Undrafted Free Agents Beat the Long(er) Odds

The lockout was supposed to further slim the chances of rookie free agents making it on a 53-man roster this season. Ye this year, 61 earned roster spots. So much for conventional wisdom.

So much for conventional wisdom.

The overriding contention regarding undrafted college free agents his year was that, without minicamps or OTAs to draw the attention of coaches and club executives, it would be difficult if not impossible to carve out spots on a regular-season roster. The lockout, it was widely believed, would severely blunt the rookie free agent class.

But as of Tuesday morning, there were 61 undrafted rookies on rosters.

That's down one from Sunday, and the body count might drop a little bit further as teams tweak and churn the bottoms of their rosters for the season openers, but it's still a much bigger figure than most pundits had predicted. In fact, it's about a 20 percent increase from 2010, when undrafted free agents had the benefit of offseason workouts to impress evaluators.

There may not be as many free agent rookie starters this weekend as in the recent past -- the average for the last three seasons has been 29-32 -- but the performance of the rookie free agent class has been impressive.

FB Henry Hynoski
Andy Lyons/Getty

"I think everyone knew the odds were even longer than most years, and guys just came in really ready to spill it and take advantage of whatever opportunities there were," said fullback Henry Hynoski, a former University of Pittsburgh standout who left school a year early, was undrafted, but made the New York Giants' roster. "There was no time to waste. Every play was important. That was the mindset."

There were four teams that originally retained four or more free agents. Conversely, three teams kept none. Not surprisingly, Indianapolis was one of the franchises that originally kept five undrafted free agents on the roster. The team's reputation for providing free agents a legitimate opportunity to earn a paycheck more than likely had something to do with its solid free agent class.

Former Rutgers standout safety Joe Lefeged, rated by many talent experts as among the premier undrafted players, acknowledged that among the several factors that he and agent Mike McCartney took into account when deciding where to sign was that the Colts typically have at least a few free agents earn roster spots every year.

Said Lefeged: "Every team tells you they're going to give you a shot ... but when you look at the (Indianapolis) roster, you see it's more than just words."

One way in which the lockout actually might have aided undrafted prospects, and even a few teams, was that it permitted more evaluation by both sides. And, thus, better "fits" for players and franchises alike.

In a typical year, undrafted prospects usually sign with teams in the hour or two immediately after the draft concludes. There is usually a feeding frenzy to complete deals with "priority" free agents, and highly sought players who somehow fell between the draft cracks often have to choose between 8-10 suitors.

At the end of the draft this spring, the phones were silent. There have been reports that teams were still in contact with undrafted players, making contingency plans for the end of the lockout. But several agents have told The Sports Xchange that they either could not get through to clubs, or they didn't have calls returned, when they phoned to attempt to sell scouts on undrafted players.

Indeed, this year, one seemingly incongruous by-product of the lockout was that players and teams had months to review strengths and weaknesses, instead of simply leaping into the free agent pool.

With months to evaluate players, and better match them with team needs, scouts were more selective in approaching players. Likewise, agents and players had ample time to study rosters and determine which teams might offer them the best chance of actually earning a roster spot.

The process didn't result in the major increase in signing bonuses some felt might result from more focused and informed competition- in part because clubs were limited to $75,000 in expenditures -- but was a primary element in debunking the widely accepted notion that 2011 would be a poor year for free agents.

"Instead of the usual (frenzy)," said one player representative who had multiple free agents earn roster spots, "there was time to actually make sense of the market. In some years, your head is spinning, you're not sure what you're doing. If there was a benefit (to the lockout), it's that everyone had a chance to step back and take a look at the situation. As much as we all hated the lockout, it probably helped some in that regard, I guess."

Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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