When the Carolina Panthers lost fifth-round draft choice Drew Carter to a season-ending knee injury in a recent mini-camp, and needed a wide receiver to fill the roster spot of the former Ohio State standout, the NFC champions scoured the world for a replacement.
OK, so that's not entirely true, we concede. But in signing Scott McCready of the Scottish Claymores, a much-traveled wide receiver who led the NFL Europe League this spring with 59 catches, the Panthers essentially confirmed that there are a few free agent players from overseas worth considering for summer training camp jobs.
Of the 22 position players on the all-NFLEL team, only four were not allocated, meaning they are free agents. Most of the league leaders in significant statistical categories were allocated by NFL franchises, sent to Europe to get some actual playing time, but whose contractual rights belong to the clubs that shipped them overseas.
There are, however, a handful of free agents from Europe who have garnered interest, as NFL teams continue to fine-tune rosters in advance of the opening of training camps next month. The majority of those players are probably little more than camp fodder, needed to fill out the quota of bodies at a particular position, and with little realistic chance of earning a regular-season roster spot.
But with the practice squad limit expanded to eight players for 2004, some of the NFLEL free agents could find gainful employment, and a few might be good enough to become role players on the active roster. "There aren't," said one AFC personnel director, "a lot of guys who people will look at, but there are a few interesting ones."
McCready is certainly one of them, if for no other reason than the persistence the former South Florida star has demonstrated, following plenty of setbacks. This marked the third consecutive spring that McCready, a London native and son of a former F-15 pilot in the Royal Air Force, played in the European league. McCready, who moved to the United States when he was nine, was twice in camp with the New England Patriots, and on the team's practice squad in 2001.
His career seemed stuck in neutral, though, until this spring. In catching 59 passes for 472 yards, McCready displayed nice hands and solid route-running skills. Having muscled up to 213 pounds, he also has the kind of stature teams like Carolina prefer, and he flashed some special teams skills as well.
The Panthers invested a $10,000 signing bonus on McCready, modest upfront money to be sure, but more than the team spent on most of its undrafted free agents. There aren't many NFLEL free agents who will merit that kind of bonus, but here are some who figure to be in NFL training camps:
FS Abdual Howard (Rhein Fire): One of the league's top defenders, Howard isn't particularly fast, but the former Florida State standout has good football instincts and decent size. He had 57 tackles, two forced fumbles, a league-high five interceptions and eight passes defensed. Howard, 25, was in the Detroit Lions camp in 2002.
CB Will Hunter (Cologne Centurians): Despite just one interception, showed solid cover skills as demonstrated by 11 passes defensed, and was named to the all-NFLEL team. A bit undersized but the former Syracuse standout, who was an undrafted free agent with the New York Jets in 2003, is an aggressive, on-ball defender.
OT Reese Hicks (Scottish Claymores): Has already signed with the San Diego Chargers after fielding offers from three NFL teams. A big frame and a willing worker, probably projects best to right tackle, since he might not have the feet to play the left side. Played collegiately at Georgetown College and was in the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns camps last year as an undrafted free agent.
OG Troy Andrew (Berlin Thunder): Part of the NFLEL's best offensive line unit this spring. Kind of an in-between player, one who might not have the bulk to play inside in the NFL, or the feet to play tackle. He was in camp three times, though, with Miami, and made the Dolphins regular-season roster in 2001 and 2002, so he knows the ropes. Saw action in eight games with the Dolphins in '01.
LB Dustin Cohen (Frankfurt Galaxy): Has been with three different NFL teams and actually played for the St. Louis Rams in the 2001 NFC championship game. Good enough size, decent range, a versatile player who can contribute on special teams. Had 50 tackles, two interceptions and one sack this spring.
WR Drew Haddad (Frankfurt Galaxy): A onetime seventh-round draft choice of the Indianapolis Colts (2000), who has been to training camp three times and played in one NFL regular-season game. The former University of Buffalo star won't dazzle anyone with his 40-yard speed, but is sure-handed, runs precise routes and can return punts. Averaged 11.0 yards on punt returns for the Galaxy and had 28 catches for 455 yards.
DE T.J. Bingham (Berlin Thunder): Like nearly all NFLEL defensive linemen is undersized by NFL standards, but has some pass-rush skills, and his five sacks this season were the most by any free agent defender. Played collegiately at Ouachita Baptist and was signed by Kansas City as an undrafted free agent in 2002. Spent some time on the Chiefs' practice squad late that season.
CB Todd Howard (Amsterdam Admirals): Was in camp with the Rams in 2002 and 2003 and spent nine weeks on the team's practice squad the former of those seasons. Size could be a hindrance, but he plays aggressively, and had 20 tackles, two interceptions and three passes defensed this spring. Signed with the Dolphins earlier this week.
CB James Thornton (Berlin Thunder): One of the top defensive backs in the NFLEL this year and the former Morris Brown standout made a lot of plays for the league champions. Had four interceptions and a league-best 12 passes defensed. Looks like a player with some special teams potential. Signed by the Chicago Bears last year as a free agent.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.