Unknowns Face Tough Road

Unknowns Face Tough Road

Len Pasquarelli examines the challenges faced by undrafted pre-season stars, like the Giants' Victor Cruz (pictured).

Eight undrafted rookies led their teams in some major statistical category -- carries, rushing yards, receptions, tackles, scoring, whatever -- for the 2009 preseason. And how many of those players made meaningful impacts for their clubs once the regular season started?

Uh, zero.

The moral of the story? It's easy to get excited this time of year by a rookie who somehow fell between the draft cracks, and has risen to scintillating heights in the first couple weeks of practice games, but this cautionary alert: Don't get too excited by what these relative unknowns have accomplished to this point.

"It's a different game completely (in the regular season)," noted Pittsburgh tailback Isaac Redman, who in 2009 led the Steelers in carries (37), rushing yards (145), rushing touchdowns (three) and overall touchdowns (three), in preseason. "You find that out as the preseason goes on and people start gearing up."

His mighty preseason numbers aside in '09, Redman was released before the start of the regular season. He was signed three times to the Pittsburgh practice squad, cut three times, appeared in one regular-season contest, and the former Bowie State star registered no carries and no receptions.

Redman is back for another shot this summer, and has scored twice in Pittsburgh's first two exhibitions. He again leads the Steelers in attempts (21), and rushing yards (94), and, with the departure of Willie Parker in free agency, and the club seeking a viable backup to starter Rashard Mendenhall, has a realistic chance to make the roster. But part of the reason is because of the experience he gained -- some of it cold, cruel reality -- in the 2009 preseason.

When the bullets start flying for real, and the tempo and intensity elevates, most undrafted rookies run for cover. If they even get that chance. It's hard enough to earn a spot on an NFL roster as a draft choice. It's not impossible for an undrafted player. But the odds are about as long as a railbird cashing in a "win" ticket on a three-legged nag ear-marked for the glue factory.

Over the last five seasons, the league average has been remarkably constant. League teams sign roughly 300 free agents. And between 30-32 undrafted players, or roughly one per franchise, carve out a niche on an opening-day roster.

Last season, only a dozen undrafted rookies started even one game during the regular season.

"If you went just on the numbers, well, you'd say, 'No chance,' and start planning for your life (after football)," allowed Jacksonville second-year linebacker Russell Allen, one of only two undrafted free agents who started five or more games as rookies in 2009. "You can't let yourself think about the odds."

Said Indianapolis cornerback Jacob Lacey, who in 2009 led all undrafted rookies with nine regular-season starts: "You're fighting upstream all the way."

That doesn't mean, of course, that undrafted rookies shouldn't wade into the NFL lake. The history of the NFL is rife with players who went undrafted, but who went a long way in the league, and some members of this year's walk-on class might well join that select fraternity.

But probably not many.

In the preseason opener, New York Giants' rookie wide receiver Victor Cruz of Massachusetts, who wasn't even invited to the combine last February, caught six passes for 145 yards and three touchdowns. Cruz was a little more mortal on Saturday night, muffing a punt inside the 10-yard line. But he still latched onto two passes for 30 yards and didn't look out of place playing mostly against the Steelers' scrubs.

There's still a very good chance that Cruz, who seems to have solid body control and good quickness, will find a spot on the regular-season roster.

Until he does, though, Cruz is just another one of the many preseason phenoms who seem to pop up every year around this time. And while fans might get pretty hyped up by these guys, the numbers indicate that coaches and general managers usually refrain from going overboard.

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