When one thinks of significant players who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to make their teams as undrafted free agents throughout the history of the NFL, there are a select group of names that immediately come to mind. Examples include Tony Romo, Antonio Gates, London Fletcher, Priest Holmes, Jeff Saturday, Wes Welker, James Harrison, and Warren Moon, all of whom enjoyed illustrious careers in the league despite not having been a selection in the seven rounds of the draft. Despite league-wide success in developing undrafted free agents over the years, there is no team in the NFL as adept at identifying, signing, and developing these college free agents than the Denver Broncos.
Denver Broncos Undrafted Free Agent History
A Haven for Undrafted Free Agents
In a whopping sixteen of the last seventeen seasons, an undrafted free agent has made Denver’s opening weekend roster. This historically unparalleled feat continues a longstanding record of catapulting players who were not drafted to the upper echelon of the league’s distinguished athletes, a record that began with halfback/placekicker Gene Mingo, who started for the team in its inaugural season sixty years ago. Twenty or so years later, undrafted rookie kicker Rich Karlis set the record for consecutive field goals made by a rookie at thirteen, one of many records Karlis earned throughout his tenure in Denver.
The contemporary era, however, has seen a greater abundance of elite undrafted free agents don the orange and blue. This includes College Football Hall of Famer and Broncos Ring of Famer Rod Smith, who was a pivotal piece in Denver’s first two Super Bowl victories and is arguably the single greatest undrafted wide receiver in league history. Chris Harris, Jr.is also a member of this group, serving as an integral factor in bringing the Lombardi Trophy to Denver seventeen years after Smith had done so. Harris’s rise to fame lends credibility to the argument that he is the greatest nickelback in league history.
The success Smith and Harris, Jr. found as undrafted free agents in Denver serves as a testament to the franchise’s unique ability to identify and develop college free agents. Their success is also a measuring stick for the scouting and training capabilities of the other 31 teams in the league.
Other undrafted free agents who made their mark at a mile above sea level include—but are not limited to—Phillip Lindsay (who has back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and was the first-ever undrafted rookie running back to make a Pro Bowl), Shaquil Barrett (who led the NFL in sacks last year), C.J. Anderson (who helped lead the team to a Super Bowl win in the 2015 season), Wesley Woodyard, and Tyler Polumbus.
From U.D.F.A. to Game Day
The moment Chris Harris, Jr. first stepped on the field nine years ago this month, he refused to shy away from contact— an unusual characteristic for a cornerback, let alone one his size, let alone an undrafted rookie. His fortitude and grit instantly won the respect of his teammates and coaches, and when future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning joined the team in Harris’s sophomore season, he won his respect, too, and in spades at that.
Harris went on to record 20 interceptions, 518 tackles, 4.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, 86 passes defended, and four defensive scores in his nine seasons with the Denver Broncos— missing only five games throughout the same span. Having played with such iconic cornerbacks as first-ballot Hall of Famer Champ Bailey and the possible future Hall of Famer in Aqib Talib (with whom he formed the secondary that led the greatest defense of all-time to a Super Bowl win), Harris developed into an All-Decade defender who went over two calendar years without allowing a single touchdown reception.
When esteemed players like Rod Smith rose to fame as college free agents in Denver, they were seldom the star of the team or the face of the franchise. Smith played with Hall of Fames John Elway, Terrell Davis, and Steve Atwater; Harris, Jr. played with Champ Bailey, Aqib Talib, Peyton Manning, and Von Miller. But despite playing with bonafide superstars for essentially their entire careers, both men refused to be held back by their draft position (or lack thereof) lowered their shoulders—adorned with Rocky Mountain-sized chips—and fought their way to the top.
Passing the Torch
Their inimitable grit and conviction did not drive these men to new heights alone. Harris’s success as an undrafted free agent in Denver (among others) inspired Philip Lindsay, whose infectious optimism and gamesmanship have already elevated the third-year back as an outspoken leader of the team.
Surrounded by an anaemic offense, lackluster coaching, and constant pressure from other talented runners in the running back room, Lindsay never displayed an ounce of a bad attitude. Like Chris Harris, Jr. and Rod Smith before him, the ‘Colorado Kid’ hustled in silence and allowed his on-field performances to earn him the starting role over Royce Freeman and Devontae Booker, both of whom were drafted.
The more and more comfortable Lindsay became, the more he settled into his personality: a tirelessly hard worker whose diminutive stature—one more traditionally found in scatbacks who spend most of their time running outside the tackles—did not hold him back from being an aggressive up-field runner with a forward lean between the tackles. With Rod Smith long retired and Chris Harris, Jr. jumping ship to join the rival Los Angeles Chargers, Lindsay’s role as the current paragon of Denver’s undrafted free agent track record has only grown.
Despite the off-season acquisition of Melvin Gordon III, Lindsay’s prospects with the team in 2020 and beyond are similar to that of Rod Smith and Rich Karlis. With a reinvigorated and reloaded offense around him, including a refurbished offensive line under year two of Mike Munchak, Lindsay should prove to perpetuate the legacy of Denver’s history with undrafted free agents.
Essang Bassey and the Future
In Vic Fangio’s first year with the Denver Broncos, he made it a point to warn current and prospective cornerbacks about the mandatory nature of tackling at the cornerback position.
As Last Word on Sports contributor Tye Hooker asserts in his draft profile for Essang Bassey, “[he] tends to concede to a lazy form of tackling and is viewed as a low-quality tackler.” If so, why did Bassey make the opening weekend roster when superior tacklers with more experience at the professional level, like De’Vante Bausby, were relegated to the practice squad?
Serving as the manifestation of the sixteenth year of an undrafted free agent making the team in the past seventeen years, Bassey offers versatility and the speed and agility combination necessary to craft a top-end cornerback in the NFL. His versatility—being able to play all three primary cornerback positions or even safety, if necessary—was too salient to deny the young man a roster spot, regardless of his apparent weakness in tackling. Furthermore, with defensively-minded coaches in his defensive coordinator, Ed Donatell, and his head coach, Vic Fangio, Bassey is set up for success in his depth-level role in the defense.
Drawing comparisons to fellow Bronco cornerback Bryce Callahan in terms of range and ball skills from Fangio on September 5th, it is no surprise Bassey made the team. Fangio said, “We’re happy to have him. Comparing him to Bryce Callahan at the same stage we had Bryce way back when Bryce was a college free agent undrafted, I’d say Bassey—as a nickelback—is pretty comparable to where Bryce was at that same point in time.”
For a coach not known for outward praise of his players thus far in his tenure with the Broncos, this lofty comparison, especially considering Fangio brought Callahan with him from Chicago, speaks to the unbelievable talent and skills found in Essang Bassey. With the reputation Callahan has earned as an oft-injured defender, having a player of similar style and featuring a similar skillset is a blessing.
After sixty years of leading the league in undrafted free agent success, the Denver Broncos may have found a diamond in the rough, and it could not have come at a better time.