View Full Version : Best things in life are free (agents)

04-21-2008, 04:31 AM
Best things in life are free (agents)
Striking it rich with non-drafted players has become a specialty for the Steelers
Monday, April 21, 2008
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Willie Parker and James Harrison earned the Steelers' highest honor the past two seasons. Parker was team MVP in 2006, Harrison in 2007.

Each made the Pro Bowl this past season as well, Parker for the second time.

Neither was drafted.

Had scouts known what Parker and Harrison would accomplish as pros, they would have drafted them in the first or second rounds, earning them gobs of signing-bonus money. Instead, they received pittances to sign with the Steelers as free-agent rookies, although they since have signed much larger contracts.

How can all the scouts in the NFL -- the Steelers employ 10 full-time scouts and personnel directors themselves -- spend so much money, so much time and, more than 250 draft picks later, still miss standouts such as Parker and Harrison?

As Chuck Noll would say, the draft is not an exact science, that's why. It happens every year, undrafted players sign free-agent contracts and not only make teams, but many of them become starters and some become all-stars, like Parker and Harrison.

Even when the draft lasted 17 rounds, teams missed good and sometimes great players. Donnie Shell, a Hall of Fame-nominated strong safety, was a free agent for the Steelers in 1974, the same year they signed another undrafted rookie, tight end Randy Grossman, who started in a couple of Super Bowls.

But with the draft reduced to seven rounds, starting in 1994, finding good rookie free agents became more important. And it's more significant for the Steelers this year because they have just six draft choices and need to find players for depth and special teams, if nothing else.

"Hopefully, there will be people available, and we'll have a chance to get them," said Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations. "They're important pieces because again there will be a Willie Parker or James Harrison who turns into a pretty good player. If they do, there's a stroke of luck involved, too, because if we knew they were that good we should have picked them."

The stories of why Parker (little used in college) and Harrison (undersized) went undrafted are well known. The Steelers found other key starters among undrafted rookies as well, starters such as former fullback Dan Kreider.

Two made their roster last season -- running back Gary Russell and offensive lineman Darnell Stapleton. Starting fullback Carey Davis went undrafted in 2006, No. 3 receiver Nate Washington in 2005, linebacker Arnold Harrison in 2005, cornerback Anthony Madison in 2006 and kicker Jeff Reed in 2002.

Luck may play a part in finding such players, but scouts use the same process rating them before the draft as they do anyone else. Some college prospects that streamed into Steelers headquarters for closer looks the past several weeks will be drafted the first day, others won't be drafted at all and could be the next James Harrison.

The rush to sign those players Sunday night after the draft concludes resembles a game of musical chairs when the music, or in this case the end of the seventh round, ends. Almost all of it takes place on the telephone, and there's not much time for negotiation.

"It's a quick competition," Colbert said, "because if you're going back and forth, usually it's better to move on to the next guy and get the commitment. We'd rather move on to the next guy and get the commitment than hold on and go back and forth, because, usually, when that happens you're not going to get the player."

The process starts before the end of the draft.

"Beginning around the seventh round, you have a list of guys on the board you're thinking of drafting in the last round, depending on who is there," said Tom Donahoe, who has drafted players for the Steelers and the Buffalo Bills. "If not, you start making phone calls in the seventh round to let them know you're interested in signing them.

"As soon as the draft is over, it almost becomes a first-come, first-served kind of thing because you only have so many spots on your roster -- three receivers, two running backs, a couple of linebackers, whatever the case might be. You might be calling five or six guys at one position and you only need two. You stress to the kids, 'Look, we only have openings for two and, once we fill the spots, we have to move onto another position.'"

Scouts, coaches and, sometimes others, get involved.

Art Rooney Jr., the Steelers' personnel head from 1964 to 1986, oversaw the greatest draft of any team in 1974 when the team drafted four Hall of Famers -- Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, John Stallworth and Mike Webster. But it did not end with the 17th round, even then. That's when his right-hand man, Bill Nunn -- still a part-time aid in the Steelers' personnel department -- signed Shell as a free agent. But it was former trainer Ralph Berlin who tipped the scouts off about Grossman.

Back then, Berlin and Nunn would travel with a stack of contracts to sign free agents right after the draft. Berlin was at a meeting in Philadelphia when he overheard some people with the Philadelphia Eagles say after the draft that they would go sign the undrafted Grossman the following day.

"Ralph called me and said 'You have Grossman on this list and the Eagles want him.' I said, 'Go sign him,'" Rooney recalled.

That's precisely what Berlin did that night.

"Ralph scooped the Eagles," Rooney said. "Ralph takes great pride in that. We were kind of on the ball."

On the basis of Parker and Harrison alone, the Steelers remain on the ball when it comes to rookie free agents. With NFL Europe gone and rosters locked at 80 for training camps this summer, it's even more crucial to find the right ones this year.

And, unlike the old days, there's very little financial bidding involved. Prices can range from a $25,000 signing bonus for a quarterback in demand down to $3,000 or, on rare occasions, lower. The salary cap -- including a maximum amount for rookies -- has changed how much teams can pay free agents.

"If you sign 10 rookie free agents and the total signing bonus money is $75,000, that $75,000 comes out of your rookie salary pool," Donahoe said. "It's less money you have to pay your draft choices."

The Steelers have six draft picks to worry about this weekend. But a case can be made, and has been for years by them, that some of the best rookie acquisitions will take place after the draft.


04-21-2008, 07:24 AM
Sorry, hon - already posted a little earlier.