Not being drafted can be a frustrating experience for a young football player, but it's not necessarily the end of the line. Many of the NFL's most special talents were overlooked in the draft due to being undersized, coming from the wrong school, or simply just not being well liked. In recent years, the Bengals have found a few diamonds in the rough and have developed undrafted free agents into starters on the team.
UDFA success in the Marvin Lewis era
Vontaze Burfict, 2012: OLB, Arizona St.
Burfict’s importance to the Bengals cannot be overlooked. Before multiple injuries ended his 2014 season, Burfict was a Pro Bowler in 2013 after leading the NFL with 171 tackles, and has been a force in the middle for the Bengals' defense. Unfortunately, his 2014 season was derailed largely due to injuries, which did not bode well with his generally reckless style of play. In general, Burfict has been a shining star in an otherwise inconsistent secondary, which lead to his highly publicized contract extension at the beginning of the 2014 season. If he can calm down and avoid injury in 2015, he may go down as the single greatest undrafted free agent in Bengals' history.
Emmanuel Lamur, 2012: OLB, Kansas St.
Lamur has quietly become a staple for the Bengals' defense over the past few years. Despite missing the entire 2013 season with a shoulder injury, he managed to lock down the starting OLB position opposite Vontaze Burfict, vacated by James Harrison, one of the NFL's most successful UDFAs of all time. Lamur's career at Kansas State was relatively quiet, unlike the talented but abrasive Burfict, but his talent has translated to the NFL enough to hold down a starting position. Ryan Hewitt, 2014: FB, Stanford
There aren't many fullbacks in Bengals history who can be described as "exciting", but Ryan Hewitt just might be one of them. After the Bengals moved on from six-year starter, Jeremi Johnson in 2009 due to weight issues, the Bengals have yet to find someone to truly hold down the position. Chris Pressley and John Conner made minimal impacts, but neither player managed to impress the coaches enough to utilize the fullback position in a significant way. Hewitt, on the other hand, has added an extra element in Andy Dalton's arsenal. He hasn't been given the ball much, but the running game has thrived behind his blocking, and his 8.6 yards per reception display his usefulness as an offensive weapon.
Kyle Cook, 2007: Center, Michigan St.
Kyle Cook wasn't able to survive on the Bengals' roster forever, but his seven years on the team allowed the Bengals to find a reliable center to replace the irreplaceable Rich Braham, who retired in 2006. The Bengals tried putting Eric Ghiaciuc at the position following Braham's departure, but the position seemed to regularly be too much for Ghiaciuc to handle, leaving the perfect window of opportunity for Cook. Cook was cut in 2013, but that followed a short few years in which Cook was lauded for his smart approach to the Center position.
All-time UDFA success
M.L. Harris, 1976: TE, Kansas St.
If you were to ask Vontaze Burfict how tough it was to sit through seven rounds of the NFL draft and not hear anybody call your name, especially having once been considered a first round prospect, he would probably tell you that it's one of the worst feelings in the world. That seems to be the general consensus of players who fall out of the draft, as evidenced by how motivated they are to prove every team that slighted them wrong.
Now imagine 17 rounds in the draft, and still not hearing your name called. That was what M.L. Harris had to deal with in 1976. Although he didn't actually sign with the Bengals until 1980, following a successful four year career in Canada, he did manage to secure himself a spot on the Bengals' 53 man roster through 1985, even managing to play in Super Bowl XVI. Harris now manages an all-boys academy in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, but his nine year pro football career is a testament that even if you don’t get drafted, you can make it in the NFL if you put in the time and effort.
Scott Brumfield, 1993: Guard, BYU
Scott Brumfield might not be the most recognizable name in Bengals' history, but his accomplishments and contributions were incredible for a player who didn't hear his name called in the draft. Brumfield actually didn't end up signing as a rookie with the Bengals until 1996, three years he entered the draft. If that wasn't enough, his career was set back even further when he suffered a serious spinal cord injury against the Baltimore Ravens, requiring hundreds of hours of rehabilitation before eventually returning to the team and, once again, playing for the Bengals. Brumfield finished his career in 1997, but proved that you can live your dream with enough perseverance.
Sam Wyche, 1968: QB, Furman
Before Ken Anderson, there was Greg Cook in 1969. Cook was supposed to be one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, but his playing career was derailed by a rotator cuff injury against the Kansas City Chiefs. He went on to have an incredible season, even winning rookie of the year, but the injury caused him to essentially end his career the following season.
Even before Cook, there was Sam Wyche. In the 1968 season, the Bengals started Dewey Warren, John Stofa, and, for three games, Sam Wyche. As Wyche will personally tell you, he was never considered a great quarterback in the NFL, despite starting on-and-off for the Bengals from 1968-1970. However, he was known as a player who knew how to do their homework and prepare for games. Following his short lived playing career, Wyche replaced Forrest Gregg as the head coach of the Bengals, eventually reaching Super Bowl XXIII in the 1988 season. Unfortunately, things with Wyche didn't end on the best of terms when he was fired by owner, Mike Brown, in 1991.
Wyche's coaching legacy, combined with the few years he spent as a starter on the very young Bengals team, grant him an argument to be possibly the best UDFA signing in Bengals' history.
Predicted UDFA success in 2015
Tom Obarski, K: Concordia University, St. Paul
Kickers typically don't get much buzz in the draft, and are usually relegated to the later rounds or free agency. However, that hasn't stopped the birth of legends in the past. In 1995, 32 teams passed over future hall of famer, Adam Vinatieri, in all seven rounds and continued to not give him a chance before he finally signed with NFL Europe's Amsterdam Admirals. A year later Vinatieri finally got his chance with the New England Patriots, but it was a mistake every team should seriously regret to not take him the year he entered the draft.
Obarski might not be the next Vinatieri, but Mike Nugent is already 33-years-old and displayed some unreliable tendencies in the 2014 season, particularly when it came to hitting longer field goals. Obarski ended his collegiate tenure hitting 70 percent of his field goals, and scored more than one 59 yard field goals, good enough to participate in the Senior Bowl. He also broke a slew of school and Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference records. Although he might be a bit rough around the edges, the Bengals might have found a great kicker to replace the aging Nugent.