The road to the NFL is easy for some players and difficult for others. First-round draft picks are sometimes penciled in as starters from the moment they are selected. Seventh-rounders? Not so much.
Vikings defensive tackle Ross Kolodziej can relate.
Kolodziej was the 230th pick of the 2001 NFL Draft, selected by the New York Giants and carving out a living while trying to carve up running backs across the NFL when given the opportunity.
Now, he's hoping once again to get a chance to play a seventh year in the league, as he enters the offseason scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent March 2 if the Vikings don't give him an extension on a one-year contract he signed with the team last offseason.
For Kolodziej, unrestricted free agency is old hat.
"I've never concerned myself with it a great deal. When a team cuts you during the middle of the season, you're unrestricted then too, whether it's your first year or whatever," he said.
He should know. As a rookie, he saw action in nine games for the New York Giants before going to the inactive list for the season's final four games of 2001. The following year, he went to training camp with the Giants, was released, and then signed with the San Francisco 49ers. He was inactive for four games, then released by the 49ers in October. In early December, the Giants re-acquired him but didn't have him active for their final four games of the season.
His 2003 season continued his coast-to-coast journey. He went to training camp with the 49ers, made the opening-day roster, then was released on Sept. 30 after four games of being inactive. He didn't sign with another club the rest of the season.
So it must have seemed like a full career when he stayed with the same club, the Arizona Cardinals, for two consecutive seasons. He played in 13 games in 2004 and got his first NFL sack – against New England's Tom Brady, no less. He even started three games.
In 2005, his career continued to ascend. He started 13 games at nose tackle and one at under tackle for the league's 10th-ranked defense. He finished the season with 39 tackles, three sacks, four passes defensed, two tackles-for-loss, seven quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries – all easily the best marks of his career.
That performance led to "a bunch of one-year deals" when he entered free agency last March and he simply had to weigh where he thought was the best opportunity for him. The Vikings won out on his analysis, thanks in part to visits with defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin and head coach Brad Childress.
"Familiarity with the coaches and what they were trying to do here. Just when I came up here, getting the chance to talk to Coach Tomlin, getting the chance to talk to Coach Dunbar, speaking with Coach Childress, the head coach. Just what they're about and trying to get done here," Kolodziej said when asked why he chose Minnesota over the other offers.
But playing behind Pro Bowl tackles Kevin and Pat Williams didn't lend itself to much playing time. Kolodziej finished with eight tackles, including one for a loss, and one quarterback hurry.
That could mean another shot at unrestricted free agency and a fifth team in seven years for the former Wisconsin Badger. But Kolodziej, a veteran of the free-agent process, knows how to evaluate the options.
"It all comes down to what teams are offering, what you think is in your best interest, what the team thinks (is) their best interest, what you have on the table from other teams," Kolodziej said. "All that goes into what you get, what you sign."
Free Agency Old Hat to Kolodziej
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