Emil Igwengau (credit: Melanie Maxwell)
Each year approximately 255 players have the privilege of being selected in the NFL Draft. However, these players are not the totality of new talent for Clubs and GMs to consider. Any prospective draftee that goes undrafted immediately becomes eligible to negotiate and sign a Player Contract with any Club. These undrafted free agents are the great unknowns of the NFL personnel selection process.
Hundreds of undrafted free agents pour into NFL mini-camps and training camps each offseason desperate to win a job on the Club. While only a dozen or two actually succeed in making the Club, there is no shortage of undrafted free agent success stories. Notable undrafted free agents include two time NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP quarterback Kurt Warner, six time Pro Bowl tight end Antonio Gates, Victor Cruz, the leading receiver for the 2012 Super Bowl Champion Giants, and two-time Super Bowl Champion and 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison.
Clubs generally use signing bonuses to attract the most highly sought after undrafted free agents. A player could gauge which Club was most interested in the player being a part of the Club by the offer made. The 2011 CBA, however, limits Clubs to a total of $75,000 in signing bonuses to be paid to undrafted rookies, an amount to increase annually with the Rookie Compensation Pool. Clubs’ interests are now less clear as a result of the cap on signing bonuses to undrafted players.
Victor Cruz (credit: Kathy Vitulano)
Failing to make the Club out of training camp is hardly the end of the road for undrafted free agents either. Undrafted free agents can sign with other teams, get tryouts or hopefully get signed to a Club’s Practice Squad. A Practice Squad consists of eight players per Club, who, as the title indicates, practice with the Club but do not play in games. Practice Squad salaries were a minimum of $5,700 per week during the 2012 season. Players are limited to three seasons on the Practice Squad, during which time they can sign with any other Club at any time.
Undrafted free agents can help round out the back of the roster or even prove to be important contributors to a successful Club. Finding the diamonds in the rough are undoubtedly among a GM’s finest and proudest moments. As Gil Brandt, the Cowboys’ Vice President of Player Personnel from 1960 to 1988, explained in a 2010 article: “General Managers enjoy it when their first-round draft pick meets those lofty expectations. And it's a real bonus when mid- to low-round selections exceed their expectations. Then there is the ultimate satisfaction of signing a player who was passed over entirely in the draft and seeing him become a productive pro.”
I personally remember recruiting and negotiating with the representative for Emil Igwenagu after the draft in 2012. Emil had played for me at the University of Massachusetts where he was a fantastic team leader and Tight End. We envisioned a Full Back/Tight End role for Emil with the Eagles and I started talking with his people as the final round of the draft was concluding. I had been one of our team representatives at Radio City Music Hall for that draft and was on the train from NYC back to Philadelphia as his agent and I discussed how Emil fit our values and system and why we were a better fit than the two other NFL teams who were vying for his services. It was an exciting and eye opening experience as to the Undrafted Free Agent process and I was happy to bring a quality person, such as Emil, into the organization.
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