For NFL prospects on the bubble, it’s often better not to get picked at all than to be selected in the final rounds.
Once the Indianapolis Colts pick “Mr. Irrelevant,” a title bestowed upon the last player chosen in the seven-round draft, teams will make a mad dash Saturday afternoon to sign college free agents who were on their draft boards but didn’t get picked for one reason or another.
Those with multiple suitors get to salve their bruised egos by scouring rosters and picking a team that gives them the best chance to make the roster.
Every year, players prove that, for all its money and manpower, the draft is an inexact science.
“There’s pros and cons to each of them,” Colorado safety Ray Polk said. “If you get drafted, you get to say you got drafted. And I’m sure there’s a little bit more money. But you go free agent, you get to choose a different fit or different scenarios that you can put yourself into.”
Polk is trying to both avoid and follow in the footsteps of his father, Raymond Polk, a cornerback from Oklahoma State who was drafted in the 12th round by the Raiders in 1985.
He tore a hamstring in the preseason after getting traded to Tampa Bay, ending his NFL career before it began.
For the first-round busts like Ryan Leaf, Tony Mandarich or JaMarcus Russell, there’s Dick “Night Train” Lane, John Randle and Warren Moon, three of the 14 Hall of Famers bypassed in the draft.
Former USC great Willie Wood was another. He was sidestepped in the 1960 draft because he was undersized at 160 pounds and was coming off a collarbone injury that had bothered him for 2 years. He embarked on a letter-writing campaign begging teams for a chance.
Only the Packers responded, and he repaid them by helping Green Bay win five NFL championships and the first two Super Bowls while becoming one of the greatest defensive backs in league history.
The Colts have had at least one undrafted free agent make their Week 1 roster in each of the last 14 years.
Champ Bailey said you can spot an undrafted player by the big chip on his shoulder.
“I’m sure most of those guys were probably the best on their team in college,” Bailey said. “That has to irk you a little bit, fuel you to want to go out there, get something done, prove yourself.”
Notable active undrafted players
• Houston Texans: RB Arian Foster, Tennessee. After making one start as a rookie in 2009, he’s been to three straight Pro Bowls and earned All-Pro status by rushing for 4,264 yards and 41 TDs over the last three seasons to go with a half-dozen TD catches in that span.
• New England Patriots: WR Wes Welker, Texas Tech. The 5-foot-9 receiver is a 5-time Pro Bowler and 2-time All-Pro who originally signed with San Diego, then went to Miami before starring for 6 seasons in New England, where he caught 672 passes, 37 for touchdowns.
• Pittsburgh Steelers: LB James Harrison, Kent State. The 5-time Pro Bowler and 2-time All-Pro helped the Steelers win the Super Bowl in ‘06 and was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in ‘08. Helped Steelers win another championship that season by returning Kurt Warner’s pass 100 yards for a TD. Old-timers choice; CB Jack Butler, St. Bonaventure, and, more recently, DB Donnie Shell, South Carolina State.
• San Diego Chargers: TE Antonio Gates, Kent State. Was a power forward as a college basketball player and didn’t play football until signing with the Chargers in 2003. One of the best tight ends in NFL history, he has 83 career TD catches and is an 8-time Pro Bowler and 3-time All-Pro.