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Ben Volin | On Football

Having no preseason games really hurts the chances of undrafted NFL rookies

Undrafted rookie receiver Isaiah Zuber was among the players cut by the Patriots Sunday, even before training camp began.
Undrafted rookie receiver Isaiah Zuber was among the players cut by the Patriots Sunday, even before training camp began.Michael Woods/Associated Press

Undrafted rookie wide receiver Devin Phelps knew he was a long shot to make the Cardinals roster this training camp, but he was going to give it everything he had.

Phelps knew he wouldn’t have preseason games or many practices to impress his coaches, but he has never been afraid of a little adversity. He played college football at three different schools, finishing at Division 2 Shepherd University. He didn’t get drafted in April, signing with the Cardinals afterward for a $1,000 bonus.

“I just look at it as another obstacle that I have to overcome,” Phelps said last Thursday. “I’m just focused on controlling the controllables, and getting into camp and giving my best effort in order to make the team.”

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Sunday afternoon, Phelps’s dreams were suddenly dashed when he was one of 54 players released across the league. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NFL has given teams the option to immediately cut rosters from 90 to 80 players, and about four dozen undrafted free agents like Phelps were released Sunday. Hundreds more cuts are coming soon.

“You hate to see so many young guys not get an opportunity,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said Sunday night on his Double Coverage podcast. “You’re seeing teams cut down from 90 to 80 guys, and you’re seeing guys get released who never really got an opportunity because of the pandemic.”

The odds are always stacked against undrafted rookies, but especially in 2020. The NFL has canceled all 64 preseason games, and the training camp schedule has been cut back significantly. Players won’t put on pads until Aug. 17 and will have about three weeks of practice to impress their coaches before roster cutdowns.

That’s not to say there won’t be opportunities for long shots. Undrafted rookies are the cheapest players in the NFL, and most teams like to keep one or two on the 53-man roster. Practice squads also have been increased from 10 players to 16, providing 192 more jobs (though with much less salary and fewer benefits). And the injured reserve rules have been liberalized, allowing teams to bring as many players off IR as they want. This could allow teams to stash players on IR early in the season.

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But there will be far fewer opportunities for the guys trying to become the next diamond in the rough like Malcolm Butler or Victor Cruz.

Malcolm Butler was a UDFA success story with the Patriots.
Malcolm Butler was a UDFA success story with the Patriots.Barry Chin

“It is tough to watch some of these young guys get released before stepping in the building,” McCourty said. “Obviously, for young guys right now, this is a tough year to come into the NFL.

“Not only are there not going to be any preseason games to get into the groove of things, but you had no spring, you haven’t been to the facility or the stadium. So you have no idea where anything is inside the building. You probably have no idea where you’re going to live.

“So there’s just so many variables going on.”

Longtime agent David Canter, who represents five undrafted rookies on NFL rosters (for now), said he advised his clients to arrive to camp “overprepared.”

“If you were able in May or June to get the playbook and have 125 plays to know, you need to know them better than anyone else in the building, including the quarterback,” Canter said. “Versatility, intelligence, and physically you have to be in the best shape of your life. There is no acclimation period for an undrafted rookie free agent.”

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Those that survive the cut from 90 to 80 players will still have a chance to impress their coaches. Even though practice doesn’t start until the middle of August, players will be in meetings and walk-throughs and around their coaches by the end of this week.

But for many rookies — not just the undrafted ones — a big part of training camp is being able to play in four preseason games and generating game tape. Even if a player doesn’t make one team, often he will get claimed or signed by another that liked his performance in the preseason. Joint practices, which have become a popular scouting tool, also were canceled this year.

“Internally, you’re still going to get a great evaluation,” said Beverly-based agent Sean Stellato. “They film everything and you’re always competing. But when you’ve got the preseason games, you can actually get a realistic look from the rest of the league.”

David Andrews made the Patriots as an undrafted free agent out of Georgia.
David Andrews made the Patriots as an undrafted free agent out of Georgia.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

It’s also possible that undrafted rookies won’t be the only ones affected by the pandemic. Because the predraft process was so imprecise, Canter expects more draft picks from Rounds 4-7 to be released. Mid-level veterans also may be in more trouble; with a potential $23 million dip coming to the salary cap next year, teams could save cap space now (and roll it over to next year) by releasing a veteran making $5 million and replacing him with a youngster making nearly one-tenth of that.

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Canter thinks this could help second- and third-year players who are making the minimum but have been in the NFL and know the system. Rookies, though, have a lot more unknowns.

“Guys coming in having never met the head coach other than on Zoom, have never been in the locker room, have never been in the city,” Canter said. “And veterans that know what they’re doing and have scheme versatility are going to be a priority over pigeonholed guys that only have one skill set.”


Ben Volin can be reached at ben.volin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin