Diamonds in the Rough

The Carolina Panthers created a buzz with their big-name draft class, but their rookie haul includes more than just 10 draft picks. A handful of undrafted free agents has a chance to stick, as well; these three have the best combination of talent and opportunity.

The undrafted rookie with the best chance to stick is Virginia FB Rashawn Jackson. The bulldozing lead blocker is one of just two fullbacks on Carolina's roster -- 2009 fourth-round pick Tony Fiammetta being the other -- and could slide into the roster spot previously owned by fan favorite Brad Hoover.

Jackson had some opportunities at Virginia to play with the ball in his hands. As a senior, he carried 96 times for 461 yards and caught 25 passes for 222 yards. But in the NFL, he figures to be more of a throwback fullback while the more versatile Fiammetta handles the bulk of the position's touches.

"At UVA, as my career went on, I had more and more opportunities to catch and run the ball," Jackson told me earlier this offseason. "Some of those opportunities were the result of bad things like injuries and things like that you'd never want to happen. But I'm a guy who will be as unselfish as possible and do whatever I can to step in and help the team win."

FB Rashawn Jackson
Dave Martin/AP

That includes contributing on special teams, which is where most undrafted rookies make their mark. Jackson is well aware of this truism and is ready to make a third-phase impact for the Panthers.

"I've played kickoff, kickoff coverage, punt, punt return and field goal, so I have experience in all fields," he said. "I definitely can get better -- I'm not saying I can't get any better -- but with special teams it's 90 percent want-to and 10 percent mental and technique."

Another undrafted rookie with plenty of want-to is Andre Neblett, the defense tackle from Temple. The 6-foot-1, 295-pound Neblett is a high-motor player with impressive quickness, as evidenced by his 17 TFLs during his final two collegiate seasons.

A four-year starter, Neblett could push for a spot in Carolina's defensive tackle rotation, which was gutted this offseason. Most small-school players are not capable of making much of an impact early on, but as Neblett showed earlier this offseason at the Texas vs. the Nation game, he can hang with the big boys.

Another "big ugly" with a better-than-average chance to stick is former Missouri offensive lineman Kurtis Gregory. The 6-foot-4, 305-pound blocker played tackle at Missouri but projects as a guard in the NFL because of his limited athleticism.

That fact not withstanding, there is a lot to like about Gregory. He is a high-IQ and high-energy player who understands the game and motivates his teammates. He's also a blue-collar player who never takes plays off and goes to the whistle.

There is a spot to be won on the interior offensive line thanks to the offseason release of Keydrick Vincent. Gregory plans to take full advantage of that opportunity.

How do Panthers fans feel about the draft? Find out inside the message boards.

Michael Lombardo is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America and a long-time contributor to the network. His analysis has been published by the NFL Network, Fox Sports and MySpace Sports.

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