Without Preseason, The NFL’s UDFAs Are About To Go MIA

The Pittsburgh Steelers know the diamond in the rough as well as anyone. They make up pillars of franchise history. Jack Butler in 1951. Donnie Shell in 1974. James Harrison in 2002. Each undrafted, each etching a career in Steelers’ lore.

Today’s roster looks similar. Mike Hilton went from unknown to camp sleeper to starting nickel corner and by this time next year, hopefully a well-paid nickel corner. Alejandro Villanueva transformed himself from a defensive linemen with the Eagles to starting left tackle of the Steelers. And oh yeah, recently retired Ramon Foster is one of the best examples of a guy beating the odds.

All these guys began their journey with preseason action. A step vital to jump-starting their career. And now the NFL and NFLPA has taken that away. Player rep leader JC Tretter made the announcement in a conference call yesterday, declaring for the first time in NFL history, no preseason games would be played.

And I get player safety. I understand – to an extent – why players didn’t want these exhibition games. For many, it’s meaningless. TJ Watt doesn’t need it. Neither does David DeCastro. For them, it’s all-risk, no-reward, especially in a pandemic.

But there’s a compelling player-first case to be made to include at least one preseason game. As Matthew Marczi wrote about today, over 300 players are about to lose their jobs very, very soon, rosters cut from 90 to 80. Those who survive simply won’t have a chance to prove themselves.

The union knows this. They freely admitted it. Here’s what Senior Director Don Davis told players Tuesday night.

Golf applause for being honest, I guess. But there’s something cruel about admitting such a callous statement and while we’re at it guys, UDFAs won’t be eligible for stipends if the league shuts down.

Talk about screwing this large section of players at every single turn. And this is the union. This is a level of flippancy I’d expect from the league, not the group supposedly advocating for their players. Who’s fighting for those guys? No one, clearly.

Make no mistake, this isn’t just going to harm the dozen or so undrafted players. It’s going to hurt the entire back-half of the roster. Late round draft picks whose climb remains difficult. Futures contracts signed after the season or throughout the offseason, the former XFL’ers coming over only to have the door closed on them again.

Veterans have all the advantages. Even if talent level’s the same, they’re the familiar faces, with experience, with tape, with the clear leg up heading into the season. When push comes to shove, teams are going to keep the Ryan Switzer’s of the world over the rookie or first year player holding a one-page resume.

None of this is player first. It’s shunning the most vulnerable players.

No preseason is damaging to the union’s “ramp up” argument too. The union has been the side against preseason games, claiming playing any wouldn’t allow players enough time to prepare after missing the offseason. Two thoughts work against that. The league got by fine after the 2011 lockout, when they played four preseason games. Finding a gym was easier then, sure, but most players are training today and this time around, they could communicate with coaches to learn the playbook, get plans from their strength & conditioning coach, luxuries that didn’t exist in ’11. Even Cam Heyward admitted rookies are in a better place now than back then.

Second, you want to talk about ramp up? How about telling Chase Claypool, or Cleveland’s supposed starting LT Jedrick Wills, to go from practice to Week 1 of the regular season with no scrimmage in-between. That’s 0-60. That’s going to be a problem for the young guys who do make the team.

No other sport is accepting that model. The NHL and MLB are scrimmaging now to tune up for the season – the Pirates are playing three games against Cleveland, the Penguins taking on the Flyers before their play-in round begins. The NFL has the ability to do the same for at least one preseason game to give rookies and new guys a feel for the league, the system, their scheme.

I’m pro-player. Always have been, always will be. 100% in favor of testing, of the ability to opt-out, and the union better not cave on the economical side of things. Owners will whine and complain, Roger Goodell will issue a statement about his “concern” for the league’s finances, but those guys have always been fine and will always be fine. As Dave Bryan’s discussed, a cap cliff threatens football’s middle class. The Vince Williams or Vance McDonald’s of the world, obvious cap casualties if it decreased by $50-70 million next year.

With the league cutting out preseason, eliminating 10% of their summer roster, they’ll have destroyed the bottom class too.

It’s football without a middle or bottom class, leaving only the stars and whatever scraps are left over. This is not only what the NFLPA got, it’s what they fought for.

Shame on them.

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