Surveying the carnage after final cuts

BY Alex Marvez • September 5, 2011

Mark Herzlich was once a cancer victim.

The former Boston College linebacker wasn’t going to become a victim of the NFL lockout, as well.

Herzlich took another step in his remarkable comeback this weekend by securing a spot with the New York Giants. That makes Herzlich another kind of rarity: the undrafted rookie who survives the final preseason round of roster cuts.

As training camps began in late July, the already-slim chances of those long shots sticking were made even smaller because of the labor strife between the NFL and its players. For 4-1/2 months this spring and summer, teams locked out their players while negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement dragged. That meant none of the standard offseason workouts, OTAs (organized team activities, i.e. practices) or minicamps were held.

Caught in the wash were those rookies not among the 255 college prospects selected in April’s draft. Clubs couldn’t sign undrafted players or agree to contract terms until the CBA was approved. By the time a truncated preseason began, teams were more focused on getting veterans ready for the regular season than scouring for diamonds in the rough.

This is understandable. The lockout froze player movement among NFL veterans, resulting in an avalanche of signings and personnel movement once the new CBA went into effect. The league reported 1,200-plus transactions in the first post-lockout week alone. The Arizona Cardinals signed 51 players — almost an entire roster — in that same span.

The late start could carry over into the regular season with some sloppy and disjointed play initially, as well as less-complicated game plans, particularly among squads with new head coaches and/or coordinators. Franchises with continuity — including Super Bowl XLV participants Green Bay and Pittsburgh — are expected to enjoy an early-season edge.

There also will be only two rookie starting quarterbacks entering the regular season even with six being chosen in the first two rounds of April’s draft. Both of them — Carolina’s Cam Newton and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton — are largely the result of their team having no better option. Tennessee (Matt Hasselbeck/Jake Locker), Minnesota (Donovan McNabb/Christian Ponder), San Francisco (Alex Smith/Colin Kaepernick) and Jacksonville (David Garrard/Blaine Gabbert) decided to ride with veterans under center for at least the short-term because of the belief that the newbies wouldn’t be ready — an appreciable concern in the post-lockout environment.

It has quickly become apparent that some position groups are ahead of others. In some preseason games, pass rushers have looked like they were shot from a cannon with blockers either stuck in the mud or confused about their assignments.

Ex-Denver Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist said these problems stem from offensive linemen not getting offseason work under team auspices.

“Synchronization of an offensive line and guys being able to communicate with each other passing off and picking up defenders in a blitz or twist situation comes from opportunities you get in the (offseason),” Sundquist said. “Coaching staffs can practice various (pass-rush) packages and the line has to read and react to that.

“Normally, that’s where those mistakes are made from a mental aspect — during the summertime. You get to the preseason and you’re just trying to iron out the wrinkles. Right now, they’re getting a lot of that stuff thrown at them for the first time. And in the case of young players without a lot of experience seeing those things, it’s exposing them individually and the unit.”

For undrafted college free agents especially, patience for mistakes was low because of the time crunch. It was easier for some teams to stick with veterans who are already familiar with NFL schemes or more likely to pick them up quickly than take a chance on an unheralded newcomer.

“There was a small window for those (undrafted) guys to make it and show what they were made of,” said St. Louis general manager Billy Devaney, whose Rams were one of at least four teams that didn’t keep any undrafted rookies when slashing 20-plus players Saturday to reach the NFL’s 53-man roster limit.

“We even wound up cutting a couple of unrestricted free agents that we signed. We wish we had more time with them. They didn’t have the luxury of going through offseason stuff either. They’re coming from different schemes and systems. It takes a while for even those guys to adjust and get used to new schemes. You didn’t have as much time to make the evaluation.”

Herzlich, though, made the most of his limited opportunities to snag a roster spot. So did 61 of hundreds of other undrafted rookies as of Sunday night, according to ESPN.com. That averages to less than two a team, although the number under the circumstances was surprisingly higher than the 51 undrafted rookies who made rosters at this time last year.

A slew of the remaining undrafted rookies have already landed on NFL practice squads with potential promotions as the year unfolds. According to Stats LLC, roughly 25 percent of all NFL rosters will be comprised of rookies and veterans who weren’t drafted when the season begins Thursday night with New Orleans vs. Green Bay.

Herzlich’s medical history may have scared potential draft suitors. A star underclassman, Herzlich missed the entire 2009 campaign after being diagnosed with bone cancer. He returned for his senior season but admittedly didn’t play at the same high level that made him the 2008 Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year.

If he can regain that form, Herzlich may prove a steal like another former Giants linebacker who found success despite not being drafted — Antonio Pierce.

“Herzlich didn’t bat an eye the whole camp,” New York coach Tom Coughlin recently told New York media. “Physically, he did everything you asked and more. I saw him improve literally week by week.”

Herzlich impressed in preseason games with six tackles, a sack, interception and forced fumble. Most undrafted rookies didn’t shine to that extent, but Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik said performances in exhibition contests aren’t the only evaluation standard that should be used.

“A lot of these players appeared for maybe 10 snaps in some games,” said Dominik, whose team kept two undrafted rookies (safety Devin Holland and long snapper Christian Yount) on its 53-man roster. “Rookie minicamps didn’t happen this year either. You have to take a close look at practices to further dissect these guys as well as take a long look in the last preseason game.”

Clearly, the Giants liked what they saw from Herzlich even if they couldn’t start getting a close-up view until the lockout ended.

Alex Marvez interviewed Billy Devaney and Ted Sundquist with co-hosts Zig Fracassi and Jim Miller on Sirius XM NFL Radio.



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