For NFL prospects on the bubble, it’s often better not to get picked at all than to be selected in the final rounds.
Once the Indianapolis Colts pick “Mr. Irrelevant,” a title bestowed upon the last player chosen in the seven-round draft, teams will make a mad dash Saturday afternoon to sign college free agents who were on their draft boards but didn’t get picked for one reason or another.
Those with multiple suitors get to salve their bruised egos by scouring rosters and picking a team that gives them the best chance to make the roster.
Every year, some of these players prove that for all its money and manpower, the draft is an inexact science.
“There’s pros and cons to each of them,” Colorado safety Ray Polk said. “If you get drafted, you get to say you got drafted. And I’m sure there’s a little bit more money. But you go free agent, you get to choose a different fit or different scenarios that you can put yourself into.”
Polk is trying to both avoid and follow in the footsteps of his father, Raymond Polk, a cornerback from Oklahoma State who was drafted in the 12th round by the Raiders in 1985 only to tear a hamstring in the preseason after getting traded to Tampa Bay, ending his NFL career before it began.
“It would be great to be able to pick my situation,” Polk said, “but I just want a shot.”
The undrafted players have more to prove than the high draft picks who get to don a spiffy new cap and shake the commissioner’s hand while posing with a jersey at Radio City Music Hall.
But for all the first-round busts like Ryan Leaf, Tony Mandarich or JaMarcus Russell, there’s the bronze busts in Canton, Ohio, of men such as Dick “Night Train” Lane, John Randle and Warren Moon, three of the 14 Hall of Famers who were bypassed in the draft.
Willie Wood was another.
The USC quarterback was sidestepped in the 1960 draft because he was undersized at 160 pounds and was coming off a collar bone injury that had bothered him for two years. He embarked on a letter-writing campaign begging teams for a chance. Only the Packers responded, and he repaid them by helping Green Bay win five NFL championships and the first two Super Bowls while becoming one of the greatest defensive backs in league history.
The Colts have had at least one undrafted free agent make their Week 1 roster in each of the last 14 years. Kansas City has a 10-year streak and Denver’s is nine.
“As far as making your team, maybe it’s not (better to be drafted),” new Chiefs coach Andy Reid acknowledged. “If you look at the stats, there are a whole lot of undrafted free agents playing in the NFL right now, and that’s just by sheer number of players that there are. You have a bigger pool. But you can also choose where you go, where you have a chance to make the team.”
Of course, teams can keep players from that pool by picking them to start with.
“You feel pretty secure picking him because now you know you have him,” Reid said. “You don’t have to go through that whole negotiation thing that takes place after the draft, which is a circus. So there’s a security there. If you really have somebody your scouts like in the seventh round, snag them up, man.”
Every team’s wish list, however, is bigger than its draft list.
“I hear undrafted almost is better than being a late-rounder because you’re pretty much the same thing, you’re still on the bubble whether you’re going to make the team or not and you have a little more options as a free agent, so it shouldn’t be seen as such an awful thing,” said Polk’s teammate, linebacker Jon Major.
Once teams gather for rookie minicamps, offseason workouts and then training camp – really one long tryout – draft status can matter as little as the numbers on their backs.
“I have always addressed it when I was a position coach or a coordinator that, ‘Hey, that label that may be on you is off. We are all in competition right now and the best players are going to play,’ ” Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone said. “For me as a coach, I have always found that, as well as our scouting department, it is a great challenge. Pulling for that underdog. Pulling for someone that might have been overlooked.
“I think it is much more difficult in this day and age with all the film that is out there and all the stuff we get to go ahead and find that diamond in the rough,” Marrone said. “You have to look for those intangibles or those strong points in those players that might not have been developed yet. And then I really think when you get those types of players in that can play with a role and make your football team, you become a better football team.”
Going undrafted often drives a player throughout his career.
Former Broncos receiver Rod Smith said he didn’t breathe easy until an injured hip sent him into retirement in 2007 as a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time Super Bowl champion.
“I would sneak up to my locker every day,” said Smith, whose 849 catches for 11,389 yards are the most among undrafted players in league history. “For 14 years, I would sneak up on my locker, and some days were a little bit more relaxing than other days, but I would sneak up on my locker and just pray that my name was still there and say, ‘OK, I’ve got one more day. … I get to put these cleats on for one more day.’ ”
Smith, whose records are being challenged by Wes Welker, Denver’s new slot receiver who went undrafted out of Texas Tech, said getting bypassed in the draft is something that he’s never gotten over.
“I carry grudges a long time,” Smith said. “Some people weren’t too smart, because they measured all this other stuff and they didn’t measure a person’s heart. They don’t have a machine for that.”