Fans of the 1999 Rams can rattle off the names of the undrafted free agents on that team as easily as they can the first-round picks. My Fast Lane partner, D’Marco Farr. London Fletcher. Billy Jenkins Jr. Mike Jones. Mike Gruttadauria. Tony Horne. And, of course, Kurt Warner. A massive part of the nucleus of that team came from the undrafted free agent class.
Even now, some of the best players in the league weren’t drafted. Guys like James Harrison, Antonio Gates, Tony Romo and Jeff Saturday saw every round go by, and weren’t selected by any team.
Why is this a topic? Because of the new rules in the NFL that drastically cut back offseason programs and training camp practices, players that got opportunities despite not being drafted simply aren’t going to get those chances any more. While rules governing offseason workouts haven’t been officially finalized yet, back in March owners made an offer that cut offseason programs by five weeks and reduced organized team activities from a maximum of 14 to a maximum of 10. The new agreement will reportedly have nine OTAs, with just three in helmets.
Now, training camp two-a-days have been eliminated, except for walkthroughs without helmets and pads. Last year, the Rams scheduled two practices for nine days during training camp. Especially on those days, in the second practices, a veteran will sit out or come out for more reps, giving that undrafted guy a chance to go in, give all-out effort, and impress the coaches. There are literally hundreds of reps during the eliminated OTAs and practices that undrafted guys won’t have the opportunity to get in for.
From a coach’s perspective, the first thing he wants to do is get his team ready for the regular season. Then he wants to take a look at his young veterans, and then evaluate his draft picks. Finally, a staff will look at the undrafted guys. Farr said on Monday that a big reason he was able to make the ’94 Rams was because veterans would pull themselves out of a play here or there, and he got the chance to go in and show his stuff.
That generally happened in the second practice of a day. From now on, those veterans getting ready for the regular season aren’t going to be worn down for a second practice, because there isn’t going to be one. It’s a sad reality, but not nearly as many guys that have made teams in the past are going to even get a shot in the future.
I’m glad that owners and players are close to an agreement, and I’m particularly happy that they’ve found a way to cut down on the wear and tear of training camp. But it will affect the sport, without question.
Look at it this way. It 1998, the Rams had four quarterbacks in camp. Coach Dick Vermeil thought he had a team that would be competitive, and he had a young veteran named Will Furrer behind Tony Banks and Steve Bono. If there’s no two-a-days, there’s a very good chance that all the repetitions of practice would have gone to the guys with NFL experience. In fact, the fourth quarterback in that camp got only four throws during preseason games. The value of hundreds of training camp reps allowed Warner to edge out Furrer and make the team.
If the rules the NFL will have going forward would have been in place in 1998, would Kurt Warner have made the league, or would coaches have believed in the guy they knew, that knew their system, and had experience?
They better be darn good evaluators now, because it would be a shame to miss out on the next Kurt Warner because he never got a chance.