LB Ryan Nece wasn't drafted in 2002, but he became a starter by his second season in the NFL
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' personnel men walk into their 'War Room' on Saturday morning, the draft boards awaiting them will have approximately 320 names on them, plus a few hundred more expected to be in the free agent pool. Each name is printed on a magnetic strip, along with such vitals as height, weight, school, position, medical grade and overall grade.
When those same decision-makers head home Sunday evening, they will have taken part in an NFL Draft that distributed exactly 255 players. Even given team-to-team differences of opinion on, say, 100 players, that still leaves about 200 forlorn names on those original boards. Does that indicate scouting overkill on the Bucs' part, hours and hours of time put into the evaluation of men who may never got a sniff on draft weekend?
Far from it.
As soon as Paul Salata calls the name of Mr. Irrelevant – pick number 255, by the Oakland Raiders – the coaches and scouts in Tampa Bay's war room will begin shifting the remaining name cards around as if they were toy soldiers on a miniature battlefield. The seventh round of the draft will probably wrap up between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. on Sunday; the eighth round, if you will, may last well into the evening.
And it may be just as important as the rest of the weekend.
Each year, NFL teams follow the draft with a round of signings, vying with each other to grab the most coveted undrafted players. It is in the three or four hours after the final pick that most teams fill out their training camp rosters, sometimes signing 10, 15, even 20 rookies whose names were not called over the weekend. A good percentage of these players never gain a permanent foothold on the NFL, but enough due to make it a critical part of the process.
Ryan Nece is the perfect example. Undrafted in 2002, Nece sifted through several offers – undrafted free agents have the advantage of getting to choose their first NFL destination – and accepted the one sent by the Buccaneers. The size of the signing bonus promised often can be the deciding factor for a player, but the size of the opportunity is also significant. Nece believed he had a real chance to make the team in Tampa, and he was right.
Unlike four of the eight players drafted by Tampa Bay that year, Nece made the active roster as a rookie in 2002. He was having a very good year on special teams before suffering a season-ending knee injury halfway through. In 2003, having recovered surprisingly well from his injury, Nece won the starting strongside linebacker job, beating out former first-round pick Dwayne Rudd in the process. The Bucs' third and fourth-round picks from that draft – Marquise Walker and Travis Stephens – are no longer with the team; Nece heads into his third season as a starter.
"It happens every year where guys get drafted in the seventh round, guys are free agents," said Bucs Director of College Scouting Ruston Webster. "Ryan Nece is starting for us at Sam 'backer and he was a free agent. He was at UCLA and he flew under the radar screen. So it happens every year. As long as your scouts do a good job researching what kind of competitor the guy is and how much he loves football, then we'll find some guys."
Last year, the Bucs didn't keep fourth-round pick Lance Nimmo, a tackle from West Virginia, but did find a roster spot for undrafted tight end Will Heller of Georgia Tech. At various times during the season, undrafted free agents Anthony Davis and Ronyell Whitaker also made the active roster, and several others held down practice squad spots.
In 2001, undrafted guard Shane Grice and long-snapper Sean McDermott were on the roster all year while seventh-rounders tight end Dauntae` Finger and defensive end Joe Tafoya were not. Of course, another dozen or so undrafted free agents did not make the team; it's an inexact science, and that's the point. By late on the second day of the draft, teams are generally choosing among players who are considered strong in one area or another but perhaps not so strong in others. It's difficult to predict with much accuracy which ones will prove to be helpful on the NFL level.
Difficult, but not impossible.
"That's when the scouts really come into play because they know those guys better than anybody," said Webster. Pushing for an undrafted free agent and seeing him eventually make a contribution to a team is a very satisfying experience for any scout.
"Our guys go all over the country," said Webster. "Coaches will have friends who send them a tape and we'll look at them. Maybe we didn't even go to the school, but we like him. There are sleepers out there."
This year's draft is widely considered one of the deepest in years. Webster estimated that some players who might have been considered second-round talents in most years may be pushed all the way into the third or fourth rounds. By extension, that pushes usual middle-round players into the late-going and a lot of late-round guys into the free agent pool. It stands to reason that the crop of undrafted players is going to be even more fruitful than usual this year.
Thanks to their free-agent shopping spree in March, the Bucs will finish the draft with fewer open roster spots than usual, so they may be looking for only a handful of players in the 'eighth round.' In a way, that adds even more pressure to the post-draft proceedings; if there are fewer spots available, it is more important to devote them to the right prospects.
"(The deep draft) makes it harder because you have a lot of decisions to make," said Webster. "Luckily, I've got some good guys working with me, and Coach Gruden and Bruce have been great. Hopefully, we'll be able to make the right decisions."