Every year, teams across the NFL find gems in the undrafted free agent pool. Most of the time, it’s kickers, punters, or long snappers who end up making the most impact among college free agents, but occasionally, teams can find positional players who wind up playing a key role on special teams, or even contributing offensively or defensively.
One of the more prominent undrafted free agents in the league is a guy like Tony Romo, the quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys. While Romo has made a huge name for himself and is making $18 million per season, there are other former UDFAs around the league that don’t get a lot of publicity, and not nearly as much money.
A player like Denver Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard–one of the last remaining players from the Mike Shanahan era–has played at a Pro Bowl level and really hasn’t seen much recognition for it.
If you ask Denver Broncos fans, you’ll find out that Woodyard is one of the most beloved players in the Mile High City, a fan favorite who has earned every single snap he plays.
With D.J. Williams facing an eight game suspension in 2012, Woodyard finally saw his shot to start full-time for the Broncos, and prior to being injured late in the season, he proved that he not only belongs, but he can be a star and a three-down player for the Broncos.
In his first season as the full-time starter at weakside linebacker for the Broncos, Woodyard racked up 117 tackles, 5.5 sacks, three interceptions, and six passes defensed. To do a little side by side, Chiefs Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Johnson had 125 tackles, two sacks, and four passes defensed with four forced fumbles and no interceptions.
Clearly, Woodyard played at an elite level last season and received virtually no recognition for it nationally. Woodyard didn’t even crack the roster on this NFL.com All-Underrated team.
How’s this for a stat? Woodyard is the first player since Brian Urlacher in 2007 to record over 100 tackles, five sacks, and three interceptions in a season, and only the 12th player to do it since the league started recording sacks as an official stat in 1982.
Woodyard’s career in Denver started off on special teams, where it looked like he was destined to stay. In fact, the former Kentucky star was so solid on special teams, he was named a team captain in just his second season there after being an undrafted free agent, and he’s been a team captain ever since. He had some interesting comments to the Denver Post back in December, 2012 about his role change with the team:
“Something I really had to accept was what if I don’t get a chance. That I don’t complain, don’t pout, come to work every day, being a true leader. A true leader doesn’t worry about what goes on, they just come to work and be a good teammate. And I wanted to be a good teammate no matter what happened and just keep working hard.”
In 2012, Woodyard was one of the most improved players in the NFL, though he still has his flaws. He missed a few tackles last year, but for the most part, I think this was one of the most successful undrafted free agent pickups the league has seen in recent years. After starting off as an ace on special teams, Woodyard has worked his way up to being a full-time starter on the Denver defense, one of the best in the NFL.
Woodyard is entering a contract year with the Broncos. He is set to make $3 million this season, and should be due for a pretty nice pay raise in 2014.