Originally created 04/25/06

Diamonds in the rough



NEW YORK - Who says NFL scouts know everything?

They missed on Antonio Gates, now considered the best tight end in football.

They missed on Kurt Warner, who merely became a two-time NFL Most Valuable Player and an MVP of the Super Bowl. And on Rod Smith, who is fourth on the career yards receiving list among active players.

All those players didn't go in the first round of the draft. In fact, they didn't go in any rounds.

Despite all the poking and prodding at the NFL Combine each year, players deemed too small, too slow or too injured invariably go on to become stars in the NFL after being passed over by personnel directors and general managers.

So who will be this year's Priest Holmes? Dick Vermeil, for one, doesn't pretend to have the answer.

"You'd like to believe that we're all smart enough to draft them anyway, but none of us are, obviously," the former Chiefs coach said.

Holmes went undrafted in 1997 after an injury-filled career at Texas, but latched on with the Ravens as a free agent. After showing a glimmer of his potential, he signed with the Chiefs in 2001. Holmes went on to rush for a league-record 27 touchdowns in 2003, a mark broken last season by NFL MVP Shaun Alexander.

Vermeil, who won a Super Bowl with the Rams in 1999, said teams don't take it lightly when they miss on evaluating a player.

"I think every time someone misses on somebody that glaringly, they go back and evaluate their reports, evaluate the scouts that wrote the reports. They deeply evaluate the whole situation better and see where they made a mistake, or if they did," Vermeil said.

Warner might have the most improbable success story. Undrafted out of Northern Iowa, he played in the Arena Football League and then NFL Europe.

He finally got his shot in St. Louis when starting quarterback Trent Green went down with a knee injury in the 1999 preseason. Vermeil stuck Warner in the lineup, leading to a storybook career he's still writing in Arizona.

Warner was the league MVP in 1999 and 2001 and MVP of the 2000 Super Bowl, leading the Rams to a 23-16 victory over Tennessee. He also led St. Louis to the 2002 Super Bowl, where the Rams lost to New England, 20-17.

Another two-time Super Bowl winner, Denver's Smith is the NFL's career leader in receptions (797), yards receiving (10,877) and touchdowns receiving (65) among undrafted players. At just 6-foot, 200 pounds, he's the only undrafted player to eclipse 10,000 yards receiving.

Chargers general manager A.J. Smith said the art of scouting is a never-ending pursuit. The Chargers scour the Canadian Football League and the Arena Football League looking for the next Gates, Warner or Smith.

"That's part of the cycle of our business," he said. "The bottom line is: Keep looking for players and you never know when you're going to turn one over. ... That's what you do in scouting. You're always looking. You never know where they're going to come from."

OTHER GEMS


Here are some other undrafted players who have gone on to productive NFL careers:


Brian Finneran, WR, Falcons

London Fletcher, LB, Bills

Jake Delhomme, QB, Panthers

Adewale Ogunleye, DE, Bears

Joe Andruzzi, G, Browns

Matt Lepsis, T, Broncos

Jon Kitna, QB, Lions

Adam Vinatieri, K, Colts

Priest Holmes, RB, Chiefs

Jeff Garcia, QB, Eagles

Willie Parker, RB, Steelers

Mack Strong, FB, Seahawks

Drew Bennett, WR, Titans