Duke wideout Conner Vernon (No. 2) is the ACC's all-time leader in receptions. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Because the NFL draft is an inexact science, teams make mistakes. Often the entire league whiffs on a player who later proves to be one of the best at his position.
Texans running back Arian Foster, Chargers tight end Antonio Gates and new Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker, for instance, all were undrafted free agents coming out of college but have been consistent Pro Bowlers in the NFL.
So it’s likely that some gems will emerge from the 2013 draft, and it’s possible the Oakland Raiders may have several who could step up this summer to earn a roster spot.
In evaluating the top 10 undrafted free agents signed by AFC West teams this offseason, Bill Williamson of ESPN.com rates the Raiders as having four of them.
In order, he ranks Oakland defensive back Adrian Bushell of Louisville as the third-best undrafted free agent in the division, followed by Duke wide receiver Conner Vernon (No. 5), Boston College offensive tackle John Wetzel (No. 6) and Youngstown State guard Lamar Mady (No. 10).
Bushell (5-foot-11, 184 pounds) was a first-team all-Big East selection as a senior who has good speed, had 62 tackles and 14 passes defensed in 2012 and also averaged 23.4 yards per kickoff return (with a touchdown). Wetzel is huge at 6-foot-7 and 315 pounds and considered an excellent run blocker (but was downgraded for footwork)., and Mady (6-foot-2, 317 pounds) played for a lower-division school, but is considered athletic and can play both center and guard.
The player who might rise above all the rest, however, is Vernon.
Vernon is 6 feet tall and 196 pounds and is projected as a slot receiver in the NFL, drawing comparisons to Wes Welker and Eric Decker. Vernon had four very productive years at Duke and was first team all-Atlantic Coast Conference as a senior when he caught 85 passes for 1,074 yards and eight touchdowns. His 283 catches for 3,749 yards are both ACC career bests.
His strengths: route-running ability and his hands.
“Whoever gets Conner Vernon is going to get an outstanding football player,” Duke head coach David Cutcliffe told the Raleigh News & Observer before the draft.
NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning – who have worked out at Duke for several years in the offseason, throwing to Vernon and others – also believe he can be a solid NFL receiver.
“What an unbelievable career he’s had here,” Peyton Manning told the newspaper. “I’m pulling real hard for him. I think he’d be a good addition to an NFL roster.”
Eli Manning said in 7-on-7 drills at Duke, Vernon always found a way to get open.
“I noticed that I keep going his way,” he said. “He’s my first read on some things, and he’s winning on some post routes and go routes.”
NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. told the San Francisco Chronicle that he believes Vernon will be an NFL success story.
“If he led the Raiders in catches in his second year, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Kiper told the Chronicle. “In the mold of a Wes Welker, he’s a technician with reliable hands. Make that tremendous hands, and he is the career receptions leader in the ACC.”
Vernon will join a Raiders receiving corps that includes holdovers Denarius Moore, Jacoby Ford, Rod Streater and Juron Criner, as well as seventh-round pick Brice Butler of San Diego State.