Becoming an undrafted free agent in the NFL is no easy gig, particularly in 2020.
An undrafted free agent is a Draft-eligible prospect who is not selected across the seven rounds, and instead left to negotiate with multiple teams before opting who to sign with.
By and large, it can be an unwelcome trial of patience as players watch their college teammates get picked while they receive calls from officials flagging bittersweet interest in them as post-Draft recruits.
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The cancellation of Pro Days and pre-Draft visits as a result of the coronavirus pandemic not only challenged the depth of team scouting this year, but also left undrafted rookies to face added uncertainty during what would ordinarily be a window in which to market themselves.
From the moment the New York Giants made Tae Crowder Mr. Irrelevant with the 255th and final pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, teams will have been on the phone to those whose names had not been called. In a lot of cases, the wheels would already be in motion.
“I talked to a guy, he started for a big-time school for three years, but he’d already got calls from two teams that ‘if you don’t get drafted, we want to sign you as a free agent’,” NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger told Sky Sports.
“It’s a slap in the face, you’re already saying I’m not getting drafted? He was a little ticked off by the whole thing and rightfully so.
“Guys get called – ‘If you don’t get taken, we’d love to sign you’. That’s what usually happens Saturday night as soon the seventh round is over. Guys are getting called from around the league that weren’t taken, are disappointed and frustrated.
“Then there’s this question of ‘How much is in the kitty? What’s the signing bonus? Where’s the opportunity?’ That’s what teams should be selling these guys. An opportunity to make their roster.”
Freedom can bring benefits
Baldinger was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Duke by the Dallas Cowboys in 1982 before going on to play 143 games across a career that also included spells with the Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles.
Undrafted success stories are scattered throughout NFL history, one of those being Kurt Warner. He became a Super Bowl champion, Super Bowl MVP, four-time Pro Bowler and Pro Football Hall of Famer after signing undrafted with the Green Bay Packers in 1994.
For Baldinger, there can be positives to the freedom of choice it grants young players.
“I was an undrafted player so I’ve got a soft spot for all the guys,” he added. “I’ve always said this, if you aren’t taken in the top five rounds, I’d rather forgo the money and become a free agent and pick my spot.
“Give me four or five teams that are interested in me, and let me go to a place where it’s the best chance for me to earn a spot.”
Buffalo Bills wide receiver Cole Beasley made a productive career for himself with the Cowboys after going undrafted in 2012, while the Los Angeles Chargers’ Austin Ekeler and the Denver Broncos’ Phillip Lindsay have developed into starting running backs since going undrafted in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
Chargers cornerback Chris Harris Jr went undrafted in 2011 before becoming a Super Bowl champion and four-time Pro Bowler with the Broncos, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Shaquil Barrett led the NFL with 19.5 sacks last season as a 2014 undrafted free agent.
The Minnesota Vikings’ two-time Pro Bowl receiver Adam Thielen, former Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl champion Michael Bennett, two-time Super Bowl-winning cornerback Malcolm Butler…
There are careers to be had beyond round seven, but that’s not to say it’s easy.
‘A different grind’ for Favorite
Former NFL defensive tackle Marlon Favorite was a BCS national champion with LSU in 2008 before going overlooked the following year. He recalls the fluctuating evaluations and mid-draft calls pertaining to the life of the undrafted.
“I can remember a week or two before, Mike Mayock (an NFL Network analyst at the time) had me sixth round going to San Diego, after my junior year of being graded as a second rounder,” Favorite told Sky Sports.
“The next year at LSU, we didn’t really have a hot year, I wasn’t a day one guy. That second day of the Draft, I got a call early on from Pittsburgh, possibly looking at me, I remember getting a call from St Louis.
“The last piece was in the seventh round. I got a call from Vance Joseph (49ers defensive backs coach at the time), who’s known me since high school, and he said ‘it’s probably between you and Ricky Jean-Francois who we’re going to bring in with the seventh-round pick’.”
On the clock with the 244th overall pick, the 49ers chose to go with Jean-Francois.
Favorite, who admits he may have fared better in the 2008 Draft as a junior, would later sign with the Carolina Panthers as a free agent.
“The second the Draft was over, the phone wouldn’t stop ringing like crazy,” he explained. “Different offers going out, Atlanta saying ‘we’ll give you $7,000’ and another team like $12,000, the bids started to go up and it was like neck to neck with between Carolina and Indy.”
The 33-year-old played for 10 NFL teams across his career and predominantly spent time on practice squads, including with the Saints throughout their Super Bowl-winning campaign in 2009/10.
While the ability for a free agent to choose his landing spot can be favourable, Favorite acknowledges there is a significant onus on them to match and even exceed the work ethic of those that are selected.
“From this perspective, you make the decision,” he said. “Once you had the options, you can pick where you go. When you get drafted, you don’t and that’s the big difference.
“It’s just a different grind, because they didn’t invest in you upfront you have to work extra hard. Some guys make it, some guys don’t. I was a journeyman, I bounced around like 10 teams.
“Some guys like my buddy Pierre Thomas for the Saints, he went undrafted, they loved him and he played for the Saints for years.”
Unlike previous years, undrafted rookies will be forced to wait for an opportunity to impress on the practice field, with team facilities still closed and offseason workouts and training camps facing delays.
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