The Baltimore Ravens have been among the most successful teams in the league in terms of finding players among rookie college free agents who ultimately end up making their final 53-man roster. Like every other team, those players don’t always ultimately end up working out, but they have found plenty of contributors in the past, most recently Patrick Mekari, who started several games at center last year, and could start the season there if Matt Skura is not ready to go.
This year, however, for the first time in 16 years, the team failed to sign a college free agent who made the initial 53-man roster. That is probably not entirely coincidental. This year may have been the hardest on record for college free agents to actually make the team.
Not only did they not have rookie minicamp, which is often a key venue for those who go both undrafted and unsigned to try out for teams and earn contracts, they didn’t have any Spring workouts. Then they had no preseason games, which is the best way for any fringe player to grab some much-needed attention. Then teams were forced to trim their rosters to 80, which took a cleaver to a lot of the players around the league who signed after the draft.
It is somewhat ironic, then, that the Pittsburgh Steelers actually managed to keep one of their own undrafted free agent rookies in 6’2” cornerback James Pierre. And the Ravens signed something like 20 rookie college free agents in total this year. The Steelers ended up with 10, and by the time the final cuts were due, only four lasted, the others being Trajan Bandy, Corliss Waitman, and Calvin Taylor. All three are prime practice squad candidates.
The Ravens, of course, retained a number of their undrafted free agents on the practice squad as well. In fact, it was a point that head coach John Harbaugh harped on last week as he tried to emphasize the importance of the practice squad this year.
“You might need to bring up 10 players or something like that; that’s something that you talk to those guys about”, he said of his conversations with such players when they were waived. “So, we talk to them about being ready if you make it to the practice squad – being ready to actually – not just work on developing their game and improving and earning a spot on the roster, but actually being prepared to play the game that week. That’s definitely something that they’re going to have to think about”.
One very important thing in having an active streak of undrafted players successfully making your team, especially if they go on to have success, is the fact that it’s one of the best tools you can have to make the pitch to future undrafted free agents to agree to sign with you. If you’re an organization that has provided great opportunities for players in their position, they are more likely to give you a chance.