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For Some NFL Players, Life Begins at Undrafted

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Somebody from an NFL team told Ryan Hewitt he would be drafted in the fourth round last year, so he figured he was set. Maybe the fourth was a little too high, but he would definitely find a home by the sixth round. Seventh, for sure.

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The Bengals weren’t as bullish on Hewitt as a fourth-rounder, but they were definitely thinking about choosing the Stanford fullback/tight end/H-back during the final two rounds. But, as things often go on draft day, there were other needs to be addressed, bigger holes to be filled. Cincinnati never selected Hewitt.

Nobody else did, either. Throughout the draft’s third day, Hewitt heard from a couple teams that told him that he was a possible sixth- or seventh-round pick. Stay tuned, they said. Be ready. He was ready, all right. He was also left out on the street.

“It’s tough,” he says. “You work your whole career, and you want to hear your name called on TV.”

When it was all over, when even Mr. Irrelevant had received the Happy Call, things started to get really weird. A guy who hadn’t drawn enough interest to get a single team to choose him in three days of drafting all of a sudden could have used about four more phones. Teams were calling him. His agent was calling him. Teams were calling his agent. His agent was calling teams. After spending almost three days experiencing nothing but dashed hopes and dreams, Hewitt was in serious demand.

“I spent 15 minutes on the phone with my agent and different teams trying to figure out where to go,” Hewitt says.

That was it. Hewitt had only 15 minutes to decide. So did hundreds of other players throughout the nation. The minute the draft ends, and sometimes even before it ends, NFL teams embark on a high-speed chase for undrafted free agents, in order to sign those who weren’t chosen. In some cases, the goal is to fill out a roster for mini-camps, OTAs and training camp. But in the case of players like Hewitt, it’s much more. Cincinnati director of player personnel Duke Tobin had spent some time with Hewitt before the draft and had made a note to pursue him if nobody chose the Stanford product. The Bengals sold Hewitt on a chance to compete for a roster spot, not just be a body to step in during spring and summer drills. Sure, he was a “tweener,” and his versatility hurt him because he didn’t have one specific position. But he was a tough, talented football player, and the Bengals liked that.

“We had laid the groundwork with Ryan,” Tobin says. “Throughout the pre-draft process, we had visited with him, and when the draft was over, we immediately recruited him.”

Things worked out well for Hewitt. He made the team and played in all 16 games as a tight end, fullback and special teams performer. Hewitt caught 10 passes, ran the ball once (for no gain) and made four tackles as part of coverage units. He certainly wasn’t on any short lists for Rookie of the Year, but Hewitt contributed to the team’s playoff run and impressed coach Marvin Lewis, who was talking about Hewitt’s 2015 opportunities as early as last August. Though he had plenty of suitors in those frenzied minutes after the draft, Hewitt made a good choice.

“I chose Cincinnati because of its style of offense and the personnel they had,” Hewitt says. “I thought I could make an impact and beat people out. It was the best fit.”

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Teams bring in around 15 undrafted free agents each year, usually with little or no fanfare. But while the vast majority end up getting cut or finding spots on practice squads, there are some big success stories, and plenty do make teams’ 53-man rosters. As of October 2014, there were 74 undrafted rookies playing on Sundays.

Jeff Saturday spent 14 years playing center for Indianapolis (13) and Green Bay (one), reaching six Pro Bowls and earning two first-team All-Pro nods. And one of the heroes of last year’s Super Bowl, Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler, was not picked in the 2014 draft. This isn’t just a recent phenomenon. There have been dozens of great NFL performers who were not chosen, even when the draft used to encompass more than seven rounds.

Quarterback Kurt Warner, tight end Antonio Gates, defensive tackle John Randle, wideout Wes Welker and even legendary cornerback Dick “Night Train” Lane made it through the annual “Player Selection Meeting” unwanted. In today’s world of highly specialized scouting, it’s unlikely we will see too many Hall of Famers joining the league from the streets; but there are 15 undrafted players who have made it to Canton. There are only 13 No. 1 overall picks there. Every year there is talent left out of the draft, and teams work hard to identify and sign players who can help them.

“Once you get to the seventh round, the difference between getting picked and not getting picked is almost none,” Tobin says. “If you fit a team’s needs better, you get picked. But it’s difficult to know what guys aren’t going to get picked.

“After the draft, it’s surprising. You say, ‘Oh, he didn’t get picked. Oh, he didn’t get picked. Oh, he didn’t get picked.’”

• • •

Saturday remembers the moment when his confidence in the NFL Draft process began to waver. He was standing against a wall during the 1998 NFL Combine when someone yelled out how long his arms had measured. One of the ways teams often judge a lineman’s potential is by reach. A player with longer arms is more capable of fending off the advances of enemy defenders. Those who allow opposing linemen to get closer are at a disadvantage. Or so the reasoning goes. Although Saturday was a two-time first-team All-ACC center, he didn’t fit the NFL stereotype for the position. He was listed generously at 6'2" and weighed just 285 pounds. And then there were those arms.

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“When they yelled out my arm length, everybody looked down at their clipboards and started writing,” Saturday says of the assembled scouts and personnel execs. “I said, ‘That’s not a good sign.’ Later, my agent called me and said not to worry. I told him, ‘These are the same arms I played so well with in college.’”

The Combine markdown was the beginning of a tough stretch for Saturday, who despite being the third-ranked center heading into the annual poke-and-prod session, wasn’t chosen. A couple teams had called during the second day (the Draft didn’t expand to three sessions until 2010) to tell Saturday that he was being considered, but none had made the Big Call. To make things even more difficult, Saturday’s agent, Ralph Cindrich, represented UNC defensive end Greg Ellis, who had been a first-round pick of the Cowboys. Cindrich was traveling to Dallas the second day of the draft, and he wasn’t available to help Saturday navigate the free-agent morass.

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As a result, it took Saturday a week to hook on with Baltimore. But the relationship didn’t last too long. In fact, Saturday didn’t even make it to training camp with the Ravens.

“I got to Baltimore, and they had franchised their center Wally Williams (ironically another undrafted free agent) and had another center, Jeff Mitchell, that they had drafted (the year before),” Saturday says. “I walked into the offensive line meeting room, and it was full of giants. Everybody weighed 330 pounds, and here I am at 285. It was not the room for me.”

Saturday spent almost a year working as a manager at an electrical supply store in Raleigh. He was staying in shape, but it wasn’t as if NFL teams were suddenly realizing the colossal error they had made and begging him to sign with him. It took his former college roommate, Nate Hobgood-Chittick, to make it happen. In 1999, Hobgood-Chittick had been picked up by Indianapolis, and though he had no professional cachet, he went into Colts GM Bill Polian’s office and told him he had to sign Saturday. Polian, who had been in Carolina while Saturday played at UNC, remembered the center and signed him. Once there, Saturday fit into line coach Howard Mudd’s system, which emphasized speed and intelligence over brawn.

“(Polian) gave me a shot,” Saturday says. “Howard Mudd told me he wanted an aggressive football player who did exactly what he said. It worked out well, and I spent 14 years in the league.”

• • •

The months leading up to the NFL Draft can seem like weeding a giant flowerbed that has been untended for months. As many as 6,000 players are eligible to be chosen. Of course, most of them have no business being in an NFL team’s building, much less on the field every Sunday. Once the easy work is done, and about 90 percent of the players are eliminated from consideration, it’s time to find the prospects who might just be able to play for a team.

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A team can have 250 players on its draft board. Or 300. Maybe only 200. That’s a lot of people to consider when there are only seven rounds. The key component for all of them is fit. Houston may only have 150 of the same players on its board that the Jets do. Not everybody thinks the same way about each prospect, particularly if one plays a 3-4 defense, and the other is a 4-3 squad.

“We look at players who can come in and compete for roster spots,” Seattle director of college scouting Scott Fitterer says. “We don’t have a set number on the board.”

It’s pretty obvious that certain players will be gone well before the frenzied rush to sign free agents begins. That’s not something Fitterer and his fellow executives worry about when trying to decide who will be there. Their focus is on the late-round prospects — like Hewitt — who could escape the sixth and seventh round. According to Fitterer, the Seahawks treat every collegian the same way, analyzing strengths and weaknesses, the better to get an idea who would best fit their roster. Tobin says he and his staff evaluate and speak before the draft with players who weren’t invited to the Combine or who may not have performed well in Indianapolis. The Bengals bring dozens of players to their facilities to work them out, interview them and determine whether they will fit the team’s needs.

Teams all over the league have had success mining the undrafted ranks. Fitterer estimates “five or six” players on Seattle’s Super Bowl XLVIII-winning team were free agents. Jermaine Kearse, who caught the winning TD in overtime against Green Bay in last year’s NFC Championship Game and two weeks later made the amazing reception in the waning moments of the Super Bowl, was signed by the Seahawks in 2012, after he wasn’t selected. Another Seattle wideout, Doug Baldwin, wasn’t chosen in 2011 but impressed Seattle enough that it gave him a three-year, $13 million extension last spring.

“We’re looking to find extremely competitive guys with athletic ability and a skill set that fits our style,” Fitterer says. “If there is a 6’1” corner that runs a 4.4 (40-yard dash) but is undeveloped, we’re intrigued. We look at him as a developmental project. Our coaches are teachers.”

Even if a player is cut by a team during training camp, he still has film on his play from practices and preseason games that he can use to pitch his talents to someone else. Just being with a team confers a status on a player and makes it a little easier for him to find a spot with someone else. It’s rare that someone like Saturday or Warner, who spent a lot of time out of football, gets a position. That’s why it’s important that while teams are evaluating them, the players do their homework and figure out what team is best for them. A prospect could receive calls from five or six teams during the half-hour following the draft’s completion. If he merely signs with his childhood favorite, he could be making a big mistake. Players and their agents must pay close attention to teams’ styles and how crowded their particular position is on the roster.

“The kids are more educated than ever,” Fitterer says. “They are able to search on-line and look at depth charts. They are informed.”

While undrafted players need to make informed decisions, teams’ desires to sign them continue to grow. The thrill of unearthing a talent and having him contribute is a victory; adding a piece to the roster at a low cost, most often at the rookie minimum, has equal appeal. When the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, they did so with a large number of players whose salaries were quite manageable. Teams able to stock the shelves without bestowing gigantic contracts on all of them are able to strike a fine balance between their stars and everyone else. It may sound somewhat unfair, but the rigid, salary cap-driven economics of the league mandate that approach. Teams love to find young players they can use for special teams and spot work on offense and defense.

The bonus is that those who make teams from the “streets” are highly motivated to prove themselves. They were left out of the draft pool, and they want to make everyone aware of their mistakes. Fitterer remembers that Baldwin and Kearse elevated themselves to “special” status due to their drive to show that they belonged in the NFL.

“They have a chip on their shoulders when they come in here,” Fitterer says. “And the guys with the chips on their shoulders often separate themselves from the rest.”

• • •

Hewitt enjoyed his first year with the Bengals, and he’s looking forward to enlarging his role in 2015. He doesn’t, however, expect any favors. He knows the team will bring in a player — or perhaps more — to compete with him this year. He isn’t a first-round pick with a guaranteed contract, or even a middle-round choice with a bit more job security. When the Bengals convene for training camp, the next Ryan Hewitt could be on the field, looking to impress and defy convention by grabbing a roster spot.

“I am expecting them to bring in competition,” Hewitt says. “Iron sharpens iron. I expect them to bring in a stud who can help them. That’s not my concern. They have to do what’s best for the team.”

And they look just about everywhere to do so.

-By Michael Bradley