Signing undrafted free agents is a little-known key to NFL team-building
By Randy Mueller
Special to FOX Sports
As the three-day NFL Draft winds down, a wild, auction-like process begins to take over inside franchise walls.
The frenzy is as wild as anything we do but also as fun for the participants — scouts and coaches of NFL teams — as any task over the course of the year.
It’s the mad scramble for undrafted college free agents, which takes place behind the scenes in every NFL draft room and is something I always looked forward to during my 30-plus years in the business.
Whether I was a pro scout, a college scout or a general manager, it always helped put the icing on a weekend of near misses or exact hits. Any way you look at it, it’s a very competitive and refined process. The execution of signing UDFAs has evolved, but it's just as important as the sixth and seventh rounds of the draft.
After all, you can get Hall of Fame football players and loads of key contributors from the ranks of the undrafted.
Some recent UDFAs who had huge impacts on their teams and the league at large include Tony Romo, Doug Baldwin, James Harrison, Wes Welker and, of course, two-time MVP Kurt Warner.
Most teams start this process early in the spring as scouts attend pro days around the country, sometimes with the sole purpose of gathering phone numbers and recruiting potential prospects who they know might go undrafted. The recruiting work and depth-chart analysis in a small window of time would make average fans shake their heads, but it can be career-defining for a team's front-office leader.
I remember setting the table with running back Austin Ekeler, who went on to become the Chargers starting back out of Division II Western Colorado, immediately after his pro day, which was about a month before the 2017 draft. Ekeler put on a show for some of us scouts, and I wanted to make sure he knew I was impressed and would try to get our team (I was in the Chargers' front office at the time) to draft him — or, at minimum, we’d be calling him as a free agent. In the case of Ekeler, the work paid off.
In the 1980s and '90s, recruiting and signing UDFAs was a much longer and more involved process. When I was with the Seahawks, we would employ 35 of our best buddies as "salesmen/signers" and send them on the road during draft weekend to monitor the undrafted players we wanted and sign them to actual contracts — in person.
It was the "Wild, Wild West" where anything goes … as long as you got a name on a contract. We would manage this giant operation from the home office, communicating with signers nonstop from late in the draft through the night after the draft and into the next morning, when an agent’s office opened to fax a contract.
Being a team on the West Coast, we would have a couple of hours of dead air in the middle of the night when we did not have calls as we waited for the East Coast guys to wake up and update us on where they were with the signings of their assigned players.
It was during that downtime that a putt-putt golf match or some other silly competition might break out among office staffers to make the night go by faster.
I remember our "course designer," current senior VP of communications and broadcasting at the Seahawks, Dave Pearson, who was an intern at the time, setting up a course that would have made Pete Dye envious. He had us putting through weights in the weight room and shower tiles in the shower room and keeping the neighbors awake putting through the shrubs on the outside decks of our office building.
All of this while we waited for the phones to ring, hoping to get a "yay" from one of the field signers with a word on who was going to be a Seahawk.
It’s not as time-consuming or involved a process these days, but recruiting is still "a thing." Agents have much more say in the process, which is usually a positive. They are educated, skilled and well-versed in knowing it will all happen fast and not necessarily on the time frame they choose. Time is of the essence because these roster slots are limited and fill up fast, so players who wait too long could lose out on the opportunity.
Agents have to be in the loop on where their clients might fit best. In fact, in many ways, it’s better to be undrafted so you're able to pick a team that suits your skill set or depth chart, rather than being drafted late to a team where you don’t fit the scheme.
It’s really not about the money, which in this case is a signing bonus and maybe a slight base salary guarantee. It’s about the fit that gives a player the best chance to make an NFL team.
In an attempt to streamline the process in the draft room, we reposition and prioritize our undrafted players by position on the draft board as a visual (even though the draft is still going on). For example, in order to sign two running backs, we’d have to go after and recruit five. Although I’ve never been involved in college recruiting, I envision it being similar — except it all happens in such a shorter timeframe.
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Teams start calling potential free agents late in the sixth round. They might be trying to find out who a particular player is hearing from. Usually, it’s a scout or an assistant coach who draws this straw. Most participants on the club side have relationships with agents, and both sides trust each other, so when deals are agreed upon, that’s worth something, even though a contract isn’t physically signed. Agents and teams do not want to burn bridges, so verbal deals are fairly solid.
A coach might call the player directly, and a scout might deal with the agent. The money has been budgeted already, and those involved know what can be paid. It all comes out of a team’s rookie pool allotment, so the numbers are all tracked, and they matter.
If I, as the GM, find out a player already has five offers as a free agent and thus will be expensive to sign, I might opt to draft him in the seventh round to eliminate the competition. A lot of strategy is in play with those late-round picks, and signability is definitely a factor.
The information pipeline can be much like drinking through a firehose. Seven coaches and six or seven scouts are all reporting back to decision-makers, usually a cap guy and/or the GM. It reminds me of a car auction, where one shake of the head might give a scout the OK to pay a $10,000 signing bonus to get a particular player. And like I said, the draft is still going on, so decisions are made congruently and might occur over the top of a conversation about whom to draft in the sixth round.
I remember once having an agreement with a quarterback at the end of Round 6, which, incidentally, is frowned upon by the league. The agent and the kid had agreed. I had congratulated the kid on the phone. Another team got wind of it and drafted the kid in the seventh round. The conversation changes quickly. We then had to go back and sign another QB from a list that had dwindled in the meantime.
The point is that it’s a wild time and process. We all love it, though, and it carries a high degree of importance from the team’s standpoint.
It’s not until after these free agents are signed and sealed, usually within a couple of hours at the end of the draft, that an NFL personnel department's "draft day" is complete.
Randy Mueller is the former general manager for the Seattle Seahawks, New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins. He spent more than 30 years working in NFL front offices as a talent evaluator. Follow him on Twitter or at muellerfootball.com.