September 18, 2014

Undrafted And Locked Out: Rookie Free Agents Await The Call

by Chris Warner, Patriots Daily Staff

Previous to 2011, NFL teams would follow up each draft by filling their rosters with undrafted free agents (UDFAs). Last year, for example, the Patriots ended up signing three UDFAs to the team: Kyle Love, Sergio Brown and Dane Fletcher.

After picking 254 total players his spring, NFL teams have refrained from contacting undrafted rookies due to the lockout. This has left hundreds of potential players who would normally get invited to rookie camp in limbo.

A previous PD column reviewed some UDFAs who would fit in New England. We decided to catch up with four of those players to get their perspective on this unusual off-season: Maine wide receiver Jeremy Kelley, Austin Peay running back Terrence Holt, Cal wide receiver Jeremy Ross and Colorado School of Mines defensive end Marc Schiechl.

Pre-Draft Hopes

Each player had varying expectations going into the draft. Kelley, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound receiver, said he felt optimistic. He had an impressive pro day that featured a 42-inch vertical leap and a 3.89-second 20-yard shuttle. Each mark would have placed him in the top three for NFL combine receivers.

“It was getting exciting,” Kelley said. “Momentum was continuing to build after my pro day performances, garnering some attention from a handful of teams. I think I had about 10 or 12 teams that had called me, the Patriots being one of them. I went from somebody who probably wasn’t on their radar to someone who had the potential to be a late round pick, and that was exciting.”

Holt, another small-school player, hoped that leading Austin Peay in rushing, receptions, and return yardage would get him noticed. “There were a couple of teams that talked to my agent that were calling my school, asking my coach what kind of player I was and what type of guy I was on and off the field,” he said.

Averaging 12.7 yards per punt return at Cal-Berkeley, Ross thought he’d get a look in the sixth or seventh round. “I think I prepared as best as I could. I worked my butt off getting ready for the draft, getting ready for the workouts and pro days and stuff like that. You know, I laid it all on the table, and I felt like I got the most I could out of myself going in.”

Ross took a visit to Green Bay and had workouts with the Niners, Raiders and the Patriots. He also talked with several other teams.

Colorado School of Mines defensive end Marc Schiechl

Though Schiechl set the Division II career record for sacks (46), he understood that NFL teams might overlook him due to his level of competition. “I just kind of went into the draft assuming that I wouldn’t be drafted, just so I wouldn’t have my hopes up. And I knew, you know, either way – sixth (round), seventh, undrafted – either way I’m going to have to make the team. So it really doesn’t matter where I went or how I made the team, because I’m still going to have to prove myself regardless.”

Schiechl worked out for the Colts and estimated that 12 to 14 teams talked to him before the draft, including the Patriots.

Adversity

Despite their hard work and potential, no calls came from NFL teams. Each player had something working against him going into draft weekend. All except Ross attended small schools. Ross suffered from a lack of production his senior year, as did Kelley.

Holt, at 5-7, is no stranger to getting overlooked.

“When I didn’t get picked,” Holt said, “I knew from the lockout that things wouldn’t go how I thought they would go, but I knew that something would give pretty soon. And I hope that I get picked up by a team if the lockout is over.”

Watching Cal teammates Cameron Jordan and Shane Vereen get drafted gave Ross some mixed emotions. “I was really happy for those guys, but you know, I had myself on my mind also,” Ross said. “(But) at that moment, I was like, man, that’s cool.”

In terms of Vereen going to New England, Ross said, “I felt like it fits him, with the Patriots. It fits his character, and I could really see him being in that organization. That’s a perfect fit for him. And they’ll use him well, I know they will.”

After Ross didn’t get picked, he said, “I felt a little discouraged at first, you know, because I got my hopes up. It was something I was expecting, something I wanted to see happen. I thought it would have been a good experience, a good feeling to be picked up, to be chosen, to be wanted. But that didn’t happen, so I was a little discouraged.”

Ross said he got some positive advice from friends. “They helped me see the benefit of being a free agent at this moment, as far as being able to have the opportunity to now choose the situation I’m going into… So I feel like, in some way, I’m kind of at an advantage. It actually worked out better for me, rather than getting drafted in the sixth or seventh.”

“I wasn’t really discouraged, because I was still aware that it was a long shot,” said Kelley. “But I was expecting a call, to be honest. So I wouldn’t say disappointment, by any means, just kind of more fuel to the fire. I’ve seen adversity… It just kind of keeps me in that underdog mentality, when I do get to a camp, that I’m going to make a name for myself. Whether it be special teams, whether I play offense or whatever it may be. That’s just the way I see it. It just kind of turns into motivation to be successful.”

Though he had little expectation of getting drafted, Schiechl’s potential position change brought up questions that no team could answer until he got into a camp. “I wasn’t too sure, because I knew with the lockout and everything that there wasn’t going to be free agency. That was really, to me, the only benefit of being drafted, was to know where I would go and whether I was going to be a 4-3 end or a 3-4 outside linebacker. That was probably the biggest thing that worried me, but you know, I just have to keep training and wait for this to end.”

Working It Out

All players have continued their regimens throughout this downtime, staying prepared for any opportunities that may arise.

Holt finished up his semester at Austin Peay before returning home to Nashville. Both Ross and Schiechl remain on their respective campuses.

Kelley is home in Buffalo, which has proven beneficial. His father runs a soccer complex (Sahlen’s Sports Park) where he has been working out with dozens of Buffalo Bills. Kelley’s friend from the area, Bills special teams ace John Corto, helped organize these sessions upon Kelley’s suggestion.

“Not a lot of free agents are in my position. You know, I’m actually working out with an NFL team and getting that experience. To live five minutes from an NFL squad is definitely a blessing, given the circumstances and the conditions of the lockout,” Kelley said.

Ross just graduated from Cal last weekend. He heads to the stadium every day to work out with his strength and conditioning coach. “Just training there, staying in shape, and just kind of waiting it out, getting ready for this thing to end.”

Schiechl remains on campus at CSM but plans to head home in a week or two. He trains with Loren Landow at the Steadman-Hawkins Clinic in Englewood, Colorado. Several Denver Broncos have joined the workouts. “(Loren) has a lot of guys from other NFL teams that he’s training right now, just keeping us in shape, trying to simulate the amount of activity that we’d have if we were in a mini-camp,” said Schiechl. “So if anything does get ready to go, we’re heading into it already in good shape – we don’t have to play catch-up or anything like that.”

Holt is running and working out every day. He has a couple of tryouts lined up with the UFL and CFL, just to keep his options open. “I’m pretty sure every player’s dream is to go to the NFL,” Holt said. “But guys like me, with football, they’re real passionate: they would want to play somewhere and get paid for it. So the UFL and the CFL are great options for that.”

Outlook

Each player seems to understand the unpredictable nature of his situation, yet each tries to remain optimistic. “It is frustrating about this whole situation, just thinking if I was out here last year, I probably would be in a camp right now,” said Kelley. “But, you know, take it for what it is.”

Taking tips from Bills receiver Lee Evans and catching passes from QB Ryan Fitzpatrick have put Kelley in what he calls the “best situation possible.” His agents have also helped his confidence. “They’ve made it clear that I will be in a camp. Not only that, they think that I have a shot at playing next year, and they’ve expressed that to me multiple times. They really believe that. I really believe that, so I really can’t ask for much more from agents.”

Holt is a small player from a small school, but he says that his stature has helped him prepare for the challenge. “Since I’ve been playing football at the age of five, I’ve really always been one of the smallest guys on the field. But when you’ve got technique – if you and a guy have the same type of talent, but my technique is better – then I win the fight every time. It’s just the fight in the person, and how hard they want to accomplish something. So I always have to prove myself, being a smaller person, and by proving myself, then I feel that I have overcome that task.”

In terms of the NFL labor situation, Holt said he can’t do much beyond waiting to see what happens. “I still have hope. I pray every day that somebody will pick me up. I know it’s getting real strenuous because of the lockout going on right now, and everybody thinks that the lockout will go on, but I’ve still got hope and I think something will give for me.”

For now, Ross called the lockout a wait-and-see situation. “I’m just kind of really focusing on the things I can control. Basically, I’m like, when it unlocks, it unlocks, and I’ll be ready when it does. The only thing I can control at this point is myself, and training to make sure I’m ready to go when that time comes.”

In some ways, Schiechl epitomizes this rookie draft class. He knows what it takes to improve as a player, and he has used all of his talents – including his experience as a high school wrestler – to do so. “Coming out of high school, I was only 6-1, 185 my senior year,” said the currently 6-2, 255-pound pass-rusher. “So, I mean, I was really undersized, and I played D-end my senior year. There were a lot of receivers out there bigger than me, so that’s probably why I wasn’t recruited.”

Given his strength and stats, Schiechl believes he can complete the journey from a lightly-recruited D-II player to the NFL. Like the hundreds of other undrafted players, though, he needs the lockout to end.

“I just can’t see it not getting resolved,” he said. “I think there’s too much at stake for football, and too much money involved with it, that I can’t see it not happening. And I’m pretty confident that once it starts back up I’m going to get a chance with someone, so I’m not too worried about it. I just hope it happens soon.”

Email Chris Warner at [email protected]

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