Stats, Combine invitations and mock draft projections look nice. And they serve to raise expectations in the weeks and days leading up to the NFL Draft. But they don’t mean a thing once commissioner Roger Goodell steps to the podium and begins calling names.

As he did last weekend in Detroit.

Even with 32 teams and a 7-round draft, there aren’t enough spots to go around for everyone with hopes of playing at the next level. While 41 players from 11 ACC schools were selected, including 4 in the first round, many more hopefuls were not.

That doesn’t mean their dream has come to an end.

Making it in the NFL as an undrafted free agent is about as realistic as sneaking into a sold-out game without a ticket.

It’s tough. But not impossible.

Former Syracuse quarterback Tommy DiVito, who finished his career at Illinois, started 6 games for the New York Giants last season despite not being drafted. And NC State running back Zonovan Knight ran for more than 300 yards for the New York Jets after going undrafted in 2022.

Those are just 2 examples that can serve as inspiration for this year’s class of UFAs from ACC schools. It’s a group that includes these 5 unexpected members:

DT Leonard Taylor III, Miami

Taylor was a 5-star recruit, rated as the top defensive tackle nationally and the No. 1 player in Florida by 247 Sports. He was mentioned as a possible 1st-round pick as recently as last summer. And he still had 2 seasons of college eligibility remaining.

So how is it that such an impressive physical specimen ended up going undrafted and signing as a rookie free agent with the New York Jets? Let’s just say that his performance last season had a better chance of landing him on the all-airport team rather than All-ACC. At 6-3, 305 pounds, he looked the part of a dominating interior defender. But his play didn’t match the visual.

Taylor peaked as a true freshman in 2021, when he led the Hurricanes with 7.5 tackles for loss with 21 tackles and 2 sacks despite playing in only 9 games. He finished his career at Miami with 22.5 TFLs and 6 sacks. But only 3.5 of those TFLs and 1 sack came last season.

If there’s any silver lining to his disappointing draft experience, it’s that the Jets didn’t use any of their picks on a defensive lineman. So he stands a realistic shot at making the team by living up to his potential during preseason camp.

OG Javion Cohen, Miami

Though not as highly-touted as his Hurricanes teammate Taylor, Cohen was included in virtually every reputable mock draft in the weeks leading up to the event.

He came to Miami with the credentials of a top-rated guard prospect after starting the previous 2 seasons at Alabama, where he earned SEC All-Freshman recognition in 2020 and 2nd-team All-SEC honors 2 seasons later.

But while he was decent enough as a pass blocker, he struggled in the run game while earning a grade of 59.4 from Pro Football Focus. Then, with an opportunity to regain his standing at the NFL Combine in February, he underperformed in the few drills in which he participated.

It would be easy to chalk up Cohen’s declining draft stock on a Miami’s quarterback issues last season. But then, that didn’t prevent the Hurricanes’ other transfer offensive lineman – center Matt Lee – from going to the Cincinnati Bengals in the 7th round. Instead, the most likely reason he went unselected was the weight gain that helped him increase his strength, but decreased his athleticism and mobility.

Cohen signed as an undrafted free agent with the Cleveland Browns.

DT Fabien Lovett, Florida State

Lovett isn’t the kind of player who will blow you away with impressive stats. In 4 seasons with the Seminoles after starting his career at Mississippi State, he amassed only 12 TFLs and 5 sacks. But there’s much more to his game beyond the numbers.

The 6-3, 316-pound senior, who was projected as anywhere from a 5th- to 7th-round pick, is a physical space-eater whose work in the trenches helped clear the way for 1st-round pick Jared Verse and 2nd-round selection Braden Fiske to get to quarterbacks.

Lovett interviewed with all 32 teams at the Combine and, from all indications, made a positive impression. The Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs thought enough of him to sign him as a free agent. But not enough to draft him, perhaps because of concerns about his football instincts and history of injuries that have affected his mobility.

DT Myles Murphy, North Carolina

It clearly wasn’t a good draft year for defensive tackles from ACC schools. Murphy is the 3rd player at the position to make this list.

His biggest issue may have been the stigma that comes with being associated with a UNC defense that was among the worst in the ACC over the past 2 seasons. Murphy seemed to have overcome the guilt by association with a standout performance at the East-West Shrine Game that reminded the scouts of his individual skill.

He punctuated his strong week of practice with a sack of Louisville quarterback Jack Plummer in the game and a Combine invitation. But his performance in Indy, combined with the fact that at 6-3, 309 he’s something of a ‘tweener without a natural position conspired to relegate him to UFA status. He was signed by the Arizona Cardinals shortly after the draft ended.

LS Joe Shimko, NC State

OK, so long snappers rarely get drafted. But in Shimko’s case, there was reason to believe that someone might have taken a flier on him in the final round or 2.

Not only did he win the Patrick Mannelly Award as the nation’s best player at his position, he was also the only long snapper invited to participate in the specialists portion of the NFL’s Combine. He also earned mention as a member of the Allstate Good Works team by raising over $400,000 for charity during his final 2 summers at State.

Shimko compiled an incredible resume during his 4 seasons with the Wolfpack. In 607 snaps over 62 games, he did not have a single bad snap. After signing with the Cardinals, he’ll challenge veteran snapper Aaron Brewer for the job in the fall. Even if he doesn’t win that battle, his performance on and off the field in college, combined with the position, give him a realistic shot at making somebody’s opening week roster.