- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Here's to the underdogs. Unfortunately, their days are numbered.
The NFL always has been a friendly haven for the undrafted player to succeed. Teams build through the draft, but they also need the luck of finding football players who slip through the cracks and make it on hustle and desire. Personnel offices do group high fives when players make the journey from being off the draft boards to playing in the Pro Bowl.
While those undrafted stars defied the world of computerized scouting that spit out reports deeming their size, height and speed numbers deficient, it's a different form of analysis that is putting bull's-eyes on their backs. The Internet is toughening the odds for undrafted players to make it.
How is technology affecting the futures of players? It's simple. The Internet spreads information at an incredible rate. Internet draft gurus not attached to teams build enough quality database information on college prospects that it's harder for good players to be bypassed. Teams have benefited. They draft smarter and better.
Approximately 80 undrafted players currently start. That's 11 percent of the 704 starters on 32 teams. Over the next few years, though, expect those numbers to dwindle. Undrafted free agents play with the suspicion that front offices are out to replace them. More so than ever before, they are right, because 49 of those successful underdogs are 29 or older.
Take a few moments and appreciate the accomplishments of undrafted stars such as Rod Smith of the Broncos, Joe Horn of the Saints, Kurt Warner of the Cardinals and Jake Delhomme of the Panthers. They succeeded the hard way.
But it's becoming that much tougher. It's not that players such as Smith, Horn, Warner, Delhomme and others wouldn't make it in the NFL. Good players rise to the top, and thanks to the improved scouting departments and mass information, such players likely would be drafted somewhere in Rounds 4-7.
Teams are bringing fewer undrafted players to camp. This year's average was 13 per team. Chances are, somewhere between 50 and 60 undrafted rookies will make teams, but it wouldn't be surprising if the number is smaller. Odds keep getting tougher.
Where the numbers are really telling is the rapidly decreasing core of undrafted starters being developed. The Ravens, for a while, projected safety B.J. Ward as an undrafted starter, but his chances were hurt by Monday's trade for Gerome Sapp of the Colts. Nine undrafted starters came out of the Class of 2004, only six in 2003.
Certain positions don't have to worry. The fullback position always will be a safe haven for undrafted players. Teams have trouble finding those 230-pound fullbacks willing to sacrifice their bodies for 15 percent of the plays. Eleven of the starting fullbacks are undrafted. Undrafted players can land starting spots at safety, center, guard, tight end and defensive tackle. Some slip in at linebacker.
Eight undrafted players start at safety, three at tight end, eight at center, 10 at guard and 11 at defensive tackle, but many have to keep looking over their shoulders. Just last week, Bennie Anderson, a 345-pound undrafted guard, was released by the Buffalo Bills. The Bills wanted more athleticism on the offensive line, and even though Anderson was considered one of their marquee signings in 2005, he was replaced by a smaller, drafted veteran, Tutan Reyes. Anderson was signed quickly by the Dolphins, who wanted bigger players for Hudson Houck's offensive line.
The 2006 season could really be a reality check for the undrafted players. Horn and Smith could be heading to the end of great careers. Matt Lepsis has done a remarkable job of making the switch from undrafted tight end to starting tackle on the Broncos, but he's 32. Dominic Rhodes is one of two undrafted starting running backs in the NFL, but the Colts used a first-round choice on Joseph Addai, who should overtake Rhodes this season.
Rarer are the days when undrafted players man the five main positions (defensive end, left tackle, wide receiver, cornerback and quarterback) teams use as the foundation of their franchises. Only 18 start at those positions and none has been developed at those spots since 2002.
So much has been made of the five undrafted quarterbacks who are projected as starters -- Warner (Arizona), Delhomme (Carolina), Billy Volek (Tennessee), Kelly Holcomb (Buffalo) and Jon Kitna (Detroit) -- but those players were products of different eras to a certain degree. In the 1990s, quarterbacks were harder to find because colleges ran the ball rather than use the spread passing offenses.
NFL teams had to send untested quarterbacks to NFL Europe to develop their skills. Several came back and became quality starters. The Peyton Manning draft of 1998 was the turning point for the quarterback position because it was the first in which more passing quarterbacks were coming from the college ranks.
Quick: Who'll be the next undrafted quarterback to become a starter? If you have no answer, don't be surprised. Fewer undrafted quarterbacks are on rosters.
General managers and coaches have more time to study rosters these days, and that's not good for the undrafted players. Free agency moves quickly. Top unrestricted free agents are signed in the first 10 days of free agency. The bulk of the unsigned players land homes by the draft. That gives front offices three months to contemplate their rosters and find ways to upgrade them.
Those who weren't drafted get targeted. More and more each year, teams load up their starting lineups with players selected in Rounds 1-3. With more than half of the undrafted starters over the age of 29, the future of undrafted starters isn't great.
No, undrafted players aren't going to be extinct. Teams still have to plan for injuries, and with so few good players left on the open market, teams have to rely on practice squads to fill roster spots. Practice squads are where undrafted players get a chance to make rosters, and those who don't make the 53-man roster during the season usually end up in NFL Europe the next season.
Still, it's time to take pause and appreciate the underdogs. Mike Shanahan has tried, and failed, to draft receivers as good as Rod Smith for years. Antonio Gates made it as an undrafted basketball player who became a Pro Bowler. Willie Parker won a Super Bowl ring as an undrafted running back with breakaway skills.
Undrafted players are great stories. Unfortunately, their stories are becoming harder to find.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
18hEric D. Williams
2dSharon Katz & Hank Gargiulo