One of Mike Pettine's favorite players, retired former Browns safety Jim Leonhard, was overlooked before he even reached the collegiate level.
Leonhard defied the odds for years, lasting 10 years with five different teams -- a number of which featured Pettine on the coaching staff at the time. At Wisconsin, it started with impressing coaches as someone who was more than just your regular walk-on. With the Buffalo Bills in 2005, it started with becoming the only undrafted rookie free agent to make the 53-man roster.
In his final season, Leonhard was part of a Browns roster that not only saw multiple undrafted rookies play significant roles, but also included a handful of players who began their path to the 53-man roster with a tryout at the team's rookie mini-camp. Leonhard saw in them what he saw in himself 10 years earlier.
"The advantage all of those guys have is that they play with a chip on their shoulder – all the time," Leonhard said. "And they prepare with that same chip. Because they realize nothing is going to be handed out to them."
One year since running back Isaiah Crowell (607 rushing yards, eight touchdowns) and quarterback Connor Shaw (one start, 14-of-28, 177 yards) signed free agent deals and one year since wide receiver Taylor Gabriel (36 receptions, 621 yards, touchdown), defensive back K'Waun Williams (352 snaps at nickel cornerback), defensive back Robert Nelson (made the 53-man roster) and offensive lineman Jacobbi McDaniel (played as a substitute at Jacksonville) received their first tryout with the Browns, a new class of under-the-radar players will be in Berea this weekend for the Browns' 2015 rookie mini-camp.
The Browns will announce this year's undrafted free agents later this week.
Some of the players, particularly those whom the Browns targeted and signed to free-agent deals as soon as the draft ended, are "additional draft picks" in the eyes of Pettine.
"When you can sign a guy as a free agent that you had a fifth-, sixth-, seventh-round grade on, it won't show up in the newspaper or be reported that 'hey, you got an additional pick,' but that was the case certainly with Crowell and Connor Shaw a year ago; K'Waun Williams, Robert Nelson, Taylor Gabriel, guys we brought in at tryout camp," Pettine said. "They were not only able to make the team, but be productive members as well."
There's little TV time dedicated to the acquisition of these players, but their importance is felt in a big way at every stadium, every Sunday.
At the beginning of last season, close to 42 percent of the Browns' roster was comprised of players who weren't drafted. Across the league, there were 456 undrafted players on season-opening rosters, according to the Elias Stats Bureau.
Leonhard said coaches have soft spots for players like this because most weren't superstars during their playing days, either.
"You see their true colors come out and the character they have when you have to fight for something," Leonhard said. "But you can't help but get attached to those guys."
The window to impress at mini-camp and OTAs isn't large, but there's such a thing as trying to do too much to impress the coaches, said Browns defensive end Billy Winn, a former sixth-round pick who similarly did not have a guaranteed spot on the roster when he joined the team.
These types of players, Winn said, carry a chip on their shoulder in order to prove they can be just as valuable as a first- or second-round pick.
"Just do your job. If you go out there and do your job and make the plays that come to you, you'll be fine. That's it," Winn said. "Don't go out and try to do extra stuff or go out there and try to do someone else's job. In the long run, it's just going to make you look bad. Go out there, take care of your job, do your responsibility and everything will be fine."
Crowell, who has seen both sides of the equation as a former top national high school recruit and undrafted free agent in the NFL, had even simpler advice.
"It's just football," Crowell said. "Everything stays the same. You just have to go out and play."