the ball.

That said, Robey checked in under 5-8 and 169 pounds, which raised concerns about his ability to hold up against bigger receivers in one-on-one situations. This size deficiency may have eliminated Robey from a few teams' boards and deterred others from risking a pick on him. In fact, in speaking with a few scouts, they said Robey would likely have gone on Day 2 if he were 2 inches taller and a few pounds heavier.

Robey's lack of size has been exploited at times. One example came against New Orleans; he was boxed out by WR Kenny Stills for touchdown. However, it is hard to argue with the return Buffalo has received from the undrafted rookie. Robey appears to have the instincts, fluidity and, most important, toughness to overcome his lack of ideal size at the NFL level. He is another piece in what appears to be a strong overall 2013 class for Buffalo.

New England WR Kenbrell Thompkins

The Patriots have received strong contributions from their 2013 free-agent class; DT Joe Vellano has also played a factor, appearing in all 14 games with eight starts while notching 48 tackles and two sacks. However, it has been Thompkins who has had the greater impact, accumulating 32 receptions for 466 yards (14.6 yards per catch) with four touchdowns, including the game winner in a comeback victory in Week 6 against New Orleans.

In college at Cincinnati, the 6-foot-1, 193-pound receiver was a bit a raw on tape but flashed upside with the physical tools that projected well at the next level. He showed quick feet, above-average fluidity, and body control tracking the ball in the air.

However, Thompkins was a junior college transfer with just two years under his belt at the FBS level. In addition, he came with a significant amount of baggage from early in his teen years growing up in one of the more violent areas of Miami, Fla. (Liberty City). Although reports were that Thompkins had matured and straightened his life out, the lack of experience combined with the character concerns likely played a part in his going undrafted.

After a red-hot start this season, Thompkins has cooled off lately, mainly because of a hip injury that has kept him out of the past two contests. He is listed as questionable for Sunday's contest against Baltimore. While he has had his share of drops and miscues working within New England's complex passing scheme, he has done enough to show that he can be the physical downfield threat outside the hashes that QB Tom Brady has been searching for, and a strong complement to the smaller possession-type receivers such as Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman on the inside.

HONORABLE MENTION

Atlanta Falcons: ILB Paul Worrilow, OLB Joplo Bartu, WR Darius Johnson

Carolina Panthers: CB Melvin White, FS Robert Lester

Detroit Lions: OT LaAdrian Waddle

Indianapolis Colts: WR Da'Rick Rogers

New England Patriots: DT Joe Vellano

Oakland Raiders: QB Matt McGloin

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: TE Tim Wright