Undrafted, not unwanted: How passed-over players make teams
What do Antonio Gates, Tony Romo and Jeff Saturday have in common? Along with being significant contributors on playoff teams last season, the trio also went undrafted, which provides hope for hundreds of undrafted free agents arriving at NFL mini-camps this week.
With the length of the draft steadily decreasing -- from 30 rounds in the 1950s to 12, then eight, and finally seven in recent years -- the importance placed on securing the best of the worst has grown. Player evaluation is an inexact science, so teams are well aware that a competent starter or role player may be available among each year's undrafted free agents.
Case in point: Me.
Most teams have a pretty good feel, even before the draft, which players they would like to sign, based upon the recommendations of their scouts and coaches. Naturally, some get drafted and become unavailable, but the others start getting calls as early as the first round and agreeing to a deal by the seventh round.
Even though I suspected no team was going to select me when I came out of Princeton in 2001, I still had a virtual conniption when a coach from the Cincinnati Bengals called me during the first round. He was simply laying groundwork by letting me know that they were interested in potentially signing me should I not get drafted.
The process is somewhat inefficient. Players and/or their agents often end up fielding multiple calls at the same time. For an agent with multiple undrafted players, it becomes a juggling act. He must balance the signing bonus money being offered with the potential opportunity available, and make split-second decisions due to the time constraints dictated by the clubs.
Just like drafted players, undrafted free agents run the gamut of emotions during the seventh round and the melee that follows. Players who were projected to get drafted but did not can even feel a sense of embarrassment. For them, signing as a free agent is a nightmare.
I was the exact opposite. I knew I wasn't likely to get drafted and, in fact, was just hoping I would get a chance as a free agent to pursue my dream. Words can do no justice to the feeling I had when my agent, Joe Linta, called an hour after the draft to let me know I was a member of the Washington Redskins and needed to report to mini-camp on Thursday. My college roommates and I jumped up and down at the news. I was getting my shot to put on an NFL helmet and go against the best of the best.
As I mentioned in last week's article, attitude can be everything when it comes to how you approach your first NFL experience.
Show me the opportunity
Players and agents must weigh two important factors when making the decision on which team to sign with: money and opportunity. Every undrafted free agent signs a contract for minimum salaries, so the only negotiation revolves around a signing bonus that ranges from zero to $25,000. I have always felt it is critical to sign with a team that will offer the best opportunity to make the team, not necessarily the team that will offer a couple thousand dollars more up front. The serious money comes from making a 53-man roster or even a practice squad. However, turning down more money can be easier said than done.
Though the difference between $5,000 and $10,000 may not seem like a lot given the current salary cap climate and huge dollars given to top draft choices, $5,000 is lot of money when you don't have any. For your typical college kid with $58.37 in a bank account and some credit card bills to pay, it is often difficult to see the big picture. Still, players and agents must weigh the bonus money vs. the potential opportunity that they deem available.
What have you done for others lately
An agent who correctly tracks the positional situations of the teams interested in his client is golden. How many open roster spots are likely for a given team at his client's position? Did the team draft anyone at that position? If it did, how high was he taken and would there truly be an open competition in which the best player made the team?
The other critical ingredient is the history that a certain franchise and/or coaching staff has in regard to undrafted rookies making the opening day roster. Buffalo frequently retains undrafted players, and many of them go on to make significant contributions, such as Jason Peters and Jabari Greer. Even a veteran-laden team such as New England has found a way to keep undrafted free agents on the roster, like Mike Wright and Pierre Woods. History shows that the Dolphins, under the watchful eye of Bill Parcells, will have one or two undrafted rookies on the roster, even at the expense of some of his draft picks.
One of Marty Schottenheimer's greatest qualities was his ability to offer every player a fair shot, no matter his pedigree. My undrafted free-agent class with the Schottenheimer-coached Washington Redskins in 2001 featured several players who made the roster and went on to successful careers -- including me, Antonio Pierce (now a stalwart with the New York Giants) and Kenny Watson (now with the Bengals). This was in stark contrast with the following season, when new coach Steve Spurrier gave undrafted rookies very little opportunity to make the roster.
Time to make a first impression
Once a player and his agent decide on a team, it's time to move forward and never look back. As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression. The faster an undrafted free agent can put the post-draft frenzy behind him and focus on the task at hand in mini-camp, the greater chance he has at making an NFL roster.
Ross Tucker played for five teams in his seven-year NFL career. He has joined SI.com as a regular contributor on the NFL beat. Send comments to email@example.com.