NFL's Wild, Wild West: The way undrafted free agents are signed is a chaotic, undignified mess
Everyone involved in the unstructured process thinks change is in order; here are a few ideas
I'm going to let you in on a dirty little secret. When it comes to signing undrafted free agents after the NFL Draft, there really are no rules. It is, as some agents explained, "the wild, wild West," devoid of any real regulation by the league office or elsewhere.
It is an all-out free-for-all, with both teams and agents angling to complete these deals not only during the draft – technically they aren't allowed to sign such players until after the draft – but, in many cases, actually agreeing to verbal terms before the draft even begins. Signing bonuses can range from $500 to $135,000 (essentially guaranteeing what a season of pay on the practice squad would be) in a manic craze as teams try to secure what they believe is the best undrafted talent. Meanwhile, players and agents try to find the best fit, somehow, despite at times having to juggle multiple calls from 10-20 teams – each with a dozen or so people making calls on players – all at the same time, and all demanding answers as soon as possible.
It's a topic I have visited on occasion in the past, but not recently, and with the NFL and NFL Players Association currently engaged in negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement, and given all of the technology at our disposal, it strikes me as odd that in 2019 entry-level players end up on teams in what is often a somewhat random, undignified and haphazard manner.
Sorry, but I think we can do better.
The current process – with teams illegally recruiting players well before the intended time and 21-year olds being sold a bag of goods for days and then forced to make potentially life-changing decisions on the fly while being pressured by scouts or coaches or even at times head coaches or general managers – stinks. In my roughly 15 years of covering this game I have yet to run into an agent or team official who believes the business of how UDFA players are signed serves the best interests of team or player, and I am hopeful that the topic is given some consideration by the league and the union in the next CBA.
I have some potential ideas for how to perhaps fix things in the future, but allow me to share some of the inefficiencies and irregularities in the current process. Again, keep in mind that any negotiating between teams and players who have not been drafted is supposed to start after the draft and the general idea should be to get the kids who fit best to the teams where they should have the best opportunity to make the team and eventually contribute and advance their career as well.
One agent told me he had an undrafted player receive a call from a team executive before the draft even began, with a familiar pitch. "They told him 'You are one of the top linebackers on our board. We are really excited about you. You may get drafted before we can take you, but you are our guy.' Of course, we got the kid ready because we knew he was probably not getting drafted, but this is how the teams recruit them."
This team continued to reach out to the player Friday several times and then again Saturday, throughout the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh rounds. After the draft, the agents called this team back, with several teams in the mix for the player, and asked what they were willing to pay in a signing bonus. They responded they weren't willing to commit to any signing bonus yet.
"But for the past three days they have been blowing this kid's phone up," the agent said. "Just stop. They were being disingenuous the entire time. They were lying to the kid; they were never going to draft him, and they ended up taking a different [player at the same position] at the end of the draft. At the end we chose another team to sign with because they handled things the right way."
Another agent explained it this way: "The teams have their pecking order after the draft at each position and they call you 10 times in a row. And the first time it's, 'You've got 10 minutes or we're moving on.' And then it's five minutes and then two minutes and you are out. They try to scare you and it's a game of musical chairs.
"When they put a big name on the phone, it's a bad situation because your client is going to influenced by that. If Bill Belichick calls, he's probably getting the player, right? It's not a good system. It's the wild, wild West. It's high pressure and it's a whirlwind for the kid without the ability to really analyze and judge the merits of where you are going because of how little time you have and because there is a lot of fear involved for the player. And the bonus, it could be anywhere from $135,000 to $500? There should be a true ceiling and a basement so you can't buy a kid. It's not really regulated at all."
Yet another agent pointed out he had five NFL head coaches ask about one quarterback he represented, and, as you might expect, things got heated with some of them when he had to break the news his client signed elsewhere.
"Four of them are going to be upset but each of these teams had multiple times to draft him and they all say how important he is," the agent said, "but there are kickers and punters and long snappers being drafted ahead of him. Tensions run so high and a lot of friendships get strained or severed because of it. When you have a coveted free agent it can get ugly.
"I've had a GM call a kid in the second round saying 'Be ready, we might take you here,' and then of course the kid doesn't get drafted and then they call after the draft wanting to sign him. How is that in the best interest of anyone? You get the kid all worked up and excited and he's thinking now he's going on Day 2? Just to think you get an advantage to sign him on Saturday? I'd never send a kid there.
"This is a terrible process. The players aren't being served and the teams aren't being served and the agents aren't being served."
Here's how it looks from the team side, from a front office executive who is involved in trying to sign undrafted free agents. If you don't "cheat" and start negotiating deals before the draft, you likely lose out on the best players, yet there is never a chance for any real market to form.
"It's a total s---tshow," one team exec said. There are 10 or so people from each team calling agents who have mostly smaller operations with few employees, meaning only one cell to call and it's impossible to stay up-to-date on overtures and actual offers, while still stay in constant contact with their clients as well.
"The big problem is you call guys right after the draft and they already had a deal done two days ago," the team exec said. "They are getting committed to a couple of days before the draft is even over with the intention that if he doesn't get drafted then it's already done. The agents are tired of going through the entire crazy process after the draft.
"And then there are the favors. That is usually key. 'You have to bring this kid in for your rookie camp if I let you sign this other kid.' The underlying issue is the agents don't want the headache of trying to deal with 20 teams at once within five minutes after the draft. There should be a better way to do this. Without a doubt. Wouldn't it be cool if we had a [undrafted free agent] pool with different tiers and signing bonuses or something like that?"
Everyone involved in the process believes change is in order. This is not a smart way to be assigning potentially impactful talent, and it's almost impossible to put each player's best interest first when teams want to get their rookie camp rosters set as quickly as possible for fear of losing out on insurance at key position groups.
One agent has talked to several general managers and scouts about the merits of an "online eighth round" situation, where the draft continues in an electronic fashion after Round 7 with teams getting one minute to pick and the signing bonuses slotted from $35,000-$5,000 based on the order players are selected. It has received universally favorable approval thus far and, he thinks, could even be monetized with strategic advertising on the NFL website, with fans able to watch online like when doing an internet fantasy draft.
I believe the league could also use an encrypted app from the NFL Management Council, where right after the draft it becomes activated with the draft-eligible players remaining and teams could swipe to "like" a set number of players with a designated signing bonus attached, and the players/agent could swipe back after a certain window of time. Something where the information is digestible and immediate and there aren't a slew of missed calls and head coaches and GMs browbeating or intimidating college kids and agents.
Regardless, a little more structure would go a long way. There is enough ugliness already attached to the run up to the draft with the anonymous character assaults of 20-something kids and the sometimes demeaning questions they get asked by coaches and execs and all the smokescreens and madness. Cleaning up the immediate post-draft process deserves more attention as well, and it seems to me it wouldn't be all that difficult to put a more productive apparatus in place.
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