Every year, rookie free agents who wind up going undrafted arrive in training camp with a chip on their shoulder.
While the vast majority won't be able to overcome the odds that are stacked against them and make an NFL roster, a select few prove from early on in camp that team management was wrong for overlooking them.
One of the Cardinals' best stories in 2016 happened to be one such player: safety Tony Jefferson.
A former undrafted free agent out of Oklahoma, Jefferson immediately stuck with the Cardinals as a rookie and proved himself early and often in his young career. However, when free agency came around in the 2016 offseason, Jefferson lacked interested suitors. Once again, despite proving he belonged in the NFL with on-the-field production, Jefferson was overlooked.
Jefferson ended up signing a one-year contract to return to the Cardinals last year, and after the season he registered, it's safe to say no one will be overlooking him anymore. Jefferson was one of the top 10 safeties in the league last year, proving dominant against the run and capable against the pass at the back end of the Cardinals' defense.
In fact, Jefferson took up so much of the spotlight that one of the Cardinals' other undrafted free agents didn't receive the same kind of appreciation.
For the third straight season, undrafted defensive lineman Josh Mauro made the Cardinals' roster out of training camp, and in 2016, Mauro set career highs in starts and tackles. Still, as is often the case for undrafted players, Mauro flew under the radar despite being a critical asset along the Cardinals' defensive front.
Mauro in 2016
When training camp began in 2016, there was almost no doubt Mauro would have a place on the Cardinals' roster.
Despite the growing list of quality defensive lineman the Cardinals acquired through the years, Mauro separated himself from the rest of his competition during training camp by demonstrating his versatility.
Quite often, Mauro practiced as a nose tackle, five-technique, defensive end and as a standup outside linebacker, all within the same practice. Mauro's ability to plug in and play at just about every position the team needed a run-stopper at was apparent early on in the fall, and helped him push his way up the depth chart.
Despite Arizona having incumbent starter Frostee Rucker back, despite the Cardinals returning Corey Peters from injury and despite the organization expending its first round draft choice on a defensive lineman, Robert Nkemdiche, Mauro was projected to receive more playing time than he had previously in his two seasons in Arizona.
A late-blooming defensive end at Stanford, Mauro showcased an impressive amount of raw strength, a variety of block-shedding moves that made him a tough assignment for offensive linemen, and a hard-nosed mentality that wouldn't allow him to be moved off the ball.
Mauro ended up starting 13 games for Arizona in 2016, recording 32 tackles and one pass defense.
While Mauro is never going to be considered a stellar edge rusher, he's a serviceable defensive lineman armed with a top-notch football IQ. Mauro knows the game well, understands how to disrupt offenses at the line of scrimmage, and is consistent with his assignments. Though Mauro didn't have the same kind of season Jefferson had, there's no reason teams should sleep on this undrafted free agent either.
Mauro in 2017
Even though the Cardinals have plenty of defensive linemen under contract and could have let Mauro explore the free agent market this offseason, the team worked quickly to secure a multi-year extension with the fourth-year defender out of Stanford.
To date, Mauro is the only Cardinals' player who secured a contract extension this offseason, and that took place nearly a month ago. Clearly, Mauro wanted to be in Arizona, and the Cardinals wanted to keep him here.
In all likelihood, Mauro will return in 2017 with the expectation that he'll fill the same role he did this season as a primary starter on the defensive line.
If Mauro can continue his current track record of improvement, he may be able to impact the passer on a more regular basis. If not, however, the Cardinals will still have a serviceable run-stopping defensive end who comes to the team for a relatively cheap sum.