Monday, May 3, 2010

UDFAs Find Life Beyond Irrelevance

By Bob Ekstrom

By making Weber State's Tim Toone the last of 255 players selected in the 2010 draft, the Detroit Lions left another 1,100 hopefuls looking for work last week as roster building across the National Football League moved off Radio City Music Hall's center stage and into the football community theater of the undrafted free agent — or UDFA — market.

Toone's anointing as this year's Mr. Irrelevant stands at a decided ridge-line in the NFL offseason. On the heels of the veteran free agency period, a record 45.4 million viewers tuned in to the three days of televised draft coverage, and 12,000 more filled Radio City Music Hall for the show. But once the curtains went down and the lights came up Saturday, the vitals of this UDFA class were entrusted to a handful of team websites and hardcore blogs smattered across the Internet.

This is NFL off-roading, as 32 teams race roughshod across the twilight side of the hill — and oftentimes each other — looking for the best of the rest. According to James Christensen of NE Patriots Draft — which, despite its name, is a nationally-acclaimed central repository of all UDFA signings — the first of the undrafteds was snatched amid the Mr. Irrelevant fanfare, as the San Diego Chargers announced the signing of Tulane's Jeremy Williams a mere five minutes after the last pick. NE Patriots Draft went on to report 275 UDFA signings before midnight Saturday. A process requiring three days to place 255 draftees had been surpassed in less than seven hours.

While it can be a whirlwind, this period also offers collateral benefits to the undrafted player, who is given a freedom of choice not enjoyed by his drafted peers. In his senior year at Boston College, Indianapolis Colts safety Jamie Silva earned first-team All-ACC and All-America honors, as well as the 2007 Champs Sports Bowl MVP. Despite a pedestrian 40-yard time at the NFL Combine, his accomplishments should have landed him as a late-rounder in the 2008 draft. Nonetheless, Silva's name was never uttered from the Radio City Music Hall podium.

"It was disappointing the second day of the draft when names were getting called and mine wasn't," admits Silva. "There were guys getting called at the safety position I had never heard of. When you're going into it as a player, you're thinking, okay I'm probably listed as the number whatever safety, and you hope to go higher. I obviously dropped below that. It was kind of a letdown."

His disappointment had a short shelf life, however, as Silva soon became a centerpiece in undrafted free agency. Eight teams immediately called on his services. "Once the last draft pick went, I started to get a lot of phone calls," he recalls. "I'd be on the phone with one team, and they're trying to sell their organization to me as another team is calling. It was pretty hectic for a while."

Silva found himself with the opportunity to decide everything from where he'd work to what he'd be doing, and the chance to play for Tony Dungy in a Tampa-2 defense won the day. By contrast, the Oakland Raiders' Darren McFadden, the fourth player drafted in Silva's 2008 rookie class, had little choice; two years, five touchdowns, and eight fumbles later, he's now cloaked in anonymity in a city and a system that hasn't worked. For Silva, with so much so hastily thrown in his lap and eyes wide with wonder, he had to feel the choice from within. "There were teams putting the pressure on — some teams more so than others. I had to make a quick decision, and I felt that I couldn't really go wrong with choosing the Indianapolis Colts."

Of course, most UDFAs don't have eight teams from which to select an employer. Many will be lucky to have even one. It's not unusual for upfront interest to wither in the fickle suitor's eye, and when it doesn't, the road gets even rougher. Like the mountain banshees of Avatar, a team that has locked in on their UDFA will next try to kill him. There is no guaranteed roster spot accompanying this courtship. Some players will be expected to retool their games considerably, if not change positions altogether. Others will spend training camp as glorified tackling dummies for drafted and established players to demonstrate their worth.

Nor is there a $45 million contract laying in these weeds. Last year, in a CNBC Sports Biz column, Darren Rovell pegged the largest signing bonus among Silva's 2008 UDFA peers at $23,000. As Rovell observed, these bonuses typically don't equate to even a single year's worth of scholarships, making the UDFA the NFL's version of the unpaid intern. But just as legions line Wall Street for these opportunities in the corporate world, so do players in the NFL. Take Brown University's Bobby Sewall.

Despite his blazing 4.4-second 40-yard Pro Day speed, the All-Ivy wide receiver had no misgivings about his draft status, even as sites like NFL Draft Scout projected him with sixth-round upside. "I'd just be happy to get on a team," Sewall admitted in the days leading up to the 2010 draft. "It's a lifelong dream of mine."

Sewall was not invited to the NFL Combine and, as a Rhode Island resident, was limited to the lightly-scouted Pro Day held on Brown University's Providence campus. Many teams never saw him work out. Nevertheless, interest was high, largely due to his athleticism and versatility. "I'm getting tons of calls from teams I didn't work out for," Sewall reported before last week's draft, "Hopefully those numbers — 4.39, 41-inch vertical — show teams that I have the ability to play at this level."

In college, Sewall played quarterback, tailback, and receiver, returned kicks, and even saw a few snaps on defense. "I pride myself in the ability to play multiple positions. I have a good football IQ. The more you can do, [the] more reasons to keep you around."

And Sewall has another key resource in fellow Rhode Islander Jamie Silva, who knows first-hand the difficulty in securing a roster spot as an undrafted free agent, let alone one from his home state — only seven have produced fewer NFL players, and Silva is one of only three Rhode Islanders currently active in the league. It's an albatross that can only be overcome with hard work and determination. That's the message Silva will be spreading to local kids this June when he hosts his first youth football camp and seven-on-seven tournament in hometown East Providence, and it's the same message he has for aspiring NFL players like Sewall. "I tell the younger guys going into camps to have confidence," he says of his role as counselor. "They're getting brought in for a reason. Play like you belong there."

It looks like Sewall will get that chance; he went undrafted last weekend but signed on with the Tennessee Titans early Sunday afternoon. And when he reports to rookie camp in Nashville later this week, he'll bring Silva's advice with him.

"He said to get in there and work as hard as you can," says Sewall. "'You'll realize there's a lot more parity than you think between the big-name guys and small-school guys who may have been overlooked earlier on.'"

At one time, both Silva and Sewall would have preferred the distinction of draftee over UDFA, even if it meant playing for teams and in roles not of their choosing. But with the light of day following the long NFL roster-building process, they can each establish a legacy in what they leave on the field, not on what they didn't take from Radio City Music Hall.

Contents copyright © Sports Central 1998-2009