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For borderline NFL draft prospects, sometimes not hearing name called is best

- The Washington Times - Monday, April 22, 2013

Matt Furstenburg expects his cellphone to ring on Saturday afternoon and ease his tension. An NFL general manager, perhaps Trent Baalke of the San Francisco 49ers, will call to congratulate him on being drafted and welcome him to his new team. Furstenburg has dreamed of this scenario for so long that he knows just how he'll feel — elated, excited and relieved.

"A team is going to use a pick on someone they really like," said Furstenburg, a tight end from the University of Maryland. "That's obviously important, so I would love to be drafted."

That fairy tale isn't guaranteed, though. Few things are during the NFL draft, which runs Thursday through Saturday. That's why Furstenburg invited only a few uncles and aunts to watch on TV at his parents' house in Flemington, N.J.

"You don't want to set yourself up in case you're not drafted," he said.

In contemplating that possibility, late-round prospects such as Furstenburg attack the paradox of the NFL's selection process.

Imagine entering the workforce without the freedom to select the company you work for or where it's based. Each year, more than 250 of the NFL's most promising entry-level employees have their employer and location chosen for them. It's a prestigious honor, though. Teams prove they covet players by investing a draft pick in them. The starting salary isn't too shabby, either.

By contrast, undrafted rookies' disappointment can be offset by a significant consolation prize. They have some say in which team they join. With the help of a sharp agent, they can navigate the frenzied post-draft signing period to find the best possible opportunity to eventually make a team's 53-man roster — and earn the accompanying six-figure contract.

"That process is now more important than ever," said former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden, who's an analyst for ESPN. "It is critical that you have a process in place that allows you to compete for players that weren't drafted because there are a lot of good players left on the board that have draftable grades."

The evidence is everywhere. London Fletcher, the Washington Redskins' defensive captain, a Super Bowl champion and a four-time Pro Bowler, was not drafted out of Division III John Carroll in 1998. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz, both Pro Bowlers, were undrafted.

Undrafted players on their original team accounted for 941 (8.4 percent) of the 11,264 player starts in the NFL last season, according to draftmetrics.com, a website that tracks NFL player acquisitions and roster composition. Redskins tight end Logan Paulsen and fullback Darrel Young, both undrafted, combined for 18 starts on the NFL's top-ranked offense in yards per play.

So while Furstenburg tries to stay calm Saturday afternoon as he wills his cellphone to ring, he can take solace in those examples and the contingency plan he and Drew Smith, his Tysons Corner-based agent, have established.

"We've talked about it for a little bit, who would fit best if I am undrafted," Furstenburg said. "Drew does a great job with picking the best team out. I think either way it's out of my control, so there's nothing I can really worry about."

Players, agents seek best fit

Henry Hynoski's left hamstring gave out about 30 yards into his 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine in 2011 in Indianapolis. The video, immortalized on NFL.com, is painful to watch, even from the comfort of an office chair.

The strained muscle forced a grimacing Hynoski to limp across the finish line. It also destroyed his draft hopes. One of the NFL's best fullback prospects went from a solid mid- to late-round pick to fretting about his future.

Part of recovering from that setback included preparing for the possibility of being undrafted.

"Thank goodness my family was there to comfort me and tell me: If it's still in me to follow my dreams, it's not over," Hynoski said. "I still have another chance."

Smith, who also is Hynoski's and Young's agent, compiled a list of five teams Hynoski best fit. That's a common practice among agents whose clients are not in the consensus top 64 picks. Preparation is essential because of how frenetic the negotiating period is after the draft concludes Saturday night.

Paulsen's agent, Steve Caric, presents each of his clients a report detailing how they would fit on all 32 teams. Each team requires more than a page of analysis. He ranks the top 10 to 15 fits for each of his players and asks them to do the same. They cross-check their lists and establish priorities. The list evolves during the draft as teams fill needs and depth charts change.

"It really all boils down to opportunities," Paulsen said.

Agents spend weeks leading up to the draft trying to unearth the best one. No factor is too insignificant.

Smith and Caric each monitor teams' tendencies in allotting preseason playing time to undrafted free agents and how many undrafted rookies make a team's final roster each September. They analyze depth charts and the length of contracts for players on the roster.

Agents are wary of teams with reputations for shoehorning draft picks into the roster at the expense of undrafted players who might perform better. Front office executives are judged by their ability to procure talent, and success of draft picks is an obvious measure to any fan.

"Jacksonville used to be a place that I wouldn't send anybody because historically they would have, like, one or two undrafted free agents and didn't always give the guys the best opportunities," Smith said. "But now with this new regime, you try to keep an eye on them."

Cincinnati scared some agents off by failing four undrafted rookies' physicals last May.

"That's the scarlet letter at that point," Smith said. "Nobody else is going to touch you. Knowing that, I'm not going to send a guy to the Bengals if I have other options."

Smith would be reluctant to direct a family-oriented player from the East Coast to the West. "The mentality is completely different," he said. "If you send him to a San Francisco where he doesn't know anybody, you know he's going to struggle."

Smith accounts for players' preference regarding weather. Undrafted rookies don't necessarily have the luxury of being selective, but it at least impacts their pre-draft rankings.

Agents always seek a pre-existing relationship between a client and a member of a coaching staff. The Redskins topped Paulsen's rankings in 2010 because of his connection to then-tight ends coach Jon Embree. Embree was UCLA's assistant head coach/tight ends during Paulsen's freshman year in 2005.

"If you can send someone where their position coach already knows them and already values what they do ... you've already got someone in the room who's going to fight for you," Caric said.

Hynoski didn't want to hear about all that before the 2011 draft.

"Every player always dreams about being drafted," he said. "I thought it was the ultimate."

He started to change his mind, though, when the seventh and final round began.

"At that point, I was just kind of hoping I wouldn't be drafted just because I'd be able to pick a better situation," he said. "You could get stuck on a team that already had a veteran fullback."

When the lockout ended in July, the New York Giants were among the first callers. Coach Tom Coughlin called and pitched an opportunity. Veteran fullback Madison Hedgecock was battling injuries and Bear Pascoe was a natural tight end. Hynoski could fill a need, and he could stay fairly close to his parents' Elysburg, Pa., home.

Almost a year after injuring his hamstring, he returned to Indianapolis to start the Super Bowl at fullback for the Giants. Before the game, he ran past the spot on the sideline where he pulled up lame during the combine. Hours later, he was a world champion.

"Total redemption," he said.

Quick decisions a must

The dance between teams, agents and undrafted players will begin Saturday afternoon about when the draft enters the sixth round. It's less a dance, though, than it is a mosh pit.

Scouts and executives text agents to gauge other teams' interest in a player and determine if their team must expend a draft pick to acquire him or if they can get away with signing him as an undrafted free agent.

Agents, armed with the knowledge of which teams their players interviewed with, visited and worked out for, try to sell interested teams on their clients. In accordance with which teams they perceive to be the best opportunities for their clients, they try to convince executives to draft a player before they lose him to another team.

Then, when the draft ends, the mad dash to sign undrafted players is on.

"It's almost like 'Let's Make a Deal,'" Gruden said.

"The process is extremely chaotic," Smith added.

Office phones ring off the hook. Cellphones beep with missed calls and voice mails.

"You've got coach on the phone with them," said Charley Casserly, former Redskins and Houston Texans general manager. "The scout who knows them, he's on the phone. Somebody else is doing the contract. It's a legitimate recruiting job. At the end of the day, they're like another draft pick."

The intensity and the pace can be problematic. Teams will give a player only 5 or 10 minutes to decide on their offer before moving down their list. "They literally want an answer yesterday," Caric said. That prevents player and team from getting complete information about the market.

"The undrafted free agent process after the draft, in my opinion, is the most unorganized and needs to be changed," Caric said. "I don't think they need to make wholesale changes to it. Just give us 24 hours. The draft ends, field calls and see who's interested and see who's there and see what they're offering. You can sign 24 hours later."

The NFL competition committee has not considered implementing such structure to the undrafted rookies' signing period, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. The lockout in 2011, however, produced a similar side effect.

Because no contracts could be signed during the lockout, undrafted players had about three months to evaluate depth charts. Even though negotiations between teams and players were prohibited during that time, 58 undrafted rookies made 53-man rosters that September, the most since 2003, according to The Associated Press.

Paulsen wasn't afforded the luxury of taking his time after the 2010 draft. When it ended, he was torn between the Redskins and the San Diego Chargers. The latter had an attractively thin tight end depth chart and was relatively close to his hometown of West Hills, Calif.

Caric estimated Paulsen was "30 to 60 seconds" from not choosing the Redskins before Embree called.

At one point in their conversation, Paulsen heard Embree turn away from the phone. Embree, Paulsen recalled, told someone else in the room if Paulsen didn't sign he would pursue another tight end, who Paulsen declined to name.

Hearing the Redskins consider another tight end stoked Paulsen's competitive fire. "I was like, 'Nah, [forget] that guy. I'm going to Washington," Paulsen said. He made the team over sixth-round pick Dennis Morris.

Furstenburg and Smith are mentally prepared to endure such pressure Saturday. Smith wouldn't say he expects Furstenburg to be drafted. Not wanting to jinx his client, he said, "The arrow is pointing in the right direction."

"I've heard if you're going to be drafted in the seventh round, sometimes it's better to be undrafted," Furstenburg said. "But either way it works out, it's going to be the best thing for me."

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