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On the NFL: The market for undrafted free agents is booming


John Randle LOLed to a text asking how much guaranteed money he got in his first NFL contract.

Minutes later, the legendary Vikings defensive tackle was on the phone laughing about life as an undersized undrafted free agent in 1990.

“I got five grand in signing bonuses,” he said. “Three thousand dollars after tax.”

It was a somewhat more team-friendly deal than what has developed in the undrafted free agent market in recent years, particularly this spring when teams jostled after the draft with offers of guaranteed money the size of which has never been seen before.

“Yeah, that’s different,” said former Vikings general manager Jeff Diamond, who first signed Randle. “I’ve told the story a few times, joking, ‘Hey, I signed a Hall of Famer for five grand.’ “

This year, the Vikings and Eagles were two of the most aggressive teams in the undrafted free agent market. The Eagles paid out $1.75 million in guaranteed money to 12 UDFAs two years after committing just $764,000 to 13 of them. The Vikings, meanwhile, took two big financial swings on outside linebackers rushing for their new 3-4 defense.

Zach McCloud, a 6-2, 235 pounds from the University of Miami (Florida), earned $250,000 guaranteed, a team record for an undrafted free agent and second most in the league this year behind the $320,000 the Eagles gave to Nevada quarterback Carson Strong. Meanwhile, Luiji Vilain, a 6-4 and 252 pounds from Wake Forest, has a guaranteed $227,000 from the Vikings, seventh-highest in this year’s UDFA class.

According to Over the Cap, the guaranteed totals for McCloud and Vilain were higher than what the Vikings gave their last three draft picks — sixth-rounders Vederian Lowe ($197,872) and Jalen Nailor ($180,660) and the seventh-rounder Nick Muse ($106,932). ).

“It’s always a wild ride,” Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell said of signing free agents after the draft. “I give our [front office] much credit for putting a lot of guys under contract like we did because they compete. With the rules as they are, some of them [undrafted] guys get calls from 10, 12, 15 teams in 10 or 15 minutes.”

Post-draft shopping spree

McCloud agent Brett Tessler has been doing it for 25 years and has represented some notable UDFAs, like running back Raheem Mostert in 2015. He said this year’s post-draft shopping spree was the most competitive he’s ever had. he has ever seen.

“In Zach’s case, based on the number of calls I received the week before the draft, I let the teams know that they were going to have to come up with their best offer as soon as the draft was over,” said said Tessler. “And the number just kept growing.”

McCloud said more than 10 teams contacted him even before the draft began to gauge his interest in signing as an undrafted free agent. His last four teams have consisted of the Super Bowl champion Rams, hometown Dolphins, AFC contender Bills and Vikings. Of those four, the Vikings were the only team to bring in McCloud for a pre-draft visit.

“You look at the defense, the roster, the depth charts, figure out the right situation for your guy and the level of interest from a team,” Tessler said. “Then part of the discount depends on who puts their money where their mouth is. A team can tell you how much they love you, but if they offer $20,000 guaranteed and another team offers you multiple times that, you tell them, ‘Thank you, but no thank you.’

“It all really happened probably a few minutes after the draft.”

Teams are limited in how much they can offer as a signing bonus, but can get around that with guaranteed money in the standard three-year contract. When the Vikings offered the most guaranteed money, it became a no-brainer for McCloud.

“Honestly, I would have come here even if they hadn’t made the highest bid,” he said. “The Vikings showed me around the top 30 and everything about this place felt perfect from the minute I walked into the building.”

McCloud is a particularly interesting pro prospect. He is already 24 years old after spending six seasons in Miami. He played 59 games, a Hurricanes record, but only the last 11 as a passing thrower. He had a modest 5½ sacks in 2021, but the Vikings and McCloud are excited about the potential for growth under outside linebackers coach Mike Smith.

“Al Golden signed me to Miami as a 3-4 outside linebacker when I was 6-2 and 205 pounds,” McCloud said. “He left before I got there and they went to a 4-3, and now they needed 6-5, 260 guys.”

So McCloud became a cover linebacker. He redshirted his senior season in 2019 and thought his college career was over a year away until the NCAA gave everyone an extra year due to the pandemic. He came back but moved on to defensive end eventually becoming the rusher he thought he was six years earlier.

Many NFL teams noticed his potential. One of them bet a quarter of a million dollars on it.

Finding the next Adam Thielen

Asked to name his favorite undrafted player of all time, McCloud named new teammate Adam Thielen. (Thielen, by the way, notes that his first NFL contract came with no guaranteed money, no signing bonuses, nothing until he made the team.)

“People are always talking about the draft,” Randle said. “But I love when the draft is over because I always get such a treat from seeing the rookie free agent guys.

“Guys like Adam Thielen that I’m so proud of because they change the perspective on undrafted rookies. I tried out for Tampa Bay right after the draft, and they didn’t sign me. I went to Minnesota and people said I’d be a week or two ago and I’d be done If today’s guys get some extra looks or money because they could be the next Adam Thielen or the next John Randle is great.

Randle works as a director for the NFL Legends community, which advises former, current and potential players.

“I’ll talk to college guys at the combine and they’ll ask me how the combine has changed since I’ve been there,” Randle said. “I tell them, ‘I don’t know. I wasn’t invited.’ I wasn’t tall enough or big enough or whatever. But they can’t measure the heart, and they can’t measure the desire to play this game.

“That’s why I say it every year. There’s going to be a guy who wasn’t drafted who will have a look, an opportunity. And he’s going to rise to the top.”