Commentary

Gems sometimes among undrafted

Originally Published: May 15, 2009
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Undrafted in 1997, Priest Holmes encountered the first tough decision of his pro career after the annual lottery: Take the money and maybe run his way onto an NFL roster, or try to beat longer odds to earn a spot on the Baltimore Ravens' depth chart.

The former University of Texas running back considered signing-bonus proposals of at least $10,000 each from three different teams. All Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome offered Holmes was about a $1,000 bonus and a fair shake in training camp.

Holmes chose chance over cha-ching and officially began a career that featured three Pro Bowl appearances, four 1,000-rushing yard seasons and a terrific three-year run for the Kansas City Chiefs (2001-2003) during which he averaged a gaudy 2,004.7 yards from scrimmage and 20.3 touchdowns per season.

One huge factor in Holmes' decision was that the Ravens had only three tailbacks on the roster at the time, and two of them were 35 years old. One of the graybeards, Bam Morris, had his career interrupted at one point by a prison term. Randy Baldwin, the youngest of the bunch (29 at the time), had never carried more than 23 times or rushed for more than 78 yards in a season.

The biggest reason that Holmes eventually decided to sign with the Ravens, though, was Newsome's sales pitch.

"It's like a feeding frenzy and everyone is coming at you," Holmes said of the hectic period right after the draft, when clubs are quickly trying to assemble their free-agent classes. "Everybody talks the talk. But the Ravens, they walk the walk. When they tell you that you're going to get a [legitimate] shot, the Ravens really mean it. Just look at their track record. They've always got free agents playing important roles for them."

Last season, the Ravens had two starters, inside linebacker Bart Scott and strong safety Jim Leonhard, who were former undrafted free agents.

The Indianapolis Colts did even better finding undrafted talent. The Colts had three starters -- Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday, middle linebacker Gary Brackett and rookie defensive tackle Eric Foster -- who originally entered the NFL as undrafted players. On special teams, long snapper Justin Snow and coverage standouts Jordan Senn and Jamie Silva were once undrafted free agents.

For the most part, money is paramount in determining where a free agent signs. This spring alone, a couple free agents landed $20,000 signing bonuses. Other teams won't go above a signing bonus of $1,000-$2,000, as is typically the case with Baltimore. But often times, a franchise's reputation for discovering players from among the undrafted free agents is a significant factor.

Players and agents who do their homework know in advance who those teams are.

"The thing they stress the most is that the best guy is going to play, no matter his draft status," University of San Diego wide receiver John Matthews said after signing with the Colts. "All a guy is really looking for is a fair shot, and they have a history of finding free agents and developing them. When I knew I didn't (get drafted), Indianapolis was a place where I was eager to sign. The money didn't matter, because I knew they were a team where all the rookies get their chance. They aren't afraid to use undrafted guys if they are the best players."

Not too long ago, ESPN colleague John Clayton wrote a column identifying the NFL's best five talent evaluators.

Not surprisingly, all five of them were officials or coaches who possess a strong history of incorporating undrafted free agents into their teams. Even less surprising was that Newsome and Colts president Bill Polian, two men who know the value of signing free agents who might make the roster, were at the top of the list.

In eight of the past 10 years, Polian has had at least one standout free agent on his roster. The impressive list includes players like Brackett, running back Dominic Rhodes, safety Melvin Bullitt, and defense linemen Darrell Reid, Josh Thomas, Foster and Ed Johnson. Those players have been key to the Colts' long run of success.

Last season, Indianapolis signed 13 undrafted free agents, and five of them appeared in at least one game during the regular season; Foster was a starter. It was the second straight year that the Colts had an undrafted free agent starting at defensive tackle.

"Oftentimes people pay lip service to certain things, and have nothing to back it up," first-year coach Jim Caldwell told the Indianapolis Star. "But we can point to so many guys within the organization that have come through and done extremely well. Sure, we use that [advantage] as a selling point."

There aren't a lot of teams that could make the same claim, but Baltimore, Indianapolis and the Pittsburgh Steelers are certainly among the ones that can.

In Pittsburgh, defensive player of the year James Harrison, standout tailback Willie Parker, starting right guard Darnell Stapleton and kicker Jeff Reed are among the players on the roster of the Super Bowl champions who entered the league as free agents.

Newsome traditionally adds one or two undrafted players to the roster. The Ravens signed only nine free agents this year, with the size of their class below the league average. But five or six of them have a legitimate chance to make the roster and to even play important roles.

Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe of Georgia is one of the highest-ranked players not drafted. Wide receiver Eron Riley of Duke is sure-handed and quick, and will be competing at a position that is hardly a Ravens' strength. Graham Gano of Florida State was graded as the top kicker prospect in the draft by some scouts. He could replace longtime Baltimore placement specialist Matt Stover. Defensive linemen Will Johnson (Michigan) and William Van DeSteeg (Minnesota) add depth at an important position, and the latter might project as a stand-up outside linebacker in the Ravens' 3-4 scheme.

The success of a few franchises has prompted teams to afford a lot more attention to their free-agent classes. As in past years, the period just after the draft (and sometimes during the latter rounds) is frenetic, as clubs chase players who are still on their boards but somehow went undrafted.

There was a time when the quantity-over-quality mindset prevailed in the league, the rationale being that your chances of finding a free-agent diamond would be better if you signed a bunch of players. Such thinking has gone the way of the single-wing offense. Mass signings have declined, in part, because clubs are limited to 80 players in training camp. But better scouting and evaluation of free agents also has contributed to teams' being more selective.

Teams signed only 342 free agents this year, an average of 10.8 per club. That's far fewer than the 18-20 free agents per team who used to be in NFL camps. No team signed more than 20 free agents, and none signed fewer than six.

"Even if you stack your [draft] board well, there are going to be some leftovers after seven rounds, guys who have a chance to play in the league," Carolina Panthers coach John Fox said. "It might be an [oxymoron], but there are some guys who are considered priority free agents. Every team wants those same guys. A lot of times it comes down to whether you can convince a player he'll get a fair shot in camp."

The teams that can show a player a successful track record with free agents usually have a leg up on the competition.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.