Chargers Historic Success with Undrafted Free Agents
The early rounds of the NFL Draft annually garner the most buzz nationwide among fans and the media.
However, the excitement at Chargers Park truly hits a fever pitch once the last player is selected.
As soon as “Mr. Irrelevant” is announced, the entire front office sprawls out throughout the entire complex to call prospects that went undrafted. Scouts and coaches alike pitch their cases to convince these newly minted priority free agents how badly the Chargers covet them.
To that end, perhaps no team has the track record of unearthing gems like San Diego. Undrafted free agents face perhaps the toughest road of any player in professional sports of making a roster. However, those who’ve signed with the Chargers have not only realized their dreams; they’ve excelled in ways almost unparalleled throughout the league.
General Manager Tom Telesco admired the team’s success before joining the Bolts, and stressed how important it is to continue that legacy.
“They have a great history here, way before I was here, of really hitting on some big time college free agents,” he said. “They’ve had great scouting departments here before from Bobby Beathard all the way through, and we’ve got to keep that up. We’ve hit on a couple. With Jahleel Addae, we feel he has a really bight future. Branden Oliver really does, too. Tenny Palepoi (and) some guys have stepped up and played well, but we have to keep that going. It’s a big part in the salary cap era to hit on those college free agents. You can’t have an entire roster of highly paid guys up top. You’ve got to balance it out at the bottom, and if those guys play well they’ll end up with a second contract.”
Antonio Gates is the shining example of the Bolts proud history regarding college free agents. A basketball star at Kent State, the Chargers gave the raw prospect a shot when they signed him on May 2, 2003. Both the player and team have reaped the rewards ever since, as for 12 seasons and counting the tight end has rewritten the record books. Gates is the Chargers’ all-time leader in receptions (788), receiving yards (10,014) and touchdown catches (99), and is only the fourth tight end in NFL history to eclipse 10,000 career receiving yards. Number 85 heads into 2015 needing just one touchdown to become the ninth player in NFL history with 100. An eight-time Pro Bowler and five-time AP All-Pro, he is a surefire lock to enter Canton five years after his legendary career comes to a close.
While Gates would be a generational talent even if he was the number one pick of the draft, he is the cherry on top of a proud history of undrafted free agents. One year after he joined the Bolts, the Chargers signed a lanky wide receiver with promise out of Wyoming. His name was Malcom Floyd, and he is now entering his 12th season with the Bolts. M-80 spent his first two seasons bouncing between the practice squad and 53-man roster, working his way up from part time contributor to a reliable, stalwart starter. He now ranks 10th in team history with 291 catches and eighth with 4,989 receiving yards.
Although Gates and Floyd are the longest tenured undrafted stars on the current roster, they are far from the only ones to make an impact. As Telesco noted, the team has high hopes for Addae, Oliver and Palepoi, yet they are far from the only ones. Chris Davis, Greg Ducre, Jeremiah Sirles, Adrian Phillips, Javontee Herndon and Torrence Allen to name a few spent all of 2014 on either the practice squad, active roster or both. The Bolts also added Danny Woodhead as a veteran free agent in 2013 after he famously signed with the New York Jets years ago out of Chadron State.
According to Head Coach Mike McCoy, the Chargers attract high quality undrafted free agents because they give them a legit chance to make an impact. It doesn’t matter if you were drafted, undrafted or a veteran signed during free agency. Once you are on this roster, the Bolts afford all an equal opportunity to not only carve out a roster spot, but a meaningful role. His words don’t ring hollow as the proof is in the pudding.
“Each year there have been guys that have made our team and contributed, and that’s what you’ve got to do,” McCoy explained. “You need guys that will step up, so it is a matter of giving them an opportunity. And we always tell them that once they get here, they are one of 90. We are looking for the best 53, and it doesn’t matter who you are or where you were drafted. We are looking for the best 53. We are giving you an opportunity, so it is your job to create your own role. And if you are good enough, we will try to find a spot for you. But you’ve got to show up like everybody else.”
Oliver is living proof, and he praised the Chargers for giving him the chance they promised.
“This organization, and coach Mike McCoy, they really give you that opportunity they tell you they will. They gave me a chance to show myself, and that means everything. It shows that this team is really about opportunity and putting the team first. But when you get that opportunity, you’ve got to go out and shine.”
Although he has been around for over a decade, Floyd is continually inspired by each crop of undrafted free agents. He takes it upon himself to speak with each one, offering guidance and support as they look to emulate his path to a lengthy and productive career in San Diego.
“You still have a long road and humbling experience when you get here,” he noted. “Just making it from the bottom and getting to the top; you appreciate every step of the way. I am happy to see other guys do it, and I will always give input and feedback for whatever they want. I tell them to listen to the coaches, be on time every day and just be a professional. You have a very small margin of error coming in undrafted. Whenever I see them doing something I’ve done, I help them out and tell them that is the way to take care of themselves and their bodies. There is a mindset.”
Although the Chargers have a proud history of undrafted free agents, Telesco believes there are more pressing reasons top free agents choose San Diego over other teams.
“We talk about (our history), but I don’t know if they really (understand it) other than maybe Antonio Gates,” the general manager said. “I think a lot of these kids; they don’t know how good Kris Dielman really was. With us, it’s really more selling the opportunity that they are going to get. We go through (and say), ‘Hey, there are the reps you’re going to get in training camp. You’re not just here to run a scout team. These are your reps with (Offensive Coordinator) Frank Reich in the huddle.’ So we sell that, and we sell the depth chart with where it is so they can see who they are competing with and where they have a chance to win a job. We do (use our history as a recruiting tool), but I don’t think it registers as well as you would think.”
Floyd echoed Telesco’s sentiments.
“The history we have here is important because it shows how the team values undrafted guys, but at the same time the player needs to look at the roster, who the team has at that position and what his odds are of making the team. The depth a team has is really important. They had a lot of depth at wide receiver when I signed here, but I thought my chances were good here because of what I could bring to the Chargers instead of other teams.”
On the flip side, Herndon admitted that the team’s historic success did play a key role in his decision.
“Honestly, it definitely did,” he said. “Growing up I didn’t know much about the Chargers, but I always knew about Malcom Floyd and Antonio Gates. I always watched when Philip (Rivers) would throw it up to Malcom, and knowing how he joined them after going undrafted, it played a role. Knowing those guys now motivates me. It is a humbling thing to see how long they’ve been here, so I am trying to walk in their footsteps.”
Overall, the Bolts are proud of their historic success in terms of undrafted free agents. However, that sense of pride pales in comparison to how the players themselves feel. Oliver best epitomizes what it means to succeed after going undrafted out of college.
“Being undrafted gives you a drive. You know what it took to get here, and everything you had to overcome to get here. I always tell people that I am so happy that I am undrafted. The journey made me who I am. I wouldn’t trade in being undrafted for being the first pick in the draft.”
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