Vikes go 'extra mile' for Wiley
LB Grant Wiley was one of the many undrafted prospects to draw high interest as a free agent.
With last weekend's draft winding down, and the odds lengthening against West Virginia middle linebacker Grant Wiley hearing his name called among 255 selections, the phone lines began ringing incessantly in the Los Angeles office of agent Gary Wichard.
Even before the draft officially concludes with the choice of "Mr. Irrelevant," most teams usually begin trolling for free-agent candidates. And given that Wiley had recorded 492 tackles as a four-year starter for the Mountaineers, including 300 combined tackles in his final two seasons, it is not surprising that the gritty middle 'backer had multiple suitors.
Yet as Wichard and Wiley quickly assessed the opportunities, thumbing through rosters and trying to determine which proposal offered the best fit, the Minnesota Vikings began to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.
Some of that advantage came from the fact that the Vikings' pitch included a signing bonus of $15,000, notably higher than those offered by other clubs interested in bringing Wiley to camp. It didn't hurt the Vikings' case, either, that incumbent middle linebacker Greg Biekert is set to retire, that heir apparent E.J. Henderson still faces some offseason legal difficulties, and that veteran Henri Crockett likely will be released before camp.
"But maybe the factor that most swayed (Wiley) to Minnesota is that the guy who called us was (vice president of football operations) Rob Brzezinski," recalled Wichard earlier this week. "A lot of teams might have some assistant in the personnel office hitting the phones. Most teams have their scouts calling around. Instead, here we were cutting right through all the red tape, talking with the guy who could make the decision. So, yeah, it meant something that Rob was the voice on the other end of the line."
It might not be that way, certainly, in all cases. But the feisty Wiley, whose lack of size and borderline speed probably kept him from being chosen, was considered a "priority free agent" on many draft boards. It was the Vikings, though, who went the extra mile. And when it comes to lining up free agents, a onetime afterthought that has evolved now into a frenetic scramble, Minnesota has become one of several clubs adroit in the recruiting process.
Truth be told, the energy invested in signing free agents, even the ones regarded in the "priority" subset, characteristically produces piddling returns. Over the last seven years, the average number of undrafted players who earn regular-season roster berths has held steady, at just under two per team. But it's become increasingly important to scouting departments to identify and acquire draft remnant players who have a chance to make the team, and some franchises have clearly honed that relatively esoteric craft.
There remains some teams, knocking around in the football Dark Ages, who still don't take the pursuit of undrafted free agents very seriously at all, and merely go through the motions. Those teams refuse to get into the five-figure signing bonuses it sometimes takes to land a player, and treat the free agent process as trivial. Then there are cap-strapped franchises, such as Tennessee and Indianapolis, who regularly sign 20-25 undrafted prospects because they require cheap labor to fill out camp rosters, and also understand they might unearth a nugget or two.
"You can see how some teams just take it more seriously and are more aggressive about it," said agent Joe Linta. "Yeah, there are some teams that set themselves apart, that you know you can call, and they'll at least be receptive to listening about a kid."
Not only have the Vikings put together consecutive draft classes that look impressive (all seven of the club's 2003 choices made the roster and the '04 group, at first blush, appears equally solid), but Minnesota seems to have brought in some promising free agents for a second year in a row. Offensive linemen Anthony Herrera (Tennessee) and Alan Reuber (Texas A&M) could make the team. Ben Nauman (Augustana, S.D.) reminds some of current Vikings free safety Brian Russell, who tied for the NFL lead in interceptions in 2003. At worst, Wiley could contribute on special teams.
But it is players with far less recognizable surnames who are among the most compelling of the free agents. All of them, of course, have some sort of shortcomings. But with the practice squads increased to eight players for the 2004 season, there will be more free agents on payrolls. Here is a look at some other undrafted prospects with a legitimate shot to make a team's regular-season roster:
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Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.