In the past three seasons, only 10 undrafted free agents logged five or more starts as rookies, half of them in 2010. Because of the lockout - the likelihood that franchises won't even be able to sign undrafted players until July and that those first-year guys won't have the benefit of minicamps and OTAs to make an impression - the figure is likely to be further reduced in 2011.
But players traditionally make their most significant career leap in the second year of their league tenures, so there should be a few undrafted free agents from the 2010 class who advance into meaningful roles this season. Four undrafted players - Green Bay linebacker Frank Zombo (eight), Tampa Bay running back LeGarrette Blount (seven), Dallas fullback Chris Gronkowski (seven) and Packers cornerback Sam Shields (six) - made more than five starts as rookies in 2010.
A year ago, I predicted five undrafted free agents from 2009 who started fewer than five games in their debut season, but were likely to produce improved results in '10, and the results weren't bad.
Four of the five started at least two games as sophomores. Arian Foster of Houston led the NFL in rushing. Pittsburgh's Ramon Foster became the No. 1 right guard for the Steelers and started in the final eight regular-season games and in three playoff contests, including Super Bowl XLV. Were it not for an injury, Jonathan Casillas of New Orleans might have been the club's fulltime starter at strongside linebacker.
And so, we decided to take another shot at identifying a few members of the 2010 undrafted free agent class - all of whom started fewer than five games as rookies - who might make impacts in '11. Although they started only four games each, we did not include Saints tailback Chris Ivory or Indianapolis wide receiver Blair White because of the outstanding contributions they made as rookies.
Here's the list:
*CB Aaron Berry, Detroit (1 game, 1 start in 2010): Despite being undrafted, the former University of Pittsburgh standout started the opening game at Chicago for the Lions last year, but suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the contest. Before the injury, Berry had three tackles, an interception and a pass defensed. He doesn't run fast, but plays good positional defense, and is a better "ball athlete" than his speed would indicate. Might be best suited to nickel cornerback on a Detroit defense that has improved but still needs help in the secondary.
*ILB Dane Fletcher, New England (13 games, 0 starts): The former Montana State star faces a crowded situation, with the Patriots having several solid, young inside 'backers. But Fletcher can play in the nickel and is excellent on special teams (11 tackles in 2010). Had 23 tackles, two passes defensed and one interception in 153 snaps from scrimmage last season.
*OL Jeff Linkenbach, Indianapolis (16 games, four starts): Versatile enough to have started one game at left tackle in 2010, but the best position for the former Cincinnati star might be right guard, where he logged three starts as a rookie. Possesses the kind of strength the Colts seem to be looking for and, in a year in which Indianapolis figures to revamp its offensive line with two rookie starters likely to be immediately in the lineup, he could be part of the remake.
*DT Andre Neblett, Carolina (10 games, four starts): It probably won't help the former Temple star that the tackle-thin Panthers invested a pair of third-round picks this year to bolster the position. But the undersized Neblett (295 pounds) is a pretty active guy with decent strength, and could be part of the rotation. Had 10 tackles as a rookie.
*WR David Nelson, Buffalo (15 games, three starts): Didn't register as many starts in 2010 as another Bills free agent wide receiver, Donald Jones (five), but his numbers were better. According to a terrific chart by ProFootballFocus.com, Nelson led the league in percentage of his total snaps played in the slot and averaged a healthy 12.1 yards from that position. The University of Florida product is big, rangy and should be a very good red-zone target. Had 31 receptions for 352 yards and three scores. The touchdowns came one each in a three-game December stretch, and all of them were in the red zone.
*WR Stephen Williams, Arizona (11 games, three starts): The Cardinals play so much with a three-wide receiver set that the onetime Toledo standout figures to see a lot of field time in his sophomore campaign. That likelihood would increase if a new CBA resolution allows four-year veteran Steve Breaston to qualify as an unrestricted free agent, and he departs. Despite posting only nine catches for 101 yards in 2010, Williams has size and speed.
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee.