Undrafted free agents get the chance to prove the NFL scouts wrong
By Bob Cohn
Published: Sunday, April 28, 2013, 5:48 p.m.
Mike Shanahan watched most of the NFL Draft over three days. He said much of it was boring except for the later rounds when he waited and hoped to hear his name.
“It was kind of stressful at times,” he said. “It was a roller coaster of emotions.”
The former Pitt wide receiver was not drafted. Shanahan said he was disappointed but added that he felt better because the New York Jets had called him early in the seventh round and expressed interest. Later, they made it official; the undrafted free agent will try to make the team as a tight end.
“It's a good opportunity,” he said.
Shanahan is among hundreds of undrafted free agents who were scooped up Saturday and Sunday. All will compete for roster spots, trying to prove NFL talent evaluators wrong for failing to draft them. For most college players who have been stars since their peewee league days, the draft is the next logical step.
“Every single kid thinks he's supposed to be drafted,” agent Joel Turner said.
Or they at least entertain hopes. But the inconvenient truth is that out of thousands, relatively few — 254 players were drafted last week — are chosen.
“Most of them don't want to hear it,” Pittsburgh-based agent Ralph Cindrich said. “You have some who are mature who say they're gonna deal with it. And you have some who just blow up.”
Shanahan said he is fine with his status.
“You still have to go out and win a job,” he said.
His former teammate, offensive lineman Ryan Turnley (Hopewell), also went undrafted and has no regrets.
“You see lot of guys upset they didn't get drafted,” said Turnley, who will try to make the Bills as a center. “I just can't believe I have an opportunity in the NFL. I didn't care about getting drafted. I'm just happy I got the opportunity.”
Cindrich calls it an “honor” to be drafted no matter how late. It also pays. Seventh-round picks last year received signing bonuses in the $40,000 to $50,000 range. Most undrafted free agents pocket about $5,000.
Late picks also generally have a better chance than an undrafted player of making a team. NFL clubs usually keep those players around for at least a year or two to protect their investments and hope they develop. Free agents lead a more tenuous existence.
But undrafted players can and do get jobs in pro football. And not just the famous ones like James Harrison and Kurt Warner. In 2012, 37 percent of undrafted free agents spent time on a 53-man roster or practice squad, according to the Pro Football Talk website.
That's a significant number, which is why agents work hard to determine the best destinations for their undrafted clients. The decisions mainly are based on teams' perceived needs even after the draft. It's all about the fit.
Pittsburgh agent Bill Parise said New York and Buffalo were ideal for his clients, Shanahan and Turnley, because of limited numbers at their positions. Turner, who runs an agency based in South Carolina with his brother, Justin, calls areas of needs “weak points.”
Turner said he studies performance, age, experience, contracts, salaries and the salary cap along with coaching and front office changes to figure out the best possibilities for his clients. He assigns each team a grade for each of his players, with “A” being the highest. If an “A” team calls, he said, “We don't wait (to sign).”
Turner said he tells some of his players that free agency might be preferred to being a late pick. You might have to forego a $50,000 bonus, he said, but sometimes “we can dictate where you can go. We can control who we compete against (for a roster spot) and the opportunity you have for a job.”
Turner said his agency represents more undrafted free agents than any other. Among them are Steelers safety Ryan Clark and Panthers running back Mike Tolbert. Turner relishes seeking out gems that are not as well-hidden as others might think.
“They miss,” he said of the NFL. “There's a lot of undrafted talent. They don't do a good job.”
Some players might resent being overlooked and use that as motivation but not Tolbert. Undrafted out of Coastal Carolina in 2008, he excelled in San Diego for four seasons before signing a big contract with Carolina in 2012.
“I was realistic,” said Tolbert, who reportedly turned down more money from the Chargers to be closer to home. “I knew the draft wasn't too high of a priority for me. But I knew I'd get a call to be in somebody's camp.”
For undrafted free agents, the call will do.
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