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Good long article on UDFA's

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The longer the NFL draft went without his phone ringing, the more Auburn defensive end Antonio Coleman found himself beginning to hope his name wouldn't be called at all.

"It's crazy that a guy that led the SEC in sacks doesn't get drafted,'' said

Coleman, whose 10 sacks in 13 games ranked 24th in the nation last season.

"But after about the third round, I began to think it was going to be to my advantage to be able to choose my team. Yes, I was disappointed (in not being drafted). But going into the process, all I asked for was an opportunity. This way, I got to choose my opportunity.''

Coleman will join hundreds of other college players who went undrafted in last week's NFL draft in trying to make the NFL the hard way: as a free agent.

For Coleman, who signed with the Buffalo Bills immediately after the draft ended, that journey begins this weekend as teams hold rookie mini-camps, where they bring the players they drafted as well as free agents signed after the draft to begin the process of seeing who might be good enough to compete for a spot on each teams' final roster this fall.

"We look at (free agents) in two groups,'' said Blake Beddingfield, the Tennessee Titans' director of college scouting. "We have high priority free agents, players that we rated high enough to be drafted that fell through the cracks, and treat them like sixth or seventh round draft choices. We give them signing bonuses and actually recruit them.

"Then a lot of free agents are just camp fillers. We have an 80 man roster and we try to fill needs at certain positions to go to camp with. But you never know what might pop up with guys like that. We've had guys come in in the past as camp-fillers who wind up making the team and having good NFL careers.''

While rookies begin trying to make NFL teams this weekend, there are no paychecks until training camp starts in July - if they last that long. Until then, they are provided with transportation to and from camps, lodging, and meals for as long as the team wants them around.

There are signing bonuses for high-priority free agents that run anywhere from $1,000 to $30,000.

"At Baltimore, $20,000 was our total budget for all free agents,'' said Phil Savage, former General Manager and Vice-President of the Cleveland Browns who worked as a consultant helping the Philadelphia Eagles prepare for this year's draft.

"You might see a guy get $20,000, maybe $25,000. Rarely do you hear of a guy getting more than $30,000."

Browns' wide receiver Joshua Cribbs, recently named to the NFL's All-Decade team, was an undrafted free agent who received a $2,500 signing bonus, Savage said.

Quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Tony Romo, running backs Priest Holmes and Willie Parker, and Colts' offensive lineman Jeff Saturday were all undrafted free agents.

"Over the years of tracking it, about a third of the guys you bring in (as free agents) end up either being on your team, making the practice squad, or finding another team in some way, shape or form,'' Savage said. "Which means about two-thirds of the guys will go to a camp and never be heard from again.''

Former Spain Park and Clemson wide receiver Tyler Grisham signed as a free agent last year with the Pittsburgh Steelers for $1,500 ("That was my nickname in training camp: Fifteen-hundred,'' Grisham said), made the practice squad and then was called up to the active roster for the last four games of the regular season.

"Being a guy they didn't spend any money on, you know you're behind guys they spent money on,'' said Grisham, who will return to the Steelers this year. "They want to get as much as they can out of those guys, so they are the ones who get the most reps (repetitions in practice). I was third or fourth string (in rookie camp), which means you may not catch a ball at practice all day. That's how it is.

"You almost feel second class, like a nobody. But I think that's what they want. They want to see if an undrafted guy is willing to work and earn a spot. They need guys like that. They have the high-paid guys, so they need hard workers and special teams guys. You have to be on the edge of your seat, going all-out on every play of every practice.''

Former UAB defensive end Kyle Bissinger made the New England Patriots' practice squad for the 2007-08 seasons as a free agent.

"Looking back, I wish I'd signed with a team that had fewer hall of famers,'' said Bissinger, who operates Elite 1 Performance training center in Atlanta. "At New England, it was like every player was phenomenal. Being there was the best ever - we were undefeated, made it to the Super Bowl.

"The main thing (as a free agent) is the stress. Every day. The guys they put money into didn't have to worry too much. But every day, I woke up not knowing if it was going to be my last day or not. You walk into the building and there's a guy standing there and you pray you make it past him (because) he's the guy that stops you and says you have to go upstairs to see the coach (if you're going to be released).''

Bissinger said the Patriots brought in 17 rookies his first year, and by the time they got to the Super Bowl "there were four or five of us left.''

The good news is that since the NFL Draft has been reduced to seven rounds, free agents become more important.

"In the salary cap era, you almost hope (free agents) push a more expensive player off the roster if they are equal in ability because they are cheaper,'' Beddingfield said. "So they do get longer looks. It's inexpensive to keep them on the team.

"But it's also easier to get rid of them. The money is nothing. If you cut them before the season, you owe them nothing.''

Former Spain Park and Middle Tennessee wide receiver Patrick Honeycutt had no choice but to sign as a free agent this spring with the Denver Broncos. He wasn't drafted, and the Broncos were the only team that offered, so he welcomed his $1,000 signing bonus .

"That's been the story of my whole career: always the undersized white receiver,'' Honeycutt, laughing. "So I've got to prove myself, and this is just another opportunity.

"From what I heard, there are about 40 guys coming to camp. I hope they understand nobody knows the plays right now. But I think if they see you go hard all the time, and you're a good athlete, they'll bring you back for other mini-camps.''

Which is how Coleman is approaching it, too.

"Buffalo is moving to a 3-4 defense, so I'll be an outside linebacker, rush-end type hybrid,'' he said. "The coaches all seemed pumped about signing me. They say they may have found a diamond in the rough. My mindset is to prove I'm one of the hardest working guys up there, show them I'm a great player, and that they've found a guy who can make their team better.

"It's nothing new to me. I've been an underdog my whole life. I wouldn't want it any other way."

Or, as Honeycutt said, "They told me they have a real need for me up there, but they may say that to everyone. All I know is, someone is going to make the team. It might as well be me.''


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