Great Expectations: Part III

In my 23 years an NFL agent, I’ve placed well over 50 players as undrafted free agents (UFA). I used to call this time immediately after the draft “the worst two hours in football.”

My first UFA to make it was TE Mike Dyal from Texas A&I (now Texas A&M-Kingsville), who went undrafted after 12 rounds of the 1988 draft. This was the NFL draft, not Major League Baseball. After waiting for teams to call (remember, there was no Internet or late-round TV broadcast), I was finally contacted by George Karras of the L.A. Raiders well after the draft had ended. Several other calls also came in, but George seemed to know more about Mike than the others.

To me, it was a no-brainer to send Mike there because the Raiders had an aging Todd Christensen, and their back-up was the deep snapper. Also, I knew they had a scout who lived in the area and came to Mike’s campus often. Mike ended up making the team, started in his second season and played several years in the league. I had my first “make it” client.

In 1988, I didn’t have a formula for helping UFAs. I simply relied on instinct and depth charts. Luckily for Mike, I made the right decision.

Today, with the draft down to just seven rounds and only 80 roster spots, agents must have a fail-safe process for helping UFAs find a team with the best opportunity. If our advice and assessment is inaccurate, it could cost a player his chance and possibly his lifelong dream.

Before rosters were capped at 80 players, teams used to bring in 100 to 125 players per team – some as many as 140. That meant a lot more jobs. And instead of cutting promising rookies, teams would say a guy was hurt and place him on IR to hide and develop him, as the Raiders did with Dyal in his rookie season.

On Sunday, we’re going to have hundreds of disappointed players looking to land contracts after Mr. Irrelevant goes off the board. Amazingly, over 440 roster spots will be filled in less than one hour. Once the door shuts on the last spot, there will still be hundreds of players without contracts on the outside looking in.

Here’s a look at the roster numbers:

In 2008, there were 452 players signed as UFAs (average of 14 per team).

Total Roster spots: 2,560 (80 spots, 32 teams)

2009 draft slots: 256

Total players currently under contract: 2,049

Total of draft slots and current players: 2,305

Total estimated number of UFAs signed: 450 (an average of 14 per team)

Keep in mind that draft picks DON’T count against the 80-man roster until they’re signed, sometime in late July. Eventually, street free agents from previous years and a good number of the UFAs will be weeded out and cut before the first day of camp. Ouch!

This year, I’ll be representing five players:

Seth Olsen, guard, Iowa

Rob Bruggeman, center, Iowa

Andy Brodell, wide receiver, Iowa

John Matthews, wide receiver, University of San Diego

Ben Muth, tackle, Stanford

Seth, Rob and John will most likely be drafted. Andy and Ben are late rounders to UFAs. However, it’s my duty as the agent for all these players to prepare a plan in case they’re not drafted. Remember the Jim Hoffman story.

I prepare a UFA plan for all my players, regardless of how high they’re rated, just in case there’s an unknown surprise. I even did a quick one for Tyrell Johnson last year, even though he was rated very high. Tyrell was taken in the second round by the Vikings.

In order to find the best match and best opportunity for my players, I use the following criteria (in order of importance):

1. Stability of Organization

2. Retention history with UFAs

3. New regime credit (new GM and or head coach)

4. Depth chart and current roster

5. Depth of scouting and knowledge of client

6. Signing bonus

7. Scheme and prototype fit

For any young agents reading this, I recommend you take a look at these criteria as they may help you find the best opportunity for your client.

Stability of organization: It doesn’t benefit a young player to go to a team that’s struggling to find itself or has a dysfunctional environment. Young players will tend to get lost in the shuffle on a desperate team. If you have a coaching staff and/or a GM on the hot seat, they are just trying to survive and could be looking for quick fixes to save their jobs. Occasionally, a chaotic situation can spell opportunity for an UFA. Another benefit of being a UFA on a good team is that they are usually scouted more by other teams in the preseason.

Examples: Pats, Colts, Steelers, Cardinals, Ravens.

Retention history with UFAs: Even if a team has a stabile leadership, it may have a terrible retention history with young UFAs. So it’s vital that the agent knows which teams have a good and bad retention history. I’ll go back three years to study a team’s retention history. Here are a few examples of what some teams did in 2008:

Club UFAs signed opening-day roster practice squad total

Cardinals 14 2 3 5

Falcons 11 0 3 3

Ravens 14 4 3 7

Bears 15 1 1 2

Broncos 7 4 1 5

Chiefs 24 4 5 9

Chargers 17 1 2 3

Bills 10 0 6 6

I want to reiterate that this is just one tool I use to help zero in on the best team for my client. Agents have to go back three years to identify team patterns. For example, even though the Chargers retained only three of 17 in 2008, they had one of the best retention numbers in 2007. Their UFAs usually get a lot of playing time and are seen by other teams as well.

New regime credit: Any team that has a new GM and head coach gets a big credit in my book. They’re usually trying to clean house and are more likely to be harder on the guys who are already there and more open-minded about giving young guys a shot -- especially because it’s their first class of players.

Examples: Chiefs, Rams, Lions, Bucs.

Teams with new head coaches who have some say on final roster cuts may get a strong consideration as well. I consider the Ravens a good place to send young guys because John Harbaugh is used to dealing with the bottom end of the roster since he was a special teams coach for several years. He simply doesn’t take UFAs for granted.

In 1996, when Tony Dungy took over as head coach of the Bucs, I had three UFAs and sent them all there. Tony gave them a good chance to show what they could do, and not only did all three (Jorge Diaz, Karl “the Truth” Williams and Kevin Dogins) make the team, two of them started that year and all three had lon g careers.

Roster Depth: Although I have this as No. 4 on the list, it’s usually one of the first things I look at. As teams purge their roster after the season, they develop needs for starters and back-ups. Many of the starting roles are filled via free agency and the draft. But sometimes a team has so many needs it can’t fill all of them. The fact is that most UFAs will make a team the first year by contributing on special teams. But you have to take a good look at the roster and depth chart of every team. I’ll evaluate a player by age, contract and durability. If they’re older and getting paid too much, or if they missed several games the previous year, they may be ripe for competition.

Once the draft starts, I will make adjustments to my team rankings. So if a team is only carrying six receivers but drafts three, I’ll move them down the list because most likely the draft choices will get more reps than the UFAs.

When evaluating a roster I also try to project where the current players will be the following season. The purpose for this is that most UFAs who do make it will spend the first year on the practice squad. Therefore, I am trying to tee them up for the opportunity in their second season.

Scheme Fit: Last year, I represented DE Eric Bakhtiari out of the University of San Diego. Eric had 21 sacks his senior year, impressive for any division. But he only weight about 255 pounds, so I had to make sure he went to a team that didn’t try to make him a middle linebacker or had a history of 285-pound defensive ends. After several calls, I decided to send him to the Chargers, who played a 3-4 and used players Eric’s size to rush the passer, just as he did in college. He ended up getting a lot of playing time and did well. Although he was released, he got picked up by the 49ers and spent the rest of the season on their practice squad. He subsequently signed again with the Charger this year – this time at 265 pounds.

My client WR John Matthews caught 101 passes last season. USD runs a pro-style west coast offense with all the terminology, patterns and formations used throughout the NFL. I figure if he’s not drafted, I can try to get him in this offense, where he would have an advantage knowing the system and have the luxury of focusing on execution.

Depth of scouting and knowledge of player: One of the tactics teams like to use in landing UFAs is getting the head coach on the phone to close the deal. They figure the player and agent will have a hard time saying no to the head guy. One year, the Bucs were pursuing my offensive tackle when they handed the phone to coach Jon Gruden to close the deal. Coach made a convincing pitch to explain why the player should sign with Tampa. There was only one problem: He was talking about a defensive tackle who wasn’t my client. He was out of the loop, so I passed on the opportunity.

When I can confirm that the GM, head coach and maybe the position coach have detailed knowledge of my client, I’m very comfortable pulling the trigger. I want to see that there was an investment made in scouting him beyond the area scout.

Signing Bonus: You might be surprised that the signing bonus is way down the list. It doesn’t mean that I don’t work hard to get the biggest bonus possible for my client. For some teams, the bonus is reflective of their interest in the player -- in the NFL, money talks. However, you can get all the money in the world for your client, but it may not always translate into a solid opportunity.

Last year, the Rams paid zero signing bonuses and still signed 16 UFAs, with one making the roster and three making the practice squad. The Ravens pay, on average, about $1,500 per UFA but can offer good opportunities. The Vikings, on the other hand, signed 18 players last year at an average of $13,300 and had an outstanding retention rate of nine players. The Titans brought in 10 players with attractive signing bonuses of about $7,000. But they only kept two.

When I believe there are equal opportunities with different teams, the larger signing bonus wins it.

Average UFA signing bonus per club: $6,200.

Highest average: $23,000 (Vikings). Lowest average: $0 (Rams).

One issue that UFAs have to be cognizant of is when they have a young or unestablished agent who has also lent them money. If the agent is into the player for $10,000 in loans, he may be tempted to send the player to the team that pays the most so he can recoup his investment.

I’m currently in the process of making a short list for each of my players in case they slip through the cracks. I anticipate at least three will be drafted. To date, I have already received eight calls from teams inquiring about two of my guys coming in as UFAs. As I always say before the draft, if you like them as much as you’re telling me, draft them!

On Friday, I’ll add a Part IV to this series titled “Inside the UFA Market” in which I’ll share some war stories, strategies and tactics by both teams and agents. This is a must read for any player who could become a UFA.

Click HERE to read Part I

Click HERE to read Part II

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