The first two days of the draft went off mostly without a hitch. GMs and head coaches looked comfortable, dare we say even relaxed, in their home set-ups, with their kids gathered around, team banners tenuously propped up behind them and, in the case of Mike Vrabel, a costumed guest nearby.
While there was a great amount of anticipation for the NFL’s first virtual draft, decision-makers around the league have been more anxious for what follows the draft’s seven rounds.
“When it’s all said and done, the biggest challenge will be not even so much the draft,” Chiefs GM Brett Veach said earlier this month, “but it will be undrafted free agency.”
There is, at least, order and some control during the 255 draft picks. But undrafted free agency is chaos even under normal circumstances.
The period of time when teams fill out their 90-man roster and plug needs from the remaining pool of prospects is a free-for-all. Usually around 500 undrafted players agree to contracts after the draft ends, an average of about 15 per team. Unlike draft picks, they get to choose which team they sign with, weighing factors like how much guaranteed money a team is offering in the form of a signing bonus and their odds of making the 55-man game week roster based on the depth chart at the position they play.
At the same time teams are also performing a juggling act, going after the players they want, staying within their allotted salary pool for undrafted free agents and moving quickly enough so they don’t miss out on second, third and fourth options if a top target picks a different team. It’s an all-hands-on-deck effort, with more than a dozen people including scouts and position coaches making phone calls, which becomes much more complicated to coordinate when those people are not in the same room.
“During a normal draft, after the draft is over, you have every position coach right there,” Veach said. “You have every coordinator right there. Your scouts are basically bringing players to you. You’re handing out phone calls, and you’re making a pitch. These undrafted free agents want to know what your depth chart is. … Talking through your vision for them, how they would fit there. There’s a ton of information that gets passed on really quickly and you have to be able to move on from one person to the next, or they’ll go somewhere else.”
Every part of the roster-building process is important. It was through undrafted free agency that the Vikings signed John Randle, the Cowboys landed Tony Romo and the Chargers got Antonio Gates—among many others. The key to landing such undrafted gems this year will be for teams to be more organized and targeted in their approach.
Veach said one of member of his personnel staff joked with him that it was by design that the Chiefs don’t have a sixth- or seventh-round pick, because that will give them those two rounds to focus entirely on preparing for undrafted free agency. Veach suggested that the Chiefs may target a more limited pool of undrafted players than in past years, homing in on their most needy positions. He used the example of drafting a running back—which the Chiefs did in the first round, selecting LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire—and not wanting Andy Reid and OC Eric Bieniemy to be tied up presenting a pitch to an undrafted running back when there are more pressing positional needs. “Making sure that we allocate our time and our resources in this limited capacity into exactly what we need,” Veach said.
The Rams will use what GM Les Snead said they’ve nicknamed their “Tier Four committees,” in which they pair scouts with assistant coaches to work together virtually to address different position groups. Snead said they will allocate a certain amount of money to each position group, and empower the members of each committee to close deals and fill out that part of their roster. A position with greater need—for example, the Rams entered the draft with just five receivers on their roster—would be given both a bigger budget and a bigger committee, with more coaches and scouts making outreach to the receivers on their list.
“First of all, when the draft is over, is there anybody on the draft board that we would have drafted?” Snead said. “If so, do we want to take a lot of our allotted money and spend it on those players? And then after you make that decision, you then put it into the committee’s hands. You do try to allow them to have some flexibility on closing the deal. If a position group has $10K in signing bonus [money] to get guys to sign, and they want to spend $8K on one player and $2,000 on three others, that’s in their hands.”
Undrafted free agency is a little bit like college recruiting, Snead adds: Pay the five-star players, then fill out the remaining needs with the three-star players. Or, Snead adds, as former Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips used to say: “Pay the good players.”
The unusual circumstances of this year’s pre-draft process created some additional challenges in identifying who those players are, particularly for the small-school prospects who were not invited to the NFL combine or Senior Bowl and did not get to work out in front of NFL evaluators due to the cancellation of most Pro Days. But every team is in the same boat, having to rely on film, Zoom calls and the work scouts did last fall to make their evaluations. Perhaps as a result there could be more hidden gems this year, talented players who flew under the radar and didn’t get drafted, adding to both the intrigue and anxiety for this year’s undrafted free agent frenzy.
“It’ll be certainly a challenge,” Veach said. “I can sit here and talk to you ‘til the cows come home about how great [our] plan is, and I’m sure it’ll be chaotic and crazy. But it’ll certainly be a story for years to come for all draft rooms and how it all went down.”
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