They waited three months for the call. Now there's no time to waste.
On Tuesday, hundreds of former college football standouts who were passed over in the 2011 NFL Draft finally found out where they would begin their professional careers. Most of them will be suited up and in their respective training camps within days, working hard to make a favorable first impression.
The flurry of phone calls that usually takes place immediately after the last pick in the draft had to wait until the end of the labor negotiations, and so did the pool of undrafted players. Every season, this group produces a handful of significant NFL players; Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back LeGarrette Blount is an example from just last year.
The Buccaneers, in particular, have had good fortune with undrafted players, and thus there is reason to believe that one or more of the rookies they were in the process of signing on Tuesday will eventually make an impact in the league. If so, they will follow in the footsteps of the likes of Blount, Earnest Graham, Derek Hardman, James Lee, Elbert Mack, Donald Penn and Micheal Spurlock.
And that's just from last year's Tampa Bay roster. Other notable players in recent team history who originally went undrafted include Shelton Quarles (2002 Pro Bowler, key member of Super Bowl defense), Karl Williams (all-time punt return leader), Clifton Smith (2008 Pro Bowler), Ryan Nece (two-year starter at SLB, outstanding special teamer), Chartric Darby (started at DT for Super Bowl team), Michael Husted (second-leading scorer in team history) and Anthony Davis (started at left tackle in 2005 and 2006).
The Buccaneers won't finalize or release their entire list of undrafted free agent signings until Wednesday, but General Manager Mark Dominik estimated that the group will probably number between 15 and 20 players. During a late-afternoon press conference on Tuesday, Dominik did reveal the team's first two college free agent signees: Syracuse linebacker Derrell Smith and Arkansas-Pine Bluff wide receiver Raymond Webber.
"Shelton Quarles and Dennis Hickey are working a lot in terms of getting college free agency set up," said Dominik. "We've got a lot of our college scouts in town calling players, just trying to make sure we get the right guys signed and under contract here."
Smith and Webber were accomplished college players in whom the Buccaneers had interest when the draft was coming to a close in late April (the team used its two seventh-round picks on Florida International cornerback Anthony Gaitor and Idaho tight end Daniel Hardy). Smith racked up 270 tackles in four seasons at Syracuse and is seen as a possible fit at middle linebacker. Webber led the nation in both receptions (101) and receiving yards (1,429) last fall.
In addition to his 270 career stops, the 6-2, 232-pound Smith racked up 24.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks, two interceptions and eight forced fumbles during his four years with the Orange. He was a second-team all-conference selection in each of his last two seasons and ranked 19th in the nation in 2010 with an average of 8.58 tackles per game.
Webber finished his collegiate career in impressive fashion, joining the great Jerry Rice as the only players in SWAC history to catch at least 100 passes in a single season. Not surprisingly, the 6-3, 220-pound pass-catcher was a consensus FCS All-America choice in 2010 and he was named the FCS Receiver of the Year by the Bilo College Football Report.
Will Smith or Webber be the next undrafted player to forge a prominent career with the Buccaneers? They'll soon have some competition as the team continues to sign available rookies, but they will certainly get a very real opportunity. During his press conference on Tuesday, Dominik stressed that he prefers to build his team's depth through the draft and undrafted free agency, as opposed to veteran free agency.
And, after a long wait, Smith and Webber will get their chances soon. The Buccaneers' first training camp practice is on Friday.