FOXBOROUGH - For every high draft pick like Giants quarterback Eli Manning (first overall, 2004) or Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo (10th overall, 2008), there are a number of players who scratch and claw their way onto NFL rosters without the privilege of hearing their names called on draft weekend.
Undrafted but undeterred, these underdogs frequently have a very small window - rookie camp, training camp - to convince someone that they’re worth keeping around. Many undrafted free agents fizzle out, sent home to a working-man’s future with an I-almost-made-it story they’ll be able to embellish for years.
Others, however, do make it. Overlooked by every NFL team multiple times during their draft year, undrafted free agents have been known to stick, sometimes start, occasionally star.
This year’s Super Bowl between the Patriots and Giants will include more than two dozen players who weren’t drafted. With Wes Welker, Brian Waters, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Danny Woodhead, Victor Cruz, and Mark Herzlich among them, it’s a group that will make an impact on the league’s signature game. One could end up being the difference.
They might not have taken the most glamorous path to the NFL, but they will be on the field in Indianapolis while countless former high draft picks will be watching from home.
“It was definitely something I used - I still use - as a motivating factor,’’ said Waters, the Patriots’ starting right guard. “You can’t help it. Your dreams are just like everybody else’s dreams: It’s to get in the league, establish yourself, become a starter, be accomplished, and win a Super Bowl.
“I’m at that point where I feel good about all those things, where I’ve come from, but there’s a finishing point to that. You want to finish strong, you want, when you have an opportunity like this, to take advantage of it. Not just for myself, but for all those guys who won’t get their name called each April.’’
With all due respect to Welker, Waters might be the most decorated undrafted free agent in uniform a week from Sunday. Originally signed by Dallas in 1999, he joined the Chiefs in 2000 and flourished, going to the Pro Bowl five times in 10 seasons with Kansas City.
He joined the Patriots before this season after the Chiefs released him. He has started every game at right guard and was named to his sixth Pro Bowl. On the day of that game, though, he won’t be in Honolulu; he’ll be flying with his teammates to Indianapolis, getting ready to play in his first Super Bowl.
Kyle Arrington and Brian Hoyer joined the Patriots in 2009. Neither was drafted out of college (Hofstra, where Arrington played, doesn’t even field a team anymore), but both have carved out a niche here. Arrington, a cornerback, tied for the league lead with seven interceptions. Hoyer is the player most Patriots fans don’t ever want to see on the field. He is Tom Brady’s backup, so if Hoyer is playing, it means Brady isn’t.
The fact that they weren’t drafted still drives them.
“As far as a chip being on my shoulder? Personally, yeah, you could say that,’’ said Arrington, who was originally signed by the Eagles and appeared in one game with the Buccaneers before coming to New England. “I think that’s always been the case.’’
Said Hoyer, “It’s obviously disappointing, because you dream your whole life of hearing your name called, and then you don’t. For me, it was probably better that way, better that I was able to choose what team I could go to instead of getting picked by someone at the end of the draft that . . .’’
That you might not want to go to?
“Yeah,’’ Hoyer said. “It ended up being the best-case scenario for me, because I was able to come in, compete, and learn. Life gives you ups and downs.
“It wasn’t the worst thing to happen to me, because I ended up here, and I get to learn from coach [Bill] Belichick and [offensive coordinator] Bill O’Brien and Tom Brady. Plus, getting drafted doesn’t guarantee you a roster spot, anyway.’’
Woodhead actually started his professional career in New York, with the Jets. He has been a much better fit as a Patriot, scoring all six of his career touchdowns and averaging nearly eight touches per game in his two seasons here.
From a virtual unknown playing his college ball at Chadron State - the attendance at his final game was 3,800 - Woodhead is about to play in a game that will be watched by more than 100 million Americans.
“It’s pretty awesome. I don’t want to say I don’t have time, but I really don’t have time to sit back and think about that,’’ Woodhead said, when asked to describe his unlikely journey. “I’m just trying to be the best I can, getting ready for the big game and hoping to be prepared.’’
On both teams, with contributions large and small, the players deemed not worthy of a draft pick have found ways to be productive. “Not respected’’ can be a tired, worn-out phrase in sports. For this group, it launched their professional careers, every one of them.
“You always carry that chip on your shoulder that nobody really wanted you,’’ Hoyer said.
Does he still?
“Yeah, for sure. You have to, because if you sit back on your accomplishments, you’re not going to get very far.’’
They already have, because Hoyer and the other undrafted players will be in the Super Bowl.