On the NFL: Market for undrafted free agents is booming

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune/Star Tribune/TNS
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·6 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

John Randle LOLed at a text asking him how much guaranteed money he got in his first NFL contract.

A few minutes later, the legendary Vikings defensive tackle was on the phone laughing about life as an undersized undrafted free agent back in 1990.

"I got five grand in a signing bonus," he said. "Three grand after taxes."

It was a tad more team-friendly deal than what has developed in the undrafted free-agent market in recent years, particularly this spring when teams scrambled after the draft with guaranteed money offers the size of which had never been seen before.

"Yeah, it's different," said former Vikings General Manager Jeff Diamond, who first signed Randle. "I've told the story a few times, joking, 'Hey, I signed a Hall of Famer for five grand.' "

This year, the Vikings and Eagles were two of the most aggressive teams in the undrafted free-agent market. The Eagles paid $1.75 million in guaranteed money to 12 UDFAs two years after committing only $764,000 to 13 of them. The Vikings, meanwhile, took two big financial swings on edge-rushing outside linebackers for their new 3-4 defense.

Zach McCloud, a 6-2, 235-pounder from the University of Miami (Fla.), got $250,000 guaranteed, a team record for an undrafted free agent and the second highest in the league this year behind the $320,000 the Eagles gave Nevada quarterback Carson Strong. Meanwhile, Luiji Vilain, a 6-4, 252-pounder from Wake Forest, got $227,000 guaranteed from the Vikings, seventh highest among this year's UDFA class.

According to Over the Cap, the guaranteed totals for McCloud and Vilain were higher than what the Vikings gave to their last three draft picks — sixth-rounders Vederian Lowe ($197,872) and Jalen Nailor ($180,660), and seventh-rounder Nick Muse ($106,932).

"It's always a mad dash," Vikings coach Kevin O'Connell said of signing free agents after the draft. "I give our [front office] a lot of credit for getting a lot of the guys under contract like we did because they're competing. With the rules the way they're set up, some of these [undrafted] guys are getting calls from 10, 12, 15 teams in a matter of 10 or 15 minutes."

Post-draft shopping spree

McCloud's agent, Brett Tessler, has done this for 25 years and has represented some notable UDFAs, such as running back Raheem Mostert in 2015. He said this year's post-draft shopping spree was the most competitive he's ever seen.

"In Zach's case, based on the number of calls I received the week leading up to the draft, I let teams know they were going to have to step up with their best offer as soon as the draft ended," Tessler said. "And the number kept getting higher and higher."

McCloud said more than 10 teams reached out to him before the draft even started to gauge his interest in signing as an undrafted free agent. His final four teams came down to the Super Bowl champion Rams, his hometown Dolphins, the AFC-contending Bills and the Vikings. Of those four, the Vikings were the only team to bring McCloud in for a predraft visit.

"You're looking at the defense, the roster, the depth charts, figuring out the right situation for your guy, and the interest level a team has," Tessler said. "Then part of narrowing it down is based on who is putting their money where their mouth is. A team can tell you how much they love you, but if they're offering $20,000 guaranteed and another team is offering you several times that, you tell them, 'Thanks, but no thanks.'

"The whole thing really happened in probably a matter of minutes after the draft."

Teams are limited in how much they can offer in a signing bonus but can get around that with guaranteed money in the standard three-year contract. When the Vikings offered the most guaranteed money, it became a no-brainer for McCloud.

"Honestly, I would have come here even if they hadn't made the highest offer," he said. "The Vikings brought me in on a top-30 visit and everything about this place felt like the right fit from the minute I stepped in the building."

McCloud is a particularly interesting pro prospect. He is already 24 years old after spending six seasons at Miami. He played a Hurricanes-record 59 games, but only the last 11 as a pass rusher. He had a modest 5½ sacks in 2021, but the Vikings and McCloud are excited about the growth potential under the tutelage of outside linebackers coach Mike Smith.

"Al Golden recruited me to Miami as a 3-4 outside linebacker when I was 6-2, 205 pounds," McCloud said. "He left before I got there and they switched to a 4-3, and now they needed guys 6-5, 260."

So McCloud became a coverage linebacker. He redshirted his senior season in 2019 and thought his college career was over a year later until the NCAA granted everyone an extra year because of the pandemic. He came back but switched to defensive end to finally become the edge rusher he thought he was going to be six years earlier.

Many NFL teams took notice of his potential. One of them bet a quarter of a million dollars on it.

Finding the next Adam Thielen

Asked to name his all-time favorite undrafted player, McCloud pointed to new teammate Adam Thielen. (Thielen, by the way, notes that his first NFL contract came with no guaranteed money, no signing bonus, no nothing until he made the team.)

"People always talk about the draft," Randle said. "But I like when the draft is over because I always get such a kick out of seeing the rookie free agent guys.

"Guys like Adam Thielen I'm so proud of because they change the perspective on undrafted rookies. I tried out for Tampa Bay right after the draft, and they didn't sign me. I went to Minnesota and people said I'd be there a week or two and I'd be done. If guys today are getting extra looks or money because they might be the next Adam Thielen or the next John Randle, that's great."

Randle works as a director for the NFL's Legends Community, which advises former, current and prospective players.

"I'll talk to the college guys at the combine and they'll be asking me how the combine has changed since I went," Randle said. "I tell them, 'I don't know. I wasn't invited.' I wasn't tall enough or big enough or whatever. But they can't measure heart, and they can't measure desire to play this game.

"That's why I say it every year. There is going to be one guy who wasn't drafted who is going to get a look, an opportunity. And he is going to rise to the top."