In a normal year, Matt Beardall wouldn’t have to worry about not getting drafted. As a four-year starting long snapper at Marshall, who was on the Senior Bowl watch list in 2019, Beardall would have certainly been invited by a team to try out at its rookie minicamp the weekend after the NFL Draft. A tryout can lead immediately to a roster spot, or, at minimum, a spot on a team’s emergency backup list.
But 2020 is not a normal year, of course.
While the draft went on as planned last weekend, the pandemic has canceled all practices and on-field work indefinitely. With no rookie minicamps this weekend, undrafted players such as Beardall don’t have an opportunity to compete.
“I’m kind of just waiting to hear a call from a team right now. It kind of sucks,” Beardall said from his home in Merritt Island, Fla. “Just waiting on an opportunity and trusting the whole thing.”
While 256 players got drafted this year, nearly twice as many will sign with teams as undrafted free agents to fill out the 90-man offseason rosters. And hosting tryout players at rookie minicamps has become a significant part of the NFL draft ecosystem, as teams essentially hold competitions for the final few spots on the 90-man offseason rosters.
Last year, the Jaguars signed five tryout players after their minicamp, swapping out five players that they had signed immediately after the draft. The Redskins signed five tryout players as well, and the Bills signed four players. In 2017, the Redskins invited 40 tryout players to rookie minicamp.
Titans receiver Adam Humphries came into the NFL as a tryout player. Same with Buccaneers offensive tackle Demar Dotson. And the most famous tryout player of all may be Malcolm Butler, who was operating the fryolater at a Popeye’s restaurant when the Patriots called him with a tryout opportunity in 2014. Nine months later, he made one of the most famous plays in Super Bowl history.
Maybe at some point this spring or summer the NFL will allow teams to open their facilities and host workouts and practices, but that time does not appear to be close. Commissioner Roger Goodell has stressed competitive equity throughout the pandemic and does not want to open facilities until all 32 teams can do it.
Until then, hundreds of undrafted hopefuls can only stay in shape and pray that the tryouts will eventually come.
“I’ve got my fingers crossed that these kids can get a chance if everything opens up and teams run rookie minicamps,” said Beverly-based agent Sean Stellato, who has five rookie clients that he would expect to get tryouts this year. “That’s an important part of the process — getting guys in that had a grade, getting that opportunity to come in there and compete and get an evaluation. If you go in there and open eyes, maybe you don’t sign that weekend, but any injuries, any hiccups off the field, you’re the first one they’re calling.”
It has been a double whammy for under-the-radar prospects who didn’t get invited to the Combine, Senior Bowl, or East-West Shrine Game. Most didn’t get to hold their Pro Days after the NFL shut down all travel March 13, and now they don’t get to showcase their skills at rookie minicamps.
Stellato said that Jason Maher, a tight end/fullback from Division 3 Framingham State, spoke to eight to 10 teams during the pre-draft process. Maher added 20 pounds since his last game in November, and likely would be getting tryouts with multiple NFL teams now.
Instead, Maher’s Pro Day was canceled, and teams have not been able to get a look at him in person. Maher has tried staying shape near his home in Marshfield, and he created a virtual Pro Day that he sent to teams, but it hasn’t been easy.
“This kid got thrown off eight different fields trying to put together a route tree to send out to the San Francisco 49ers,” Stellato said. “He’d call me up and say, ‘This is what I got,’ and he’d have two routes filmed before he got tossed off.”
And the video workouts don’t have nearly the impact that a live, in-person workout would have.
“Teams wanted to see more from him, but they didn’t get a chance to put him through bag work and see him run routes and see him in terms of his strength and quickness,” Stellato said. “There’s only so many Zoom calls and so many virtual Pro Days you can watch that are going to get you to jump off the board.”
The uncertainty of the pandemic has made it difficult for players to remain positive. They have to stay in football shape and be ready, without any assurances that an opportunity will come.
“I advise [Maher] to grab a piece of white paper each day and sign it and date it as if you’re signing a contract and really visualize that,” Stellato said. “I really think something’s going to happen for him, but it has been extremely frustrating.”
Some of the players from rookie tryouts turn out to be the NFL’s best stories — the tight end who played college basketball; the Division 2 cornerback who worked at Popeye’s; and so on. Hundreds of players and agents have their fingers crossed that they’ll get their chance, whenever it may be.
“I keep telling them, that’s what’s going to make their narratives even more appealing,” Stellato said. “If you can persevere through this, it’s going to be great life experience that you can put on your resume.”
Vinatieri’s rehab has been hurting
Undrafted rookies aren’t the only ones being hurt by the pandemic. Injured players are having a tougher time rehabbing, which could affect their ability to be ready in time for the season, and could affect their ability to sign with teams.
Kicker Adam Vinatieri is one such player. The 47-year-old free agent had knee surgery in December, and in a normal offseason he would hope to be ready by June. But Vinatieri is having trouble getting in all of his rehab work, and his ability to sign with a team and play a 25th NFL season is in doubt.
“Before all of this, my thought was get back and get healthy and if I can kick well, shoot, I figured I could earn a job," Vinatieri told NFL Network. “With the virus, it’s out of my control. All you can do is what you can do and let’s see how it goes. If it’s not in the cards, it’s not in the cards.’’
Data on latest Patriots picks
John Pollard, the vice president of business development of Zebra Sports, provided some interesting tracking data for the four newest Patriots who participated in the Senior Bowl in January.
Zebra Sports is the company that puts tracking chips in each player’s shoulder pads to collect the NFL’s “Next Gen Stats” — speed, distance, and acceleration stats for each player, plus metrics for quarterbacks, kickers, and punters. Zebra tracked the Senior Bowl participants all week, created a report for each, and distributed it to all 32 teams.
Safety Kyle Dugger, the Patriots’ second-round pick, had a top speed of 19.07 miles per hour during Senior Bowl week, which ranked seventh-fastest among nine safeties. While that doesn’t sound elite, it is a great speed for someone who stands 6 feet 2 inches and 220 pounds. Most impressive, though, was that he achieved his top speed not on a punt or kickoff play — where most players are able to break into a full sprint — but during one-on-one drills while covering wide receivers, suggesting that he has the speed to hang with receivers in coverage. Pollard said Dugger compares athletically to Packers safety Darnell Savage, who started 14 games last year as a rookie.
“It’s telling that he has good speed for his physicality, right at the lower range of the cornerbacks,” Pollard said.
Second-round pick Josh Uche, a hybrid who projects as an inside linebacker and sub pass rusher, had a high-end speed at 17.77 miles per hour that ranked 11th out of 15 linebackers. But Zebra tracked something called “sprint efforts,” and Uche finished second among the 15 linebackers.
“This is suggestive of someone who is participating actively in practice, flashing in practice, putting in maximum effort,” Pollard said.
Uche also traveled the fourth-most cumulative distance in practice among the linebackers, which indicates that he runs reps all the way through and is active in drills, which coaches like to see.
Outside linebacker Anfernee Jennings also did not have the most impressive top-end speed, clocking 17.45 miles per hour, 12th among linebackers. But Jennings also proved to be an active participant in practice — he traveled the second-most among the linebackers on the first day of practice, going 3,362 yards, or nearly 2 miles.
The Patriots also signed an undrafted rookie from the Senior Bowl, defensive lineman Trevon Hill. He was seventh-fastest out of 19 defensive linemen, reaching a top speed of 16.19 miles per hour.
Favre: Rodgers won’t forget this
Brett Favre probably knows how Aaron Rodgers is feeling these days since the Packers drafted Jordan Love in the first round, considering the Packers did the exact same thing with Favre and Rodgers 15 years ago.
Rodgers hasn’t spoken publicly since the draft, but he did speak with Favre, making what Favre had to say about the subject this past week even more interesting.
“They don’t draft any weapons, not just in the first round, but any weapons that can help immediately,” Favre said on SiriusXM. “That just sends a disrespect message — what I would I think — to Aaron Rodgers.”
Favre pushed back on the idea that Rodgers has to be a mentor, and said he expects Rodgers to end his career elsewhere.
“It’s not the head guy’s job to mentor the next guy. That guy is ultimately there to take your spot,” Favre said. “They burned a bridge that’s going to be hard to overcome. I think Aaron will finish somewhere else. That’s my gut."
A trade this year is highly unlikely, as Rodgers has $45.9 million in dead-cap money. A post-June 1 trade this year would leave the Packers with a doable $14 million dead hit this year, but would create an untenable dead-money hit of $31 million next year.
But Rodgers’s dead-cap money decreases by $14.3 million each season, meaning a trade next offseason is possible, and even more so before the 2022 season. The likeliest scenario is the Packers holding on to Rodgers for two years before turning to Love. But let’s see if Rodgers gets ornery about the situation and tries to force his way out of town sooner.
Maybe yes, maybe no
Ravens GM Eric DeCosta did not say yes this past week on Mad Dog Sports Radio when asked if his team would sign troubled wide receiver Antonio Brown.
“We’re always assessing the players out there on the streets,” DeCosta said. “If we think there’s a guy out there who fits us, who’s got the skill set to provide value, we’ll certainly pounce on that kind of guy. As Ozzie [Newsome, the Ravens’ former GM] always used to tell me, we don’t play games until September. So, we’ve got a lot of time to build the best team we can build, and we’ll continue to do that.”
You’ll notice DeCosta didn’t say no, either, making him the first GM to hold open the possibility. The Patriots and Buccaneers slammed the door shut, but DeCosta was noncommittal about adding Brown, who is the older cousin of Ravens receiver Marquise Brown.
The Ravens already have a dangerous offense with Lamar Jackson, Mark Ingram, Mark Andrews, and Marquise Brown, and adding Antonio Brown could be the final piece to the Super Bowl puzzle. Don’t forget, Antonio Brown is facing potential legal action and NFL discipline, and is no lock to ever play football again.
But the Ravens have never been afraid to sign players with troubled backgrounds. And even 6-8 games of Antonio Brown would be worth it, if he could stay out of trouble long enough to make it to the playoffs.
One player who may be regretting his decision to leave college early for the NFL is LSU tight end Thaddeus Moss, son of Randy Moss. The younger Moss had a productive 2019 season, catching 47 passes for 570 yards and four touchdowns, including two in the national championship game. But he had just one season of college tape after sitting out the 2017 season due to transfer rules and missing the 2018 season because of a foot injury. Then in February, Moss’s medical checkup at the Combine discovered a fracture in his right foot, and Moss went undrafted last weekend, signing with the Redskins as a free agent and $20,000 guaranteed. Moss is a good example of why the NCAA should allow players who don’t get drafted to return to school if they still have eligibility . . . Even though the Patriots only have $1.07 million in salary-cap space, they only need to create another $600,000 or so to fit all 10 rookies in under the cap. In the offseason, only a team’s top 51 contracts (out of 90) count against the salary cap, and only five of the Patriots’ 10 draft picks will qualify. Second-round safety Kyle Dugger, their top pick, will receive a four-year contract worth $8.3 million, while late-second-round linebacker Josh Uche will sign a four-year contract worth $5.4 million. Second-round picks may be the best value in the NFL if they develop into real players . . . A surprising number of notable quarterbacks are still available in free agency: Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Blake Bortles, Joe Flacco, Trevor Siemian, Geno Smith, Mike Glennon, and Drew Stanton . . . There is some chatter in Miami that the Dolphins should un-retire Dan Marino’s No. 13 so Tua Tagovailoa can wear the same number he wore in college. But in no way should the Dolphins do it, nor should Tua want the pressure of living up to Marino. Learn to love another number, Tua . . . Jaguars quarterback Josh Dobbs, an aerospace engineering major at Tennessee, participated in a three-week externship program at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in February. Dobbs worked in the instrumentation department of the Exploration Ground Systems team, which operates the system for assembling, transporting, and launching rockets. “When you get down there and you see how intelligent people are and how hard they work, just what they are even talking about and are able to pull off, it’s truly amazing,” he told USA Today.