8th Round_V4
By Levi Edwards | Digital Team Reporter

With the conclusion of the 2022 NFL Draft, all draft selections – and undrafted rookie free agent signings – report to Raiders rookie minicamp May 13. Raiders.com's Levi Edwards details the journey of three of the Raiders' most successful UDFAs: AJ Cole, Andre James and Dallin Leavitt. This trio of undrafted players who were signed in 2018 and 2019 have carved out big roles on the Silver and Black, but here's how they got there.

'This might be the last time I ever play football."

"Thank you for everything, but I'm not coming"

This previous season, AJ Cole was one of four undrafted players who was named to the AP All-Pro First team. His breakout season that saw him leading the league in gross punt average landed him a multi-year extension with the Raiders as well.

Cole's success stems from a mindset he had when he first put on the Silver and Black – play like every snap could be his last. Cole was picked up by the Raiders out of NC State, where he was the starting punter for four seasons. As part of the Wolfpack, he had 9,288 career punting yards – third-highest in school history. Additionally, he averaged 42.2 yards per punt. Despite his success as a punter in college, which included being a finalist for the Wuerffel Trophy, he never realistically saw him himself as an NFL punter.

"I guess you could say it's always been a dream to get to the NFL, but it was never really a dream I felt was obtainable," said Cole. "I would say it was always a goal, but I really didn't consider it obtainable until it happened."

Cole was signed as an undrafted free agent in May of 2019 – after a rookie minicamp tryout – leading to the opportunity to come to Training Camp and try to make the 53-man roster. The punter position has always been held in high regard for the Raiders, as they had two All-Pro punters in place before Cole's signing. But even if Cole didn't land the job, he had another one lined up regardless.

The punter majored in engineering at NC State and received an offer to work for IBM after graduation. While he was trying out for the Raiders, he thought his chance of actually making the team was unlikely. Therefore, he kept the door open with IBM all the way through his rookie minicamp and Training Camp.

"I already had the security of that and I knew if the NFL didn't work out, I could kind of step into that and support myself," said Cole. "But then I got the call from the Raiders to come into rookie minicamp and I was like, 'Alright. Three day tryout, one opportunity to make it shake.' So I went from being disappointed to being really optimistic and just saying, 'This might be the last time I ever play football.' So I was just going to go out there and have as much fun, soak it all in and enjoy it as much as possible."

The three day tryout passed. Then OTA's passed. Then Training Camp passed. Cole had the report to IBM by the end of August, but by that point, he was penciled in to be the starting punter for the Raiders.

"After the cut date, I called [IBM] and said, 'Hey man, I'm not coming. Thank you for everything, but I'm not coming.'"

Cole is now going into his fourth season as the Raiders' starting punter, having now played 49 games and booting 175 punts in the Silver and Black. He also had the best PFF grade of any punter in the NFL last season. The man who thought he'd be at a desk behind a computer for his immediate future, doesn't take the opportunity of being a Pro Bowl punter for granted.

"I think it's so cool to play this position for this particular franchise. I think that history that they have from Ray Guy to Shane Lechler is just incredible. I think it means a lot to have that honor to play for this franchise. It's really special."

"I went into it with a good mindset and just practiced my ass off."

"Where do you stand in times of discomfort?"

Andre James was at a standstill in his life.

The UCLA tackle from Utah had been a full-time starter for the Bruins for two and a half seasons. Going into the 2019 NFL Draft, he was not in the best place personally. He was several months removed from losing his father to brain cancer. This was a time where James truly showed how physically and mentally strong he was, playing through the father's cancer diagnosis.

"He was just really hungry for ball. The best part of his day was football and that was the good thing about coaching him," said Justin Frye, Ohio State's associate head coach who worked with James in 2018. "It was a little surreal for me seeing him go through that because I had the same thing happen to me when I was in college. My father passed away when I going into my senior year. Being able to see him go through that, I tried to help him. He would go back and forth on long weekends to go home and spend time with his siblings and make sure they were OK. And then he would come back. It was really the measure of the man, the old adage of, 'Where do you stand in times of discomfort?' He went home and laid his dad to rest and then came back to catch up midweek on the game plan.

"Just emotionally, physically, mentally staying in the game, and then going out and playing that week and winning that game is a testament to how tough the guy really is."

With a year left of eligibility, James declared early for the NFL Draft. He found an agent to get him ready with combine training, and was told he was slotted to be a mid to late-round pick.

"Going undrafted was in the back of my mind," said James. "I didn't think I was going to go undrafted. I mean, I don't think anyone does, but I told myself, 'Whatever happens, happens.'"

Through the stress and confusion of waiting for three days, he never got a call. James had to figure out what were the next steps. His agent called him at the end of the draft and notified him that he had two UDFA offers on the table – one from the Pittsburgh Steelers and the other from the Raiders.

"My agent hit me up the last minute and said, 'I think you should go to the Raiders,' and I didn't even think that was an option," said James. "It sounded cool. They were in Oakland at the moment, but I knew they were going to be moving to Vegas that next year. It was honestly the perfectly situation with it being the closest team to Salt Lake City, Utah. It's a quick drive so I told myself that would be the best option. And I knew people with Kolton [Miller] being there and Tom Cable coached my agent at Cal. So I said, 'Yeah, let's do it.'

James knew coming into the NFL that there was a likelihood he would have to change his position from tackle. However, he never would've thought the position change would be to center – a position he never took at snap at until rookie minicamp.

"I went into it with a good mindset and just practiced my ass off," he said. "It was really mental more than anything, being able to call the plays and call the combinations of what we're going into. It took a lot of practice to say the least."

Now going into his fourth season, James has established himself as the starting center of the Las Vegas Raiders. James played 100 percent of all offensive snaps last season, alongside his UCLA teammate Kolton Miller. He was a vital part of the Raiders' 10-win season and their first playoff berth since the 2016 season. Frye is not surprised his former player has had this amount success at a new position after going undrafted, especially seeing the extreme adversity James battled in football as well as his personal life.

"He was a football player. He could've been the best guard on the team, the best tackle on the team – which he was," said Frye. "Obviously, if you put a ball in his hand, he can do that now at that level. Nothing was too big for him. I'm not shocked at all by what he's done, he's a high, high level football player."

"I don't care who are you or what it is in front of me, I'm like that."

"I'm like that"

Dallin Leavitt was too passionate about the game of football to ever think his NFL dreams would not come true.

The safety, who grew up in Portland, Oregon, had been around football his whole life, and found ways to prosper within the game. He credits his family for being the foundation in his life and football, and also the reason he never let himself give up on his dream of playing in the league.

"I always knew I wanted to play in the NFL ever since I was 5 years old," said Leavitt. "I told my dad I was meant to play this game and he said, 'You haven't even put on a helmet yet, you have no clue what you're talking about.' But football has always been my first love and everything I ever cared about. Everything I did was for football.

"Now looking back at it, it's almost irrational how much I thought I was capable of playing in the NFL with my height, weight, speed," continued Leavitt. " But I attest that my mom and dad, they've always pushed me and always been supportive. They were so over the top in, 'Whatever you want to, let's chase it,' and they gave me every opportunity to do it."

He would commit to BYU and play two seasons there, before transferring to Utah State where he had to fight an uphill battle after breaking his ankle. After coming back from the injury, Leavitt totaled 139 total tackles, seven interceptions and six pass deflections as an Aggie. Following graduation, the only NFL team that contacted him was the Raiders, for a tryout at rookie minicamp. However, he didn't make the cut.

"I went up to [Coach] Gruden, sat with him in the lunch room and just started crying and begged him to take a chance on me. 'Please, I'm going to lead the team in special teams tackles. I'm going to be the best special teams player you have and I'm going to be the smartest DB in the room.' At this point, I'm 23 years old, I'm a grown man sitting there crying to Coach Gruden. And he just said, 'Look I don't have a spot for you right now.'"

Leavitt leaned on his father and his wife, who was supporting them through her fitness and wellness Instagram account, in order to survive. Weeks later, Leavitt was about to put his NFL dreams aside for pharmaceutical sales when the Raiders called him back and signed him to a contract to play on special teams. Though he was discouraged after he didn't make the main roster and was signed to the practice squad. Nevertheless, he realizes now how much of a blessing in disguise it was.

"I felt like I was being disrespected, which now I look at and say, 'Oh my gosh, I'm so grateful for that.' And that's the mindset you have to have as an athlete is, 'I'm that dude. I don't care who are you or what it is in front of me, I'm like that., You have to feel that way or you're not going to have confidence when you're out there on the field."

The safety would get his chance to play in an NFL game in Week 16 against the Denver Broncos. Leavitt was given his opportunity and ended the game with a tackle and a victory over the AFC West foe. After another two seasons of switching between practice squad and the main roster, he broke his way onto the main roster full-time in 2021. Last season, he played in all but one game with two pass deflections and two fumble recoveries.

Going into his fifth season as a Raider, Leavitt is no longer under the direction of the coaches that guided him through the NFL. Now working under Josh McDaniels, Leavitt has to prove himself all over again to a new staff. But the safety that has dreamed of being in the NFL since he was 5 is up for the challenge.

"I can't wait to have an opportunity to show how much value I can bring from the things you can't necessarily see in between the lines," he said. "Being in the meeting room, leading by example, working hard and culturally putting effort in what I do and loving what I do. That's what I feel I can bring in value."

View photos of current players on the Raiders' roster who began their careers as undrafted free agents.

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