Undrafted rookies beating the odds with 49ers

The 49ers have three undrafted rookie free agents on the 53-man roster they'll take into the regular season, quite a change for a team that has had only one other rookie UFA make its opening-day roster since 2005. In a year when undrafted rookies weren't supposed to make many rosters around the NFL, the numbers were actually up 20 percent this year. Why? The lockout might have actually helped.

So much for conventional wisdom.

The overriding contention regarding undrafted college free agents this 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 throughout the league, including three on a 49ers roster that has seen just one other undrafted rookie free agent make the team for its opening game since 2005.

That body count might drop a little bit further around the league 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.

It seems rather certain that two rookie UFAs will be around with the 49ers for a while, as the team kept defensive linemen Demarcus Dobbs and Ian Williams after both displayed solid potential during training camp and fine performance during the exhibition season.

The 49ers opted to squeeze those youngsters onto the roster on a defensive line unit where the team already is strong while going lighter at other positions and dropping some veterans that the team would have liked to have kept around.

This is how coach Jim Harbaugh explained the decision after the 49ers made their final cuts over the weekend: "Demarcus Dobbs and Ian Williams, we felt earned a spot," he said. "We feel like they have a very good upside. That's a tough position to find in the National Football League – those big bodies, so we were pleased. There were men who earned their way onto the roster and made decisions very difficult, but that's what we decided to go with. They're very serious and they understand that this isn't the end, this is the beginning."

The 49ers added another rookie undrafted free agent after cutdown Saturday when they picked up quarterback Scott Tolzien off waivers after he was released by the San Diego Chargers. The 49ers could still pick up another veteran QB before the season or early during it, which would jeopardize Tolzien's roster spot.

But Tolzien is the team's No. 3 quarterback as of today, and there likely would be a place for him on San Francisco's practice squad should the Niners need to make another move at the QB position. The 49ers currently have six undrafted rookie free agents on their practice squad, all players who were with the team during training camp and the preseason this summer.

The 49ers now have eight undrafted free agents on their roster, including holdover veterans Alex Boone, Tramaine Brock, C.J. Spillman and Will Tukuafu. A newcomer to the roster, Blake Costanzo, also entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent.

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.

"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 still 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."

Certainly, some of the youngest new 49ers would agree.

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