No rest for teams thanks to frantic pursuit of undrafted free agents
When the Colts selected Northern Illinois quarterback Chandler Harnish with the 253rd and final selection in the NFL Draft Saturday, it signaled the start of the undrafted free agent frenzy. In my years as GM of the Vikings, we called this John Randle time.
Randle was our shining example of the fact that there are potentially great players who are missed by the inexact science of NFL drafting. In 1990, upon recommendation from our player personnel staff in Minnesota, I signed Randle post-draft to a minimum-salary contract with a $5,000 signing bonus. He had been ignored in the then-12-round draft because he played his senior season at Texas A&M-Kingsville as a smallish 6-foot-1, 240-pound defensive tackle. But he had NFL bloodlines, as his brother Ervin played eight years for Tampa Bay and Kansas City, and he was considered to have raw talent with speed and strength. We felt he was worth a shot.
Through intense training, a relentless motor and excellent coaching, Randle matured into a 287-pound, seven-time Pro Bowler who had eight double-digit sack seasons during his 14 year NFL career. Brett Favre called him the toughest defensive player he ever faced. I was thrilled to witness John's enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2010, a testimonial to a player who beat the odds stacked against him.
Each NFL team will sign approximately 25 undrafted free agents, hoping to find a few sleepers among their signings. These players are truly underdogs, expected to be training camp fodder for the veterans and draft choices. But on every team, a couple of these players or more will make the roster as rookies or practice squad members and start their journey toward trying to become the next John Randle.
Or the next Tony Romo. The Cowboys' starting quarterback went undrafted in 2003 despite being a college All-American at Eastern Illinois and the winner of the Walter Payton Award for the nation's top Division I-AA player.
Or the next Arian Foster. After rushing for 1,193 yards in his junior season at Tennessee, Foster had a sub-par senior season in which he shared the starting job and followed it with a disastrous pre-draft period that included a Combine sabotaged by a hamstring injury and a poor pro day showing. Tennessee coaches were rumored to have told NFL scouts that Foster was selfish and uncoachable. Three years and two stellar seasons later, his college coaches probably say they knew all along that Foster would be a star.
Here's some simple math about players who didn't have their names called at the draft. In 1976, there were 487 players picked in what was then a 17-round draft. In the 2012 draft, 253 players were selected over seven rounds. That means 234 players who would have made up the eighth through 17th rounds in the past now go undrafted. So there are talented players waiting to be plucked right after the draft.
As the draft works its way through the seventh round, GMs and coaches first look at their up-to-date depth charts, including the players they've just drafted. They determine how many additional players they need at each position to fill out the roster. Then the GM, his player personnel staff and scouts construct a list of players with draftable grades who were not picked, followed by a second list of players with free agent grades (that deem them worth signing).
Scouts and coaches who personally know a player from campus visits, Combine interviews or pro day conversations are usually assigned to make the initial contact in an attempt to get a leg up on the competition. These calls are made before the draft ends, so top targeted players know that the team is interested in signing them as a free agent if they are not drafted.
Once Mr. Irrelevant is announced, chaos ensues as teams hit the phones, calling players and their agents to offer a three-year, minimum-salary deal with signing bonuses that range from nothing to $40,000. It's a recruiting madhouse in team offices with the entire football staff involved. The GM is the quarterback during this wild time as offers are floated and deals are struck.
Teams put on the hard sell. Players and agents must quickly weigh opportunity against the signing bonus. They are pressed for an immediate answer and told the team will move on to the next guy on their list unless they get a quick commitment. The system creates immense pressure on the players, agents and teams. It's not easy for players to move from the disappointment of not being drafted to the necessity of making a decision on their future team and city, often within minutes of the draft's end.
This is where a good agent is important in order to get the player refocused. Agent Blake Baratz of The Institute for Athletes says that Jake Ballard had 20-plus offers to sign when nobody picked him out of Ohio State in the 2010 draft. Ballard and Baratz chose a Giants team that regularly carries at least four tight ends on the roster (as opposed to some teams who may only carry two). It was a wise choice, as Ballard became a starter on a Super Bowl-winning team in his second season.
Baratz also tells of turning down a significantly higher signing bonus when Tampa Bay offered seventh-round money for Wisconsin's Jonathan Casillas in 2009. Instead, they chose to accept a lesser signing bonus from New Orleans based on a better opportunity to make the team and earn the then-$310K first-year base salary. Casillas wound up starting two games as a rookie and contributed on special teams for the Super Bowl champion Saints.
The new CBA kicked the minimum salaries for rookies up to $390K this coming season, making the signing bonus even less of a priority compared to finding the best opportunity. Undrafted rookies, as with late-round draft choices, generally sign split contracts, with a lower salary ($273,000 in 2012) if they wind up on injured reserve.
Meanwhile, practice squads have grown to a max of eight players per team with their salaries increased to a minimum of $5,700 per week (or $96,900 for the 17-week regular season). This presents another opportunity for undrafted players to make a team and then hope to be elevated to the active roster eventually.
When free agency and the salary cap came into effect in the early 1990s, significantly more undrafted players, along with late-round draft picks, began making teams' final rosters. This was due to more roster turnover each year as a result of free agent movement and because, with the cap, teams needed to offset high-salaried starters with most cost-effective players.
I experienced first-hand this transformation of emphasis on undrafted free agents with the advent of free agency and the salary cap. When I first started negotiating player contracts with the Vikings in the mid-1980s, we had few of these players ever make the team. It was difficult to get our scouts and coaches to focus on this batch of players following the draft. I was basically on my own signing guys to deals with signing bonuses of a few thousand dollars as the coaches and scouts headed out to post-draft staff dinners.
Then things changed, and our entire football staff became highly engaged in the post-draft free agent signing process. It was no longer an afterthought.
Rather than resting on their drafting laurels late Saturday, teams were busy burning up the phone lines, trying to sign the next John Randle, Tony Romo or Arian Foster among the crop of undrafted college free agents.
Lesser publicized? Maybe. But the effort is still a critical part of draft weekend.