The Houston Cougar football team heads into the 2012 season with the difficult task of trying to "reload", rather than "rebuild". Last year's team was undeniably talented, putting a shellacking on Penn State in the Ticket City Bowl to finish off a 13-1 season. But the departure of a large class of talented seniors means plenty of uncertainty.
While no single graduating Cougar was projected as a high-round pick, the size and talent of the departing class led many Cougar fans to believe that a few Houston alumni could see their names called on draft day. Instead, the draft came and went, with stunningly, not a single UH player drafted. Houston was the only top 25 team to be completely snubbed.
However, the depth of the class was evident in the hours and days after the draft, as seven Cougars quickly signed deals with various NFL clubs. And while many more players sign contracts as undrafted free agents than actually end up making a roster, Cougar fans who have watched their departing players compete will feel good about some of these guys' chances.
Along those lines, here are Houston's seven UDFAs, ranked from most to least likely to make an NFL roster this fall.
1. Case Keenum - Houston Texans
No Cougar that got snubbed by the draft was more frustrating for the Houston faithful than the man who owns roughly 3/4 of the NCAA passing record book. Now sure, the scout's ability to project a player into the NFL is the most important aspect, and Keenum doesn't possess ideal size or arm strength, but doesn't production count for anything? Accuracy? Football IQ? Leadership? Apparently not.
However, the hometown Texans quickly snatched up the fan favorite, and as it stands, Keenum looks like he has a pretty good shot to make the roster. Matt Schaub and T.J. Yates are the only quarterbacks currently on the Texans' roster, they didn't draft a signal-caller, and Keenum is the only UDFA that Houston has signed at the position. It's entirely possible that the Texans will bring in a journeyman to battle Keenum for the third QB spot, but for the time being, Keenum looks like he has a roster spot with his name on it.
2. Michael Hayes - San Diego Chargers
While Hayes' senior season at Houston was marred somewhat by injuries, he was arguably the most projectable Cougar at draft time. He's a little shy of ideal height at 5'9", but has a solidly-built body, has great strength, and showed the coveted ability to both run the ball (5.3 yard per carry, 727 rush yards, 11 TD) and catch it out of the backfield (44 receptions for 483 yards and 4 TD). If numbers don't impress you, click here to watch Hayes break the tackle of every defensive player on UCLA's roster.
The Chargers show two returning running backs on the roster, in Ryan Matthews and Curtis Brinkley. The Bolts did use a 7th-round pick on running back Edwin Baker out of Michigan State. Depending on how many backs the Chargers choose to carry, and who they look at in free agency, it could end up being Hayes vs Baker for a roster spot.
3. Patrick Edwards - Detroit Lions
Perhaps no player better epitomized how "looking like an NFL player" is more important than actually being a productive player at the college level than Houston's #83. Edwards was second in the nation in receiving yards as a senior, with 1,752. It was Edwards' third straight 1,000+ yard season, and he would have easily eclipsed the mark as a freshman, if not for the horrific knee injury that cut his season short. Edwards' chances of being drafted were also likely hurt by his being hurt. Edwards would have undoubtedly put up one of the top 40 times at the NFL combine, had he been healthy enough to participate.
Most pressingly, Edwards' size was obviously a concern to NFL teams. But with his speed and route-running savvy, he was quickly snatched up by the Lions. The bad news is that the Lions' roster shows them to pretty pretty deep at the receiver position, and they did use a 2nd-round draft pick on Oklahoma receiver Ryan Broyles. The good news is that Edwards is also an exciting talent in the return game, and the Lions 2011 return specialist, Stefan Logan, didn't exactly set the world on fire. (Despite being the full-time returner, Logan didn't have a single punt return of 30 yards, or kick return of 45 yards.) If Detroit opens the return position up for competition, Edwards could very well play his way onto the roster.
4. Sammy Brown - St. Louis Rams
Like Hayes, Brown was a 2-year contributor for Houston after transferring from the junior college ranks, and like Hayes, Brown has NFL-ready size at 6'3", 240 lbs. Used primarily as a rusher off the end, all Brown did as a senior was lead the nation in tackles for loss, and finish second in sacks.
Brown certainly figures to get his chance to play his way onto the club, as the Rams currently have just four linebackers with NFL experience on the roster. St. Louis used a late draft pick on a linebacker, and has signed four more (including Brown) as UDFAs, so it looks like there is a roster spot or two to be won.
5. Bryce Beall - Dallas Cowboys
Beall took the Cougars by storm as a true freshman. While there was very little fanfare associated with Beall's signing, he was downright dominant, racking up over 1,700 yards of total offense. Unfortunately, Beall's production dropped the next two years, and his senior season was cut in half by injuries. But the hard-nosed running style that earned him the nickname "Brick" was still there.
Like Brown, Beall goes to a team that is bringing in plenty of players at his position as UDFAs. The bad news means that Beall will have to beat out multiple other players. The good news is that the Cowboys' focus on the position means that there's a good chance that they're actually looking to sign someone at the position.
6. Marcus McGraw - Arizona Cardinals
McGraw was another low-key recruit for the Cougars, but he immediately made his presence known as a true freshman, leading the team in tackles. There was no dropoff, as McGraw repeated the feat over each of the next three years, finishing 20th in the nation with better than ten tackles per game as a senior. There's not much flash in McGraw's game, and he lacks ideal size, but he is rarely out of position, and rarely misses a tackle.
The Cardinals currently list five inside linebackers on their roster, so McGraw may very well have to beat out a player with NFL experience to earn a spot, but McGraw is such a consistent performer and positive clubhouse presence that it will be hard to cut him loose.
7. David Hunter - Houston Texans
Hunter was a steadying presence for the Cougars, contributing all four years with the team, and proving a useful run stuffer, especially as an upperclassman. Like Keenum, Hunter will save on travel costs by staying in town with the Texans.
There are certainly other writers on this site who are more qualified to assess the Texans' depth at the defensive tackle position, but Hunter is just one of four players the Texans have brought in via UDFA at that position, which could indicate that they're looking to add depth there.
Graduating Cougars Nick Saenz (Buffalo Bills) and Chris Thompson (Dallas Cowboys) have also earned invitations to NFL rookie camps.