Success in Collegiate Free Agency Stems from Commitment to the System, Polian Says
INDIANAPOLIS – The trend started early.
And that it did made sense, because Bill Polian – entering his 12th season as the Colts' President and the man overseeing draft-day decisions and personnel acquisitions – long has believed that when it comes to the NFL Draft, the process doesn't end when the television cameras shut down.
At that point, what Polian considers a critical part of the draft is only beginning.
That part? Acquiring rookie free agents.
The Colts, in addition to being one of the NFL's most-successful drafting teams under Polian, long have been one of the most successful in terms of signing collegiate free agents.
The reason, Polian said, is fairly simple.
The Colts don't just talk about collegiate free agency.
And they don't just sort of look at late-round/free-agent type players.
They take it very, very seriously.
"We just believe that in seven-round drafts there are players who are capable of playing in the NFL who go undrafted for one reason or another," Polian said as he prepared for the April 25-26 NFL Draft, which will be held at Radio City Music Hall in New York City.
"If you feel you have that kind of player, you ought to pursue it."
The Colts not only have pursued collegiate free agents as hard as any NFL team under Polian, they have been among the league's best at turning those players into contributors.
Terrence Wilkins. Gary Brackett.
Josh Thomas. Dominic Rhodes.
None were drafted, and all developed into critical players for the Colts. All also played on the Super Bowl XLI Champions following the 2006 season.
Brackett, Rhodes and Thomas all played for the Colts last season, and while Rhodes and Thomas' futures with the Colts are uncertain because of their free-agency status, Brackett has started the past four seasons and has been defensive captain the last three seasons.
The trend has continued in recent seasons, with third-year safety Melvin Bullitt – a rookie free agent from Texas A&M in 2007 – developing into one of the league's top reserves at his position and defensive tackle Eric Foster starting games last season. Foster signed as an undrafted free agent from Rutgers after the 2008 NFL Draft. Running back Chad Simpson, an undrafted rookie free agent last season, is expected to compete for a backup role next season.
The trend of impact rookie free agents began early in Polian's tenure. He signed Wilkins in 1999, and he became one of the NFL's top punt and kick returners as a rookie. Two years later, the Colts signed Rhodes, who became the first collegiate free agent to rush for more than 1,000 yards as a rookie.
So, why the success?
"I think our grades are accurate," Polian said. "That's the short answer."
He said the longer answer is that the Colts don't just focus on first-round players when preparing for a draft, nor do they focus mainly on "draftable" players.
"The whole thing's a continuum," Polian said. "It's a process. You start with the first round and you go through the last collegiate free agent signed. You try to bring an analysis to the subject that gets you to the point where every guy has a realistic chance to make the team. That almost never happens, but we put as much work into the last collegiate free agent as we do the first-rounders. That's what all the time is devoted to."
And at the same time, Polian said that's where something of a gap exists between the perception of outsiders regarding a team's preparation for the draft and the reality of the process. A glance on the internet or a spin around the stalk radio dial in a given March or April will reveal no shortage of mock drafts. The overwhelming majority of those include 32 selections – the entire first round. The reality of draft preparation, Polian said, is far different.
"Because of the nature of your business, you guys focus on the first round," Polian said. "We're probably past that faster than you can blink an eye and focused on all of the rest of it."