The road ahead: Undrafted players aim to find NFL niche

For the 256 players who heard their name called last month, the NFL draft was a rewarding experience, a culmination of years of hard work and dedication to their craft.

Many others — players who expelled similar amounts of blood, sweat, and tears — weren’t so fortunate, as they were left to toil in the vast pool of undrafted free agents.

Fortunately, there is no singular path to the NFL. You don’t have to get drafted in order to carve out a career at the professional level. Just ask Warren Moon. Or Kurt Warner. Or Arian Foster. They all turned out pretty well.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with three players — all of whom went undrafted and landed free agent contracts — about their collegiate careers, the transition to the NFL, and how they plan on becoming the next Moon, Warner, or Foster.

Former Arizona State safety Alden Darby (signed by San Diego Chargers)

Q: You have a fantastic nickname — “The Juice Man.” How did that come about?

A: Well, when the new coaching staff came in and they were evaluating all the players, (Arizona State co-defensive coordinator) Chris Ball mentioned how I’m always energetic, I’m always hyped up coming into the field. He said I was always “juiced” and ready to go, so that’s how I became the Juice Man.

Q: Being the first Sun Devil to wear Pat Tillman’s practice jersey is an incredible privilege. Tell me what that experience was like.

A: It was a great experience to be recognized for my hard work and dedication, as well as my passion for the game on and off the field. To me, wearing the jersey symbolized that hard work never goes unnoticed. No matter what, someone is always looking what you’re doing, and to have that recognized was a great feeling.

Q: You were a two-time All-PAC-12 honoree, including 2013 First Team. You also stood out in the East-West Shrine Game with a pair of interceptions. Which of those accomplishments was more important for your college career?

A: I’d definitely say being the first ALL-PAC-12. Both Robert Nelson and I were chosen that year and we definitely came out and helped put Arizona State back on the map. We were also able to show the younger generation of players looking for schools that Arizona State is the place to be.

Q: Prior to the draft, the Patriots put you through a private workout. Did they give any indication that they’d draft you?

A: They told me what every team does: they liked what they saw, I’m a smart player. One thing I’ve learned is that you have to take everything with a grain of salt in this industry. I call it the red light, green light theory: I control what I can control, and let the rest go. In the end, it worked out how it worked out. But yeah, they said they liked me and that I had a lot of potential.

Q: What was draft weekend like for you? Where did you choose to spend your time, waiting for your name to be called?

A: It was both happy and sad; happy, because I’m blessed to have this opportunity, to even be looked at by the NFL. But kind of sad because of course I wanted to be drafted but that’s the way it is, and I’m happy with the results. At the time I was in Long Beach, Calif., with my family.

Q: Scouting reports describe you as a tweener between safety and cornerback. Would you prefer to play safety in the NFL? Do you have any problems moving to corner full-time?

A: I definitely prefer playing safety but I wouldn’t have a problem moving to cornerback if the opportunity called.

Q: Arizona State isn’t exactly known for producing NFL safeties or corners. How will you try to buck that trend?

A: I think I can break the trend because I’m gonna go out there and do what I do best. I have a lot of energy, and I put a lot of hard work and effort into what I do. I know I will be able to represent Arizona State the way they deserve to be represented.

Q: After signing a free agent contract with the Chargers, what qualities do you feel you’re bringing to the team?

A: Leadership, accountability, character, effort, hard work, action, dedication: all of the above. I believe I bring a lot to the table. I’m a great ball player and an even better teammate, which I’m happy to bring to the Chargers.

Former Buffalo running back Branden Oliver (signed by San Diego Chargers)

Q: You hail from Miami, one of the country’s top breeding grounds for athletes. How did you end up in Buffalo? What was the transition like?

A: Buffalo was my only option out of high school, so that’s how I ended up there. And the transition was good. At first I came in and got redshirted which was right when Coach (Jeff) Quinn came in. I started freshman year not too good, but by sophomore year I broke three records: rushing yards in the season, all purpose yards rushing yards in game, and most carries in season. I’m also tied in rushing touchdowns. So it was really great to be able to build my own record.

Q: During your time with the Bulls, you broke many school records, including the all-time rushing mark set by current Packers running back James Starks. What do those accomplishments mean to you?

A: Those records mean a lot I to me. But honestly, I came in with the main goal to play ball. I don’t need to win everything, and I can’t get too caught up in that aspect of the game. Everyone had a great year that year, and it’s more important to me to help the team break records.

Q: One of your former teammates, linebacker Khalil Mack, was selected by the Raiders with the No. 5 overall pick. Do you believe his high draft status helps put the Buffalo football program on the map?

A: Most definitely. A lot of people have been saying lately that Buffalo is on the rise, and he’s definitely a part of that.

Q: Speaking of Mack, it must have been interesting going against him in practice. Any memorable encounters between the two of you? What was he like on and off the field?

A: We were actually roommates, so we got to chill a lot, and go out or work out together. The two of us would work out all the time outside team workouts, running hills and such. We were both always working.

Q: You’re the cousin of receiver Roscoe Parrish, a former second-round pick of the Bills. Did he lend any advice to you about playing in the NFL?

A: No, I don’t talk to him too much, but James Starks, Jamey Richard, Trevor Scott and Naaman Roosevelt were also really supportive and gave me great advice.

Q: Because of your 5-foot-8 stature, you’ve drawn light comparisons to similarly-sized NFL running backs Ray Rice and Frank Gore. Are they the players you’ve tried to model your game after? Who’s your inspiration at the position?

A: Barry Sanders was my role model growing up, so he’s always been a huge influence in the position. And Ray Rice is definitely someone I look up to, along with Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren Sproles.

Q: What do you say to critics who don’t believe you’re big enough or fast enough to succeed in the NFL?

A: Honestly, there’s nothing I’d say to them. Their words used to be my motivation to do better, but now Jesus is my motivation and it’s the only one I need. I don’t need words to keep going, my faith helps me with that.

Q: You recently signed a free agent contract with the Chargers. What will you do to stand out in the hopes of securing a roster spot?

A: Just working hard and challenging myself. Also being there for my teammates and really integrating myself into the team.

Former Miami linebacker Jimmy Gaines (signed by Buffalo Bills)

Q: You had the chance to open some eyes playing for a major program like Miami. What was your best moment with the Hurricanes?

A: My best moment would have to be scoring a touchdown against South Florida during my senior year.

Q: Miami’s defense was heavily criticized for their performance against Louisville in the Russell Athletic Bowl. What went wrong in that game?

A: It was just a matter of being out-worked. We came in with a good game plan and started off with a good defensive end. It just wasn’t enough to get the win.

Q: You were named the Hurricanes’ Strength Training Athlete of the Year in 2013. How did you earn that award?

A: Just doing my best to work hard, especially in the weight room. I just made sure to never miss any reps and do what I was supposed to be doing.

Q: Scouts say you lack the ideal size to be an every-down linebacker in the NFL. Do you feel that’s an inaccurate assessment? If so, why?

A: Definitely an inaccurate statement. I feel I have played the game well enough to prove that size isn’t a deciding factor. Just because I don’t have prototypical size doesn’t mean I can’t play the position.

Q: Despite turning in a solid collegiate career, you went undrafted. How will that push you going forward?

A: I always had a chip on my shoulder, not being heavily recruited coming out of high school, so I’m used to being underestimated. I’ve just learned that proving them wrong is the plan.

Q: Considering you’re from upstate New York, it’s somewhat ironic that you landed with the Bills. Will being close to home help you acclimate into the NFL?

A: Not really, I feel I won’t be coming home too much anyways. I’m home but not really, you know? Well, I do like that I’m closer to my family, but I won’t be spending much time there which is nice because being home is more distracting. I’ll be able to focus on the work I’m supposed to do.

Q: In one of your scouting reports, it’s noted that everybody at Miami raved about your character and work ethic. Are those your best attributes as a player?

A: Yeah, I’d say those are some of my best attributes because I put my work ethic into everything I do both on and off the field. Especially in my school work, I work really hard on improving myself.

Q: From what I’ve seen on YouTube, you have quite a bit of singing talent. If football doesn’t work out, is that something you’d consider as a career?

A: No, I just do that for fun. My whole family sings, and I guess I just got some of that gene as well.

Zack Kelberman
An award-winning sportswriter, reporter and blogger, Zack currently serves as the Miami Dolphins live correspondent and Team Stream curator for Bleacher Report. He's also a freelance NFL writer and the founder/editor-in-chief of Helmet2Helmet. His work has appeared on media outlets such as ESPN, Sports Illustrated, FOX Sports, MSN.com, FanSided.com, and About.com. Zack can be reached on Twitter (@ZackKelberman) or via email (zpkelb@gmail.com).