- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2006

Their names generally only make the paper in the small type of the transactions section. They are the forgotten players of the much-hyped NFL Draft weekend. But at least one of the eight undrafted rookies whom the Washington Redskins signed on Monday figures to make an impact, perhaps as soon as this season.

Four of last year’s undrafted rookies, punter Andy Groom, defensive tackle Aki Jones, linebacker Zak Keasey and kick returner Rich Parson, got into games while offensive tackle Jon Alston, running back Jonathan Combs, receiver Steven Harris and tight end David Kashetta spent time on the practice squad. Alston, Combs and Harris remain on the roster while Keasey is with San Francisco.

Last year’s regular Redskins lineup included three starters who weren’t drafted: receiver David Patten, linebacker Lemar Marshall and safety Ryan Clark. Another 16 players who were never drafted also played last season, including kicker John Hall, punter Derrick Frost, tight end Mike Sellers and receiver James Thrash.

All of that success by players whose names weren’t called on a draft weekend is par for the course for coach Joe Gibbs, whose championship teams in the 1980s and 1990s were full of low-round draft choices and undrafted free agents.

“You’re picking people,” explained Gibbs, who gets his first look at this year’s crop of unknowns during a three-day rookie minicamp that starts today at Redskin Park. “It’s not a science, for sure. I’ll be willing to bet in our rookie camp there will be guys [about whom] I’ll say, ‘Good Gosh, I don’t believe this. This kid is really good. What’s the deal here?’ That excites me and always has. All of the guys we’ve had who’ve been [rookie] free agents played here for a long time and had great careers.”

The famed original Hogs included tackle Joe Jacoby, center Jeff Bostic and tight end Doc Walker — none of whom were drafted — and tackle George Starke, taken in the 11th round, meaning he would’ve been bypassed in today’s shorter draft.

Tight end Ron Middleton, linebackers Mel Kaufman and Neal Olkewicz, safeties Todd Bowles and Mark Murphy started on Redskins’ Super Bowl-winning teams without having been drafted. Running back Earnest Byner, guards Raleigh McKenzie and Mark Schlereth, defensive end Fred Stokes, linebacker Monte Coleman and Martin Mayhew were all chosen low enough that they would’ve been undrafted by 2006 standards.

“You draw up these pictures of what we want, a guy that’s real fast and big, but I go all the way back to a guy like Mark Murphy and people like that,” Gibbs said. “They don’t come close to a profile you would draw up and he played for years.”

Given all that history, Gibbs said he doesn’t sign undrafted rookies on a lark.

“I just don’t take a bunch of guys to take a bunch of guys,” Gibbs said. “Most of the people we go after we feel could have an opportunity [to at least make the practice squad]. I feel like we have an obligation to tell them exactly what the situation is, this is where we think you fit in. We make sure their eyes are wide open.”

That’s also in part because Gibbs knows that unlike the draftees, the rookie free agents often have a choice of employers.

“I talked to one agent [on Sunday after the draft] who said, ‘I made four other teams mad so you better take care of this guy,’” Gibbs said. “A guy works his entire life to get a chance to play pro ball, so I take it real seriously when I want to sign him. It’s a dream for them. I dreamed about playing in the NFL, but I wasn’t good enough. It’s a dream that everybody chases.”

The latest version of that chase begins today. The six draft picks, eight undrafted rookies, three inexperienced holdovers — Alston, running back Jesse Lumsden and offensive tackle Jonta Woodard — and dozens of players invited on a tryout basis, as Keasey, Alston and Combs were last year, constitute the talent pool.

Running back Mario Merrills and defensive backs Milton Harris and Dennard Wilson of Maryland, Virginia Tech running back Mike Imoh and Georgetown linebacker Mike Ononibaku are among the tryout players.

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