I’ve noticed a developing trend in which NFL teams use their rookie mini-camps as mini-combines of sorts for players who went unsigned or undrafted. The Bucs, for example, had about 14 signed undrafted free agents (UFAs) and about 36 more unsigned UFAs come in last weekend on a “tryout” basis only. I heard that three were signed from that camp. I believe the Bears had about 26 or so, but I’m not sure how many earned contracts. The Packers had 21 and handed 3 contracts at the conclusion of the camp.
If you’re a player in this group, it’s most likely your last chance to get a shot with an NFL team. You may get a call in a week or two as guys get weeded out because of injury or poor performance, but that slot is probably 80th on the 80-man roster. Regardless, it’s a slot, and some guys have climbed their way to the 47 and garnered multi-year careers.
Picture this: Your lifelong dream is to play in the NFL. You played four years of scholarship football, ran well at your pro day, and your agent tells you that you will get into a camp. You sit through two days of the draft and watch your friends, teammates and peers get drafted. You agonize through the last round of the draft only to realize that you have to go in through the back door as a UFA. An hour goes by and your phone never rings. Your agent tells you he’s working and may have a team interested, but all is silent and your dream is slowly vanishing. After the longest day of your life goes by, stress, insult and frustration mount as your friends and family keep asking, “Which team signed you?” But you can’t answer them. You’re embarrassed and dejected.
Sunday night, your agent tells you he’ll keep working and that team X might bring you in for a mini-camp tryout. You don’t sleep much that night and you don’t want to talk to anyone. You realize that as much as you want football in your life, football doesn’t want you. You’re not invited to the ultimate party, you don’t get picked first anymore and you’re no longer the toast of your town and possibly even your family. Depression sets in, and for the first time in your life, you have to picture an uncertain future.
It’s Monday morning and you don’t want to get out of bed. You look at your phone warily hoping for several messages. There are two from your agent. Could it be?
As you call him back, you wonder if he even did his job – if he was the problem, not you. He excitedly tells you that he got you into mini-camp with team X. If you go there and perform like you know you can, they’ll sign you right after the weekend. That’s right, you’ll have a contract on Sunday and you’ll be where you belong, on an NFL 80-man roster with a chance to compete and make your dream come true. You’re excited. You have a little more confidence in your agent, and you start thinking that team X knows that you can make it. That’s it — they are the only one that knows. They did their homework. You’ll show them!
Your agent doesn’t tell you too much except that a travel person will be calling you and to make arrangements. You get in a workout, and on your way back, the team travel coordinator calls you to book your fight to camp and even tells you what kind of cleats to bring. That confirms that it’s real. You better workout tomorrow, too. You start calling friends and family to let them know that team X is bringing you in and will probably sign you on Sunday.
You get to the team’s city Thursday night, where you meet some other guys who were drafted or signed as free agents, and you meet even more who were brought in with the same promise that was given to you. You meet your roommate, who is also unsigned and plays the same position as you. It’s OK. You’ll beat him out. He looks kind of small.
You can barely sleep because you know you have to perform.
You’re up early and go to the facility, where everything is laid out for you. You’re in the comfort of the locker room, and when you meet the head coach — someone you’ve seen on TV for years — you know this is real. After the team meeting and instructions, you get out on the field. After being there for an hour or two, you realize that everyone is a rookie. There are about 50 of them. How can this be? You know this team only drafted eight players, but there’s no way they signed another 40.
At practice, things move quickly and coaches give instructions on the fly. It’s more chaotic then your thought an NFL camp might be. You can tell they know a few guys by name and the rest are just numbers. You work hard to impress with the few reps you get, but you feel rusty. You’re frustrated that you only get a few reps.
By dinner, you start to figure out the numbers. About 15 guys have contracts as UFAs and there are seven draft picks, but the No. 1 is a no-show — so all the rest are in for a tryout, just like you. There are five at your position on top of the three they signed as UFAs and the two they drafted. A sinking feeling settles into your gut. You really don’t feel special. You notice that three or four guys at your position have playbooks, but you never got one. What does that mean? It can’t be good.
Saturday, you hit the field thinking that you’ll get more reps and a chance to show what you can do. Practice seems more organized. But it’s more of the same – the same guys getting the most reps.
Sunday rolls around for the last practice and you know it’s do or die. You get more reps, but the position coach still doesn’t know your name — and your smallish roommate, whose name he does know, is getting even more reps. Practice ends with a huddle in the middle of the field. The head coach tells everyone that they did well and that if they don’t sign you, he’s sure some other team will. They’ll have some evaluation meetings and make decisions. The speech is unceremoniously brief.
When you get back to the locker room, you can hear a pin drop. It feels like a funeral. Guys take their time getting undressed. Even the draft picks are quiet; they understand what’s happening. A scout type walks in and grabs three players and pulls them out quickly. One of them is your smallish roommate. You clean up, pack your bag, hand in your equipment and wait the for the scout guy to come get you. It never happens. The next information you receive from anybody is your transportation back to the airport.
On the way, you have to listen to your roommate tell his family and girlfriend that he was only one of three from about 36 who got offered a contract. You’re feeling pretty low, and you’re even a little mad because you didn’t get a fair chance to prove yourself. You have three messages from your agent. You start thinking that maybe the team called him and offered you a contract. You wait until you’re alone before calling. When you get him on the line, he asks, “How did it go? Did they offer you a contract?” You tell him what happened, but you really don’t want to talk. He says something else might come up as few teams have their mini-camps the second week after the draft so don’t give up hope. You can’t even imagine getting your hopes up again.
If you haven’t figured it out, the odds are great that this is the last time organized football will ever contact you again. The dream and drama has come to an end.
At some time or another, every agent has been down this road with a client, mostly at the beginning of our careers, although once in a while a promising prospect falls all the way through the cracks under our watch. It sucks because there really isn’t much we can do. However, I tell guys to keep their dream alive for at least one year. If they don’t want to give up, I won’t either. I’m willing to keep badgering GMs until 32 of them tell me no, twice.
About half the NFL teams have camps with veterans and rookies mixed together. These teams bring in very few guys, if any, on a tryout basis. The Chargers are an example of a team that conducts their camps this way. I’m not saying one team is right or wrong; I’m just trying to give you an idea how the bottom of the 80-man roster is formed — and what happens to players 81 to 115. Occasionally one makes it. He’s is the long shot.
If a team finds a diamond in the rough, it proves their formula works.
This is how it can sometimes happen:
One team that started bringing in a small wave of “tryout” guys was the Bears, after Jerry Angelo took over as GM. In 2003, a scout by the name of Marty Barrett went to the draft board the Monday after the draft to check on some guys in his west region. He made a few phone calls on two or three whom the Bears had on their board as potential UFAs, but not at the priority level. One player Marty called was Cameron Worrell, a safety from Fresno State who was not signed. Marty offered to bring him in on a tryout basis for a three day mini-camp. Cameron happily accepted, especially since his phone hadn’t rung on Sunday.
In the draft, the Bears had selected safety Todd Johnson in the fourth round and signed a priority UFA safety from Michigan as well. The odds of Cameron making this team were slim. However, Marty did one more thing before the mini-camp that helped increase the odds for Cameron. He went to the coaches and told them about the kid. He said Cameron wouldn’t impress them in shorts, but he was a high-intangible guy, and that if they saw something they liked, they should get him into camp because he’d show better in pads.
In the three-day mini-camp, Cameron impressed the coaches with his instincts and earned a contract. He also did well in camp, as Marty said he would, which got him on the 53-man roster. Then he caught another break when Johnson suffered an injury, moving Cameron into the starting lineup.
Cameron is going into his seventh season in the NFL.
Here are a few more reasons why players should keep fighting for a tryout: TE Billy Milner, DE Greg White, WR Jammal Jones and DC Fakhir Brown. All of them were left for dead but ended up making teams.