Nine undrafted rookies making the Browns’ 53-man roster is notable in many ways.
First, it does, as coach Rob Chudzinski points out, speak well of the work by the team’s player-personnel staff. Finding one or two players passed over in the draft who are worthy of a spot on an NFL squad is a major accomplishment. Finding nine (defensive back
Second, the ability to count on such players is hugely beneficial to the Browns’ grand plan of building for sustainable success. Besides their youth, the fact that, with minimal signing bonuses, they also carry ultra-low cap salaries helps allow the Browns to continue to address key needs next year and beyond while remaining relatively young for multiple seasons.
Third, there is a quality undrafted players share that can prove immensely helpful to the overall team dynamic. For all of the so-called “measureables” that might have caused them to not receive a call from any NFL team through three days and seven rounds of drafting (i.e. height, weight, speed, strength), there are “unmeasureables” that go a long way toward defining why they still wound up with a chance to play in the league.
These are guys who have to work just a little bit harder than everyone else, who need to do everything just a little bit better than the rest. Most draft picks operate with a much greater sense of security, knowing that the investment of a draft choice in their services can buy them at least one season to show what they can do. Undrafted free agents are pretty much predisposed to arrive for the first day of work with a take-nothing-for-granted, pour-every-ounce-of-what-you-have-into-each-game-and-each-practice approach that enhances their chances of sticking around.
And history shows that some undrafted rookies have done a whole lot more than that. Fifteen, in fact, made it all the way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including four former Browns (Frank Gatski, Lou Groza, Marion Motley, and Bill Willis). Their number exceeds, by two, the total of top overall draft picks in the Hall, and, by seven, the total of Heisman Trophy winners in Canton.
“Those guys who make it as undrafted free agents all have the same enduring characteristic – that they want it so badly that they’re willing to sacrifice almost anything to make it in the National Football League,” says former NFL general manager and current ESPN and SiriusXM NFL Radio analyst Bill Polian, voted league executive of the year a record six times by his peers. “And that’s something that you can’t measure. Many of those guys are walk-ons at the collegiate level because nobody gave them a chance in college. Then they come into the National Football League, and because of that same drive and desire, they make it and they make it big. And they play a long time because they have that drive and desire to excel.
“And they’re not burdened with expectations. They’re not burdened with various labels that people give them. They haven’t been kowtowed to, they haven’t been recruited, they haven’t been told that they’re golden boys from age 12 on. They’ve had to earn everything they’ve gotten in their football careers, and many of them in life, and as a result they respect the game and they respect the ability to go out there and do it and they have that drive to do it. They’re not pampered in any way. And there’s a lot to be said for that.”
When Polian was president of the Indianapolis Colts, he made certain that rookies heard the same speech each year when they reported to rookie camp. The crux of the message was that everyone was equal, that the best players will play, and those who don’t measure up will be cut.
Howard Mudd, the Colts’ former offensive line coach, would tell the players in his position group that the team once released Steve Sciullo, a fourth-round draft pick from Marshall, before the start of his rookie season in 2003 “without ever batting an eye.” Mudd pointed out, “Management doesn’t justify draft choices around here. They justify winning.”
The same is true with the Browns.
The nine rookie free agents are on the roster for the same reason that every other player who survived Saturday’s final cut is still around: the Browns’ decision-makers believe they could help the team win.
Of the players on the roster of the 2006 Colts team that beat the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI, 20 percent were undrafted free agents. As Polian points out, “That was by design; it wasn’t by accident.”
The Dallas Cowboys had a similar philosophy when Gil Brandt served as their vice president of player personnel. Among the gems he helped them find as undrafted free agents were cornerback/strong safety Cornell Green (five Pro Bowls), safety Cliff Harris (five Pro Bowls), cornerback Everson Walls (four Pro Bowls), and wide receiver Drew Pearson (three Pro Bowls).
Now, what do such highly decorated careers and the 15 undrafted players who are enshrined in Canton say about NFL’s scouting process? Exactly what we’ve known for a long time – that it’s an inexact science. When human beings judge human beings, they sometimes make human mistakes.
“No matter how thorough you are, you’re always going to miss some people,” says Brandt, an analyst for NFL.com and SiriusXM NFL Radio. “I’m a great, great believer that everybody that plays college football and that has the size requirements has a chance to be an NFL player, even if he’s not drafted.”
So are the Browns.
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