GLENDALE, Ariz. — It’s almost an annual rite of summer. An unheralded, undrafted player takes Cardinals training camp by storm. There is talk that he will have an impact on the lineup and supplant a veteran or draft pick that thought his spot was secure. There are predictions of stardom.
Then he fades into oblivion.
Well, not always. Valley product Lyle Sendlein walked into camp as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2007, made the team, started two games his rookie season and then started all 124 games in which he played from 2008 to 2015.
Undrafted rookie free-agent safety Tony Jefferson arrived in Tempe in 2013 with something to prove after a strong career at Oklahoma went unrewarded in the draft.
“I knew I was good enough; I’ve been doing this my whole life,” said Jefferson, who has played in every game the past three seasons, totaling 165 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions (one returned for a TD), six passes defensed, three forced fumbles and 13 special teams tackles. “I just looked at not getting drafted as them making a mistake so I’ll let them live, and then I went out and made some plays. I had as much confidence in myself as ever. I was mad, I had a chip on my shoulder and I was ready to go out and give some hell.”
Most rookie free agents must adopt that me-against-the-world mentality because their odds of making a roster are longer, given the investment teams make in draft picks. Undrafted status is not the only factor that contributes to the fade of some training camp sensations, however. The biggest factor is simple: they’re not good enough and they were overhyped.
Maybe it’s a coach trying to drive competition with another player who isn’t performing up to expectations. Maybe it’s a teammate trying to be nice. Maybe an injury derails their hopes. Maybe the team really believes it has discovered a diamond in the rough.
Whatever the reasons for their meteoric rise and fall from grace, here are four guys who went from training camp sensation to flameouts, and one guy who is in danger of joining them.
WR Stephen Williams
Williams was the talk of 2010 training camp under coach Ken Whisenhunt and wide receivers coach John McNulty.
Defensive end Bertrand Berry termed Williams’ undrafted status “insane” and “an absolute crime,” quarterback Derek Anderson said he’d never worked with a better rookie receiver, safety Kerry Rhodes said, “whether he’s going up against the third team, the second team or the first team, he’s a beast.” Hall of Fame lock Larry Fitzgerald predicted Williams would replace him as the team’s No. 1 receiver in time, pointing to Williams and saying, “There’s your No. 1 receiver.”
Williams suffered a nasty Achilles injury in August 2012, but the Cardinals thought he had topped out long before that and his career numbers bear that thought out. Williams played 11 games for the Cardinals in 2010, catching nine balls for 101 yards. Since then, he hasn’t recorded a single reception in eight games between Arizona, Seattle, Jacksonville and Miami. He is currently a free agent.
Quarterback Max Hall
At the same camp where Williams was making early impressions, Hall wowed the Cardinals coaching and management staffs so much that they did everything they could to shield him from attention and expressed concern that if they placed him on the practice squad another team would claim him. Some media members even compared some of Hall’s abilities to those of gutsy, Hall of Fame QB Joe Montana, although the former BYU standout never showed NFL arm strength at training camp
After releasing QB Matt Leinart, the Cards went into the season with Anderson, John Skelton and Hall at QB, and Hall eventually was named the starter on Oct. 10. He won his NFL start against the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, completing 17 of 27 passes for 168 yards and no touchdowns. He also threw an interception and fumbled twice, yet was somehow named Pepsi Rookie of the Week for Week 5.
It was all downhill from there for “Little Joe,” who started three games, was waived/injured on Aug. 24, 2011, and then reverted to injured reserve after passing through waivers unclaimed on Aug. 25. After the Cardinals released him, Hall did not play professional football again until 2013 when the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the CFL signed him. He appeared in 18 games that season, completing 162 of 283 passes (57.2 percent) for 1,999 yards, nine TDs and 10 INTs. Hall was among 11 players cut by the Bombers in June 2014.
On Aug. 30, 2014, he was arrested at a Best Buy in Gilbert. In the backpack Hall was carrying, officers found $286 worth of stolen electronics and a personal use quantity of cocaine, according to a police report. Hall later apologized and opened up about his addiction to pain killers and the fact he had lied about suffering a concussion against New Orleans, not to mention several subsequent concussions and injuries that derailed his career.
QB Phillip Sims
Sims’ backstory as a big-time prospect only aided him when he turned in a good training camp and outperformed Logan Thomas in the battle for the third-string spot. Following his second preseason appearance in which he completed 8 of 13 passes for 89 yards and directed the Cardinals to 10 fourth-quarter points, Sims was mobbed by media members while Thomas slipped out the door, unapproached. This may have been a case of media hype rather than team hype, however, because just 12 days after that performance, the Cardinals acquired Matt Barkley in a trade with Philadelphia and cut both Sims and Thomas.
WR Lance Long
Long earned a name for himself as a rookie free agent out of Mississippi State — more specifically, a nickname. Cardinals staff members took to calling him “Seabiscuit” for his ability to run and overcome physical shortcomings such as his height (5-11).
Long was leading the Cardinals in preseason receptions (8) and yards (89) after two games in 2009, but the excitement didn’t last long. Long played one game for the Cardinals that season, and was waived and claimed by the Chiefs under coach Todd Haley (the former Cards offensive coordinator). He had 20 catches for 178 yards with Kansas City but was waived in 2010 training camp. He also served stints with Jacksonville, San Francisco and Detroit from 2010-2013, but never appeared in another NFL game.
WR Jaxon Shipley
The rookie receiver from Texas turned heads in 2015 training camp, particularly in the preseason. Shipley was targeted 11 times in the Cards’ final preseason game against Denver, recording nine catches for 58 yards. He displayed a willingness to run routes over the middle and make catches in traffic while absorbing big hits. That earned him praise from coach Bruce Arians, but the only other thing it earned him was a spot on the practice squad. This season, even that spot may prove difficult with rookie free agent Chris Hubert (Fayetteville State) pushing for a spot.
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