Because teams allocated so many players to the NFL Europe this year to give young veterans much-needed experience, only 106 of the 314 players who recently finished the springtime season on active rosters or reserve lists are unrestricted free agents. Just eight of the 27 players named to the All-NFL Europe team are free agents.
From that group of 106 free agents, roughly half are "national" or foreign players who have little chance of ever being invited to a summer training camp, much less earning a spot on a regular-season NFL roster. That leaves a pool of very few free agents for NFL teams to scrutinize as they scramble to fill out their training camp quotas at every position. In fact, NFL franchises were especially active this week in signing the best (relatively speaking) of the available NFL Europe free agents.
Denver quickly snatched up tailback Marty Johnson, defensive lineman Bryan Save and linebacker Kevin Harrison. The New York Jets signed defensive back Rayshun Reed and wide receiver Reggie Newhouse. Detroit added defensive end Claude Harriott.
What can teams expect from their NFLE free agents? In truth, probably not much more than training camp fodder. Most of the top players from the NFLE, after all, already have an NFL affiliation. For example, Dallas quarterback Drew Henson, who played for the Rhein Fire this spring, already is assured a bunk in training camp. But NFL clubs turn over the final seven to 10 spots on their rosters every season, it seems, and are forever seeking players to fill out special teams slots. And most of the top free agents from Europe have been in NFL camps in the past, know that it will take hustle and plenty of luck to catch someone's eye, and understand their potential roles on the final few rungs of a roster.
So, certainly, none of the signings from the NFLE are headline-grabbers, and some overseas players added by NFL teams this week might not even make it onto a training camp practice field next month. That said, at the outset of the NFL lull period, it's worth noting a few European free agents who have sufficient ability to maybe scratch their way onto the bottom of some franchise's roster.
One of the primary NFLE prospects is Rhein Fire cornerback Ronyell Whitaker, who actually started one regular-season game for the Tampa Bay Bucs in 2003 and was on the team's practice squad for the 2004 campaign. He was signed by the Minnesota Vikings just after the NFLE free-agent draft, so technically he was not an allocated player. Whitaker had 42 tackles, four interceptions (including two returned for touchdowns), a league-best dozen passes defensed and two forced fumbles.
Maybe as important as those numbers is that the former Virginia Tech standout also registered nine tackles on special teams, the area in which he probably can most help himself with the Minnesota coaching staff. He has played the outside "gunner" position on occasions in the past, running downfield under punts, and is a solid open-field tackler.
Whitaker is like a lot of guys in the NFLE. He has size issues (5-foot-9, 195 pounds) and isn't very fast (probably a mid-4.5 in the 40), and his game includes enough deficiencies to have kept him from being steadily employed in the big leagues. Oh, yeah, he's also 27 years old, which means that this figures to be his last shot at securing an NFL roster spot.
He is, like every NFLE free agent, a long shot. But his odds in Minnesota might be enhanced because he played in Tampa Bay for then-Bucs secondary aide Mike Tomlin, now the Vikings' defensive coordinator, and has good familiarity with Cover 2 concepts.
Shortcomings aside, Whitaker is talented enough to earn his fourth invitation to an NFL training camp; he signed a two-year, minimum-salary contract with the Vikings in late February. Maybe the fourth time will be a charm for Whitaker and he will be able to add to his four-game NFL résumé.
Here are some other NFLE free agents, many of whom have had NFL cameos in the past, who might have at least a remote shot of making someone's roster:
• DE Earl Cochrane (Amsterdam): Has NFL-caliber size (6-5, 285), has been in three NFL training camps and spent the 2003 season on the Green Bay injured reserve list. From Alabama State, he was in the 2003 NFL supplemental draft, has some upfield quickness and posted 51 tackles and five sacks this spring.
• DE Claude Harriott (Amsterdam): He had a terrific junior season for the University of Pittsburgh and then lost his starting job as a senior, was a fifth-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears in 2004 and also spent some time in the New York Giants' camp. Registered 22 tackles, four sacks and one forced fumble for the Admirals. Harriott, 25, signed with the Detroit Lions this week.
• LB Travis Harris (Frankfurt): A former University of Florida defender, Harris, 24, rang up 61 tackles, four passes defensed and a forced fumble during the European season. He has decent size (6-2, 241) and can play special teams. He was an undrafted free agent in the Tennessee Titans' camp last summer.
• LB Kevin Harrison (Berlin): Signed by the Broncos this week, Harrison, 24, is coming off a spring season in which he had 61 tackles, two sacks, four passes defensed and a forced fumble. As a three-year starter at Eastern Michigan, he piled up 320 tackles. Harrison was in camp with the Cleveland Browns in 2005 as an undrafted free agent.
• OT Ben Herrell (Amsterdam): Signed this week by the New York Giants, at 6-7 and 316 pounds he has the kind of size to play in the NFL. From Miami (Ohio), he has been in two NFL camps, with the Carolina Panthers in 2004 and the Tennessee Titans in 2005.
• LS Jordan Hicks (Hamburg): A good-sized (6-2, 260) long snapper from Georgetown (Ken.) College, Hicks was in the Oakland Raiders' camp last summer. In more than 50 snaps this spring, he had just one slightly errant effort. He's a good enough athlete to snap the ball and get downfield for coverage duties, and he recorded four special teams tackles this spring. Hicks signed with Tampa Bay this week.
• RB Marty Johnson (Berlin): Another of the NFLE free agents added by the Broncos this week, Johnson was a solid back at Utah and set a school record for single-season rushing touchdowns (15) his senior year. Johnson has good enough size (5-11, 225) but isn't especially quick. Plus, he's 26 years old, a little long in the tooth to be starting an NFL career. In Europe this season, he rushed for 424 yards and two touchdowns on 101 carries and also had 22 catches for 178 yards and two scores.
• C Tyler Lenda (Amsterdam): Not surprising that his lone NFL exposure came with Denver in 2003, since he is an undersized (6-1, 289) interior lineman whose best shot is to sign with a zone-blocking team, one that uses the same blocking design the Broncos use. Has played guard and center in Europe, but would be overwhelmed at the former of those positions at the NFL level.
• WR Scott McCready (Hamburg): Formerly with South Florida, he has been with three different NFL franchises, and the closest he came to the big-time was as a member of the New England practice squad in 2001, when he earned a Super Bowl ring. After five seasons in NFLE, McCready may have risen about as far as he ever will. Still, his terrific hands and excellent size (6-1, 219) might be enough to tempt some team to give him one more try.
• WR Reggie Newhouse (Cologne): From Baylor, he has nice size (6-1, 191) and runs well enough. He played three games each for the Arizona Cardinals in 2004 and 2005 and totaled five receptions for 50 yards. In the NFLE this spring, Newhouse had 23 receptions for 363 yards and two touchdowns.
• DB Rayshun Reed (Hamburg): Played cornerback in Europe, but his lack of speed probably makes him a safety prospect in the NFL. The problem is, he might not be big or physical enough to play safety at the NFL level. A pretty good ballhawk who closes nicely and has good timing on the delayed blitz, Reed had 34 tackles, three interceptions, nine passes defensed, two sacks and two forced fumbles. He also played on special teams. The former Troy State corner signed with the Jets this week.
• DT Bryan Save (Cologne): Signed with the Broncos this week, and they represent the fifth NFL franchise to provide him a chance. A Colorado State product, Save (6-1, 313 pounds) looks like a two-gap defender. The 24-year-old native of Hawaii had 35 tackles, 4½ sacks and two forced fumbles during the NFLE season.
• DE Derrick Strong (Rhein): Lacks bulk (6-3, 261) and isn't very explosive, but he still managed to record five sacks this spring, to go along with 25 tackles and three pass deflections. Undrafted out of Illinois, he was a free agent with Carolina in 2004 and was in the Tennessee camp in 2005.
• RB Butchie Wallace (Frankfurt): Signed with the Falcons ealrier this week. He's tougher than his size (5-10, 205) might indicate, and a pretty good all-around back, but there's not much wiggle or speed to his game. From Marshall, Wallace, 25, was the top player in last weekend's World Bowl. During the season he gained 343 yards on 72 carries.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.