Being an undrafted free agent may be a disappointing start to an NFL career, but it’s far from a death sentence. Year in and year out, players whose names were not called in the NFL draft still go on to emerge as productive NFL players.
Some of the league’s most prominent players entered the league as undrafted rookies.
Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker, who has led the NFL in receptions three of the last six years, was unselected in 2004. Houston Texans running back Arian Foster, the NFL’s leading rusher in 2010, did not have his name called in the 2009 draft.
Other prominent undrafted players include New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, San Diego Chargers tight end Antonio Gates and perhaps most famous of all, former NFL quarterback and two-time NFL MVP Kurt Warner.
While the odds of achieving NFL stardom are slim for undrafted rookies, every player entering an NFL training camp has an opportunity to turn that camp invitation into something much bigger.
To achieve the success that players like Romo, Welker and Foster have before them, undrafted free agents must start their rise to the top in training camp and continue to perform at a high level through each stage of their career progression.
2013 NFL Pro Bowlers Who Were Undrafted Free Agents (listed by 2012-13 team)
Arian Foster, RB, Houston Texans
Vonta Leach, FB, Baltimore Ravens
Wes Welker, WR, New England Patriots
Jeff Saturday, C, Green Bay Packers
Cameron Wake, DE, Miami Dolphins
London Fletcher, ILB, Washington Redskins
Phil Dawson, K, Cleveland Browns
Josh Cribbs, PR, Cleveland Browns
Lorenzo Alexander, ST/OLB, Washington Redskins
John Denney, LS, Miami Dolphins
Don Muhlbach, LS, Detroit Lions
Stand Out in Training Camp and the Preseason
With training camps opening throughout the NFL this week, the opportunity is beginning for the 2013 class of undrafted rookies to steal the spotlight away from veterans and their drafted rookie counterparts.
It is an opportunity an undrafted rookie loses if he does not take advantage of it quickly.
For most undrafted free agents, the opportunity with their first NFL teams will come to an end before the regular season begins. To continue the opportunity into the regular season and onto a potential path to stardom, an undrafted free agent must prove his worth during training camp.
NFL rosters are made up largely of players who the team has made a significant investment in, either in guaranteed money or in a draft pick. Undrafted free agents, on the other hand, have minimal commitment from the teams they sign with, so they must prove they are better than their competition to have a shot at making the 53-man rosters.
Training camp and preseason games are where undrafted rookies can prove their abilities. Every healthy player on the roster typically gets on-field repetitions in both camp and preseason games, which gives each one an opportunity to truly show how he stack ups against the competition.
Preseason performances mean little for an established veteran, but they can make or break a career for an undrafted free agent.
Excellence in the preseason is not an accurate indicator of whether a player will go on to further excellence in meaningful games. That said, NFL teams do not typically keep undrafted free agents if they do not find a way to stand out before the regular season even begins.
Establish a Role
Teams do not sign undrafted free agents looking for immediate stars, but rather in hopes of finding role players with the potential to develop into something greater. For an undrafted rookie to stick on an NFL roster and have the chance to become a star, he must first show that he can help the team in a specific role.
A player fighting to make a roster during training camp and the preseason can greatly increase his value by showing he can be a tangible asset to the team. Some players may have unique skill sets that allow them to thrive in a role limited to a specific package, while other players can excel on special teams. This is how an undrafted free agent finds his way onto an NFL roster.
For example, Welker did not catch a single pass in his rookie season, but he thrived as a returner for the Miami Dolphins, ranking second in the NFL in both kickoff return yardage (1,415 yards) and punt return yardage (464 yards).
If a player shows that he can help the team in a specific way better than any other player on the team, that player can be well worth a roster spot. If an undrafted free agent’s role measures out to be little more than depth for the upcoming season, a team may be hard-pressed to justify keeping that player over someone it has made a more significant investment in.
Have a Chip on the Shoulder, but Remember Standing
If an undrafted player is going to defy the odds and achieve long-term NFL success, he cannot allow going undrafted to be a setback. Instead, he should use going undrafted as motivation to succeed and prove to NFL teams that they made a mistake by not drafting him.
Concerns that cause a player to go undrafted can range from subpar measurables to level of competition or off-field issues, but for every player who goes undrafted, there is a reason why. For many undrafted free agents, this becomes motivation to prove that those concerns will not get in the way of successful NFL careers.
In an interview for Buffalo Bills Draft this summer, current Bills undrafted rookie linebacker Keith Pough said he is using that exact motivation.
“Everything that people look at as a negative, I see as a positive,” Pough said. “When I am one of the best defensive players in this league, it’s going to make my story that much greater because I didn’t go to a D-I powerhouse or I wasn’t drafted or I’m undersized, I’m too slow, I’m not big enough, I’m not tall enough.”
During a 2011 interview with Jayson Braddock and Dylan Gwinn for Business Insider, Foster described how he joined the Houston Texans with a chip on his shoulder.
“No disrespect to anybody who was on the roster at the time in Houston, but I looked at the guys and I felt like I was a better running back than they were,” Foster told Braddock and Gwinn. “That’s not being arrogant. That’s just the confidence of an athlete. I think you have to have that."
“All you can ask for in life, period, is an opportunity,” Foster went on to say. “When I got there, my opportunity came late, but when it came, I was ready for it.”
If a player is to go from undrafted free agent to NFL star like Foster has, confidence is a necessity. If a player does not believe he can be better than the more established veterans or draft picks he has to compete against, he may be less motivated to surpass them.
That said, it is important for an undrafted rookie not to be overconfident or cocky.
To gain the respect of a team’s veteran players and coaches, an undrafted player should go into training camp ready to fight for a roster spot and willing to take on any role he is asked. If an undrafted rookie talks trash to veteran players, acts as though he has already secured a roster spot or is unwilling to be a role player, his chances of sticking with the team become slimmer.
Pough told BBD that he feels like it is important to maintain a balance as he pursues a spot on the 53-man roster.
“You can never get too high, you can never get too low,” Pough said. “Never get too high of yourself because you’re never as good as you think it is, but it’s never as bad as it seems. So every day you just got to come with the mentality to get better.”
Take Advantage of Every Opportunity
Every undrafted rookie signed by an NFL team is receiving an opportunity to fight for a roster spot in training camp. As they continue forward in their pursuit of NFL stardom, it is important they take advantage of every opportunity they have to prove themselves.
Even when an undrafted rookie makes an NFL roster, his roster spot may not be necessarily be safe, and opportunities to play may be limited. In order to stay on an NFL roster and work one’s way up a depth chart, a player must perform and make plays on the field to obtain increased playing time and become a household name.
Those opportunities may not always come in the capacity or frequency that a player desires, but an undrafted rookie has little leverage to be concerned about role or playing time. In order to move up into the roles they want, undrafted free agents must first excel in their initial opportunities.
For Foster, that meant running for 4.8 yards per carry on just 54 attempts in his first season, which led to him earning the starting role in his sophomore year. Welker’s excellence as a returner led to a steady uptick in offensive playing time over the course of three years with the Miami Dolphins before his career really took off when Miami traded him to the New England Patriots prior to the 2007 season.
If a player proves himself in limited action, then an NFL team is likely to give him a chance at taking on a prominent role on the depth chart. If a player can continue to excel when placed in a starting role, like Foster and Welker have, he can become an NFL star.
Prove Oneself on the Field
One constant through all the steps of going from undrafted rookie to NFL star is that it all comes down to making plays when in the position to do so.
Being an undrafted rookie going into training camp means that a roster spot will have to be earned, not given. That said, any player, regardless of experience or draft position, can work his way up the depth chart if he outperforms his competition.
When the games begin, it no longer matters whether a player was the No. 1 overall pick or not drafted at all. Romo, Welker, Foster and many others have not been held back by entering the league as undrafted free agents. The same will be the case for any undrafted rookie from the 2013 class who excels on the field.
Furthermore, a player trying to make his way in the league and become a star needs to keep both his own focus and the focus of others on his on-field play. Off-field actions will not disguise poor play on the field, but they can certainly take away the gains of playing well.
Starting out as an undrafted free agent will forever be a part of the legacies of players like Gates, Warner and James Harrison, but it doesn’t define them. Those players made names for themselves with excellent on-field play, and any undrafted rookie in the 2013 class must do the same to achieve similar stardom.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.
Which undrafted free agents are in the best position to start on a path to stardom as rookies? I took a look at 10 of them here on Bleacher Report last week.