With last weekend's draft winding down, and the odds lengthening against West Virginia middle linebacker Grant Wiley hearing his name called among 255 selections, the phone lines began ringing incessantly in the Los Angeles office of agent Gary Wichard.
Even before the draft officially concludes with the choice of "Mr. Irrelevant," most teams usually begin trolling for free-agent candidates. And given that Wiley had recorded 492 tackles as a four-year starter for the Mountaineers, including 300 combined tackles in his final two seasons, it is not surprising that the gritty middle 'backer had multiple suitors.
Yet as Wichard and Wiley quickly assessed the opportunities, thumbing through rosters and trying to determine which proposal offered the best fit, the Minnesota Vikings began to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.
Some of that advantage came from the fact that the Vikings' pitch included a signing bonus of $15,000, notably higher than those offered by other clubs interested in bringing Wiley to camp. It didn't hurt the Vikings' case, either, that incumbent middle linebacker Greg Biekert is set to retire, that heir apparent E.J. Henderson still faces some offseason legal difficulties, and that veteran Henri Crockett likely will be released before camp.
"But maybe the factor that most swayed (Wiley) to Minnesota is that the guy who called us was (vice president of football operations) Rob Brzezinski," recalled Wichard earlier this week. "A lot of teams might have some assistant in the personnel office hitting the phones. Most teams have their scouts calling around. Instead, here we were cutting right through all the red tape, talking with the guy who could make the decision. So, yeah, it meant something that Rob was the voice on the other end of the line."
It might not be that way, certainly, in all cases. But the feisty Wiley, whose lack of size and borderline speed probably kept him from being chosen, was considered a "priority free agent" on many draft boards. It was the Vikings, though, who went the extra mile. And when it comes to lining up free agents, a onetime afterthought that has evolved now into a frenetic scramble, Minnesota has become one of several clubs adroit in the recruiting process.
Truth be told, the energy invested in signing free agents, even the ones regarded in the "priority" subset, characteristically produces piddling returns. Over the last seven years, the average number of undrafted players who earn regular-season roster berths has held steady, at just under two per team. But it's become increasingly important to scouting departments to identify and acquire draft remnant players who have a chance to make the team, and some franchises have clearly honed that relatively esoteric craft.
There remains some teams, knocking around in the football Dark Ages, who still don't take the pursuit of undrafted free agents very seriously at all, and merely go through the motions. Those teams refuse to get into the five-figure signing bonuses it sometimes takes to land a player, and treat the free agent process as trivial. Then there are cap-strapped franchises, such as Tennessee and Indianapolis, who regularly sign 20-25 undrafted prospects because they require cheap labor to fill out camp rosters, and also understand they might unearth a nugget or two.
"You can see how some teams just take it more seriously and are more aggressive about it," said agent Joe Linta. "Yeah, there are some teams that set themselves apart, that you know you can call, and they'll at least be receptive to listening about a kid."
Not only have the Vikings put together consecutive draft classes that look impressive (all seven of the club's 2003 choices made the roster and the '04 group, at first blush, appears equally solid), but Minnesota seems to have brought in some promising free agents for a second year in a row. Offensive linemen Anthony Herrera (Tennessee) and Alan Reuber (Texas A&M) could make the team. Ben Nauman (Augustana, S.D.) reminds some of current Vikings free safety Brian Russell, who tied for the NFL lead in interceptions in 2003. At worst, Wiley could contribute on special teams.
Among the other teams who seem to have hustled in the hour or two after the draft, and assembled interesting free-agent groups: Buffalo, Carolina, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Tennessee. The Colts signed tailback Ran Carthon (Florida) and the Titans got tailback Jarrett Payton (Miami), a nice touch for both clubs, finding spots for players with family connections to the league.
But it is players with far less recognizable surnames who are among the most compelling of the free agents. All of them, of course, have some sort of shortcomings. But with the practice squads increased to eight players for the 2004 season, there will be more free agents on payrolls. Here is a look at some other undrafted prospects with a legitimate shot to make a team's regular-season roster:
DE Uyi Osunde, Connecticut (signed by Cleveland): An undersized "tweener" who has played linebacker and end and could develop into a situational pass rusher. Not as quick as you'd like, but a high-energy player with some upside.
TE Ben Utecht, Minnesota (Indianapolis): Converted wide receiver with a large frame, caught 83 passes in career, and has decent speed. The Colts use a preponderance of two-tight end sets and that will help him.
WR Kendrick Starling, San Jose State (Houston): The Texans already have a pretty sound kickoff returner in J.J. Moses, but Starling, who averaged nearly 28 yards per runback in 2003 and has run in the 4.3s, could provide some competition for him.
TE Jason Peters, Arkansas (Buffalo): At the combine, checked in at 6-feet-4½ and 336 pounds and still ran an incredible 4.94 time in the 40. Might actually project better to left offensive tackle, may be the kind of kid you stash on the practice squad for a year, and allow him to develop.
DT Jordan Carstens, Iowa State (Carolina): A bit short-armed, but has gotten bigger and better every year after initialing making the team as a walk-on. Gritty competitor and better athlete than some people think.
CB Randall Gay, LSU (New England): Thin build, but has been clocked at under 4.4 in the 40, and is a fluid cover defender. Has played corner, "nickel" back and free safety. The Pats love having developmental-style corners around to groom for the future.
DE Tommy Kelly, Mississippi State (Oakland): Huge frame, has lined up at both end and tackle. Not a big sack threat but, at 302 pounds, might have a future as strong-side end and could perhaps move inside on passing downs.
WR Justin Jenkins, Mississippi State (Philadelphia): Built more like a tailback and only runs in the 4.6 range, but productive possession receiver with ability to beat the jam and to settle down in an open zone.
LB Roderick Royal, McNeese State (Atlanta): Has played both outside linebacker spots and some defensive end. Was clocked in the mid-4.6s and it won't hurt him that Atlanta is thin at linebacker.
FS Kentrell Curry, Georgia (Cleveland): Played all over the secondary for Bulldogs but saw only limited playing time in '03 because of injuries. Began the season as a potential high-round draft choice. Live body, good hitter, could play quickly on special teams.
Around the league
The more time passes from the bizarre events of last Saturday, when two top-shelf quarterback prospects were chosen and traded in less than an hour, the more obvious it becomes just how much intrigue surrounded the New York Giants with the fourth overall pick in the draft. While discussing the monumental swap with the San Diego Chargers, top Giants officials were also considering a trade offer from Cleveland, which wanted to move into the No. 4 slot. The Browns, who coveted either Miami safety Sean Taylor or Hurricanes tight end Kellen Winslow, offered a switch of first-round choices and their second-round pick as well. For several minutes, the Giants considered that offer, because they felt they could move down to the Cleveland spot in the first round, seventh overall, still take Philip Rivers, and make the trade with San Diego for Eli Manning, just a few spots later in the draft. It was also attractive for the Giants because by that point, they had decided to send their first-round pick in the 2005 draft to San Diego as part of their deal, and netting an additional second-rounder this year would have somewhat softened that blow. So why didn't the Giants slide down to the seventh spot, choose Rivers there, then consummate the Chargers trade as well? Because they weren't sure which player Cleveland had targeted at No. 4, and feared that the Browns would take Rivers, then complete the trade for Manning themselves. After all, Cleveland owner Randy Lerner had publicly noted on several occasions preceding the draft the possibility of selecting a quarterback for the future. Word is, both Lerner and coach Butch Davis, who arranged late workouts with Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, were bluffing about quarterbacks. But the Giants, who couldn't risk it, decided not to get too cute. They rejected the Cleveland offer and simply did the deal with the Chargers.
Quarterback is the position which best exemplifies the "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" evolution of the draft over the past decade and this year's lottery certainly did nothing to slow the impetus toward increased subjectivity in evaluating players. San Diego had Manning rated slightly ahead of Rivers on its draft board and was thrilled to land the latter. The Giants would have chosen Roethlisberger if the Manning trade had not been completed and were not sold on Rivers at all. Pittsburgh loved Rivers, and tried to move up in the first round to snatch him, but settled on Roethlisberger as their guy for the future. Conversely, the Bills coveted Roethlisberger, didn't warm to Rivers at all, and finally settled on J.P. Losman of Tulane. "If you'd have asked 10 (personnel directors) who they rated as the top (quarterback), and they'd have been honest with you, it would have been really divided, I'll bet," said one graybeard scout from an NFC franchise. "I don't know that I've ever seen less consensus at the position."
While on the topic of subjectivity, the free-fall of Oregon State star Steven Jackson in the first round last weekend displayed the different eyes through which teams viewed the tailback position in this year's draft. It also demonstrated how little inside information the amateur "draftniks," and reporters like yours truly, sometimes get on a player. The feeling going into the draft was that Jackson was the consensus top running back. Several teams had hinted to ESPN.com that they had misgivings about Jackson but the fact he lasted until the 24th choice overall, to the Rams, really hammered home that most franchises are never going to show all their cards. It also reinforced the notion that many teams now go into a draft confident they can get a viable running back without investing a high choice in the position. The Cincinnati Bengals, who had tailback near the top of their shopping list, rated at least two runners ahead of Jackson on their board. The Cowboys, roundly criticized in some quarters for dropping out of the first round and ignoring Jackson, then choosing Julius Jones of Notre Dame during the second stanza, also had Jackson rated no better than No. 3 on their pecking order.
Is it possible that Jerry Rice and/or Tim Brown could be demoted from the Oakland Raiders' starting lineup in 2004? Uh, not likely, given the admirable loyalty universally demonstrated by owner Al Davis, even to fading stars. But there is an interesting situation developing in Oakland, where some staffers insist the team's best wideouts are Jerry Porter and Doug Gabriel. The explosive Porter was slowed by injuries in 2003, caught only 28 passes, and was unable to build on a splendid 2002 campaign. A fifth-round pick in the 2003 draft, Gabriel caught just one pass in his rookie campaign, but has nice size, looks like a solid possession receiver, and is said to have made significant strides during the offseason. The Raiders added two intriguing young speedsters in the draft, Carlos Francis (Texas Tech) and Johnnie Morant (Syracuse), and both will ramp up competition for roster spots. Even if it's perhaps time for a greening of the Oakland wide receivers, however, expect Rice and Brown to be the starters on opening day.
If you need a defensive end -- and, no, we're not speaking specifically to St. Louis Rams officials, who lost Grant Wistrom to free agency and could be without Leonard Little because of a recent DUI -- you might consider phoning New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis. No, we don't know that Loomis is in a selling mode, and chances are he isn't. But the Saints suddenly have one of the deepest end contingents in the NFL, after the addition of Will Smith of Ohio State in the first round last week, and New Orleans arguably has one of the thickest defensive line groups in general. The ends include Darren Howard, Charles Grant and Willie Whitehead, in addition to Smith. At tackle, the Saints have Johnathan Sullivan, Brian Young and Kenny Smith. The old axiom is that you can never have enough big bodies and, given the injuries the Saints have suffered the past few years, they might balk at decreasing their current inventory. But even a player such as Whitehead, arguably the No. 4 end on the New Orleans depth chart right now, might look pretty good to a franchise that has a shortage at the position.
For a few minutes last weekend, the Atlanta Falcons thought they had a deal with San Diego for quarterback Drew Brees, but then the Chargers brain trust changed its mind. Nabbing Brees, who could be knocked from his starting job at some point this season by Philip Rivers, would have been a boon for the Falcons, who have been seeking a proven backup to serve as Michael Vick's caddy. It would have also marked a great irony. Vick and Brees were essentially intertwined in the 2001 draft. The Chargers traded the rights to Vick to the Falcons, then chose Brees in the second round, a move that still rankles some San Diego fans. That Brees came close last week to actually becoming Vick's backup is an intriguing element. Even though the Chargers opted not to trade Brees, one has to wonder about his future in San Diego. Not only is Brees entering the final season of his original NFL contract, but he has been publicly critical of the Chargers moves of late, including some in the draft. Brees pointed out that San Diego, which has lost eight of its top 11 offensive linemen from the 2003 roster, might have been better served choosing Iowa left tackle Robert Gallery in the first round. Said Brees: "I'm disappointed, because I look and see Gallery going there with the second (overall) pick to the Raiders. He was a guy we could have had here, and you want to talk about a guy that you could have planned a franchise around? I mean, we've got (tailback LaDainian Tomlinson), but you don't think 'LT' would have appreciated Gallery? I think anyone would appreciate a big left tackle. I don't think I was the only one watching the film, watching him take guys and throw them down with one arm. It was a joke."
Much has been made of the relationship between Giants coach Tom Coughlin and former Boston College guard Chris Snee, the team's second-round pick. Snee is the father of Coughlin's grandson and he and the coach's daughter, Katie, are raising the infant together and are expected to wed. But Snee also has some ties to the coach who preceded Coughlin in the Giants' job. His roommate at BC was kicker Mike Fassel, the son of deposed Giants coach Jim Fassel.
Wise move by the Chicago Bears getting into the Tim Couch sweepstakes. While we are among the people who feel Rex Grossman is going to be a solid starter for the Bears, and will benefit from the offense being installed by new coordinator Terry Shea, the club's 2003 first-rounder could still struggle at times. And Couch, who is reluctant to sit behind iron man Brett Favre in Green Bay for a couple years (the Packers want a deal for a minimum of two seasons), could log a few starts. If nothing else, the Bears newfound interest in Couch figures to raise the ante for the division-rival Packers.
Punts: The Rams were set to grab quarterback Matt Schaub in the third round before the Falcons snatched the former Virginia star one pick ahead of St. Louis' slot. Buffalo officials feel first-round wideout Lee Evans will significantly upgrade a passing attack that floundered in 2003, but still want to find a "Slash"-type player to fit into some of the gimmick plays coach Mike Mularkey likes to incorporate into his game plans. Seattle remains interested in middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, who will be released by the Redskins after June 1. Don't be surprised if Jacob Rogers, a second-round pick who played mostly left tackle at Southern California, is the starting right tackle for the Dallas Cowboys on opening day. By the way, despite owner Jerry Jones' public contention that the Cowboys could be interested in Kerry Collins, team officials haven't exactly tapped into assistant head coach Sean Payton for his views on the former Giants passer. Payton is a former Giants offensive coordinator with great insights into Collins. San Francisco chose two wide receivers in the draft but continues to troll for a veteran or two at the position. The 49ers recently auditioned D'Wayne Bates, formerly of Minnesota, and could sign him.
Stat of the week: In the five drafts between 1999-2003, the Oakland Raiders exercised 25 choices in the first five rounds. They selected just two offensive linemen, tackles Matt Stinchcomb (first round, 1999) and Langston Walker (second round, 2002), in the stretch. They equaled that number of linemen just 45 choices into the draft last Saturday, taking tackle Robert Gallery in the first round and center Jake Grove in the second.
The last word: "They had the power to send me to the depths of hell. They could have told the Patriots that I was a butthead. But they didn't. I think that shows they had respect for what I did for them." -- former Cincinnati tailback Corey Dillon on the trade that sent him to the New England Patriots.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.