Why so many undrafted rookies made cut

September, 8, 2011
9/08/11
5:11
PM ET
The Seattle Seahawks found four roster spots for undrafted rookie free agents heading into Week 1. The San Francisco 49ers set aside three spots for them.

The trend has been less pronounced through most of the league, but the overall numbers -- 58 undrafted rookies on rosters at present -- have defied expectations.

The odds seemed to be against these rookies during a lockout-shortened offseason with less time for player development. That was the thinking, anyway. Veteran players seemed likely to benefit.

But with 10 teams keeping at least three undrafted rookies and four more teams keeping two, the numbers have remained stable. There were 57 undrafted rookies on rosters in Week 1 last season, according to the NFL. The figures ranged from 33-45 over a six-year run ending in 2009. They were higher in 2003 (63) and 2002 (60).

I've done some general comparisons with current rosters and those from Week 1 last season. There has been no meaningful change in the number of draft choices sticking on rosters. The numbers are right around 200 with their original teams, and a few more that have landed elsewhere after getting released.

Likewise, the number of players aged 35 and older has held firm at right around 45. There are fewer players 30 and older overall, however. Those numbers were 324 in Week 1 last season and 298 now, according to the rosters I maintain and regularly check against official ones. Overall team age averages have declined slightly from 26.92 a year ago to 26.83 now.

Why would the numbers for undrafted rookies hold firm following a lockout? I'm not sure, but when in doubt, follow the money.

It's possible some players in their early 30s are feeling the pinch while teams go with more affordable alternatives. Re-signing older players after Week 1 has long had appeal because veterans' salaries are not guaranteed if deals are signed at that point.

The league's salary cap remains flat for the next couple of seasons, and these rookies are more affordable than some of their older counterparts. The new labor agreement requires undrafted rookies to sign three-year deals at bargain prices. If teams hit on these players, they have them locked in at a bargain. If they miss, they can cut them without consequence.

I reached out to recently retired Arizona Cardinals fullback Jason Wright, who had expected fewer rookies to make the cut. In retrospect, he suggested this could simply be a stronger undrafted crop than usual. But the financial implications also came to mind.

"Younger guys are going to have lower cap numbers that give teams room to go after free agents in the future," Wright said. "Teams will have more flexibility to change their rosters in the future and still remain above minimum spending amounts."

Multiple factors could be in play, varying by team. Seattle and San Francisco have sought to go young in some areas. Dallas has had salary-cap concerns.

A quick look at undrafted rookies in the NFC West:

Seattle Seahawks (4)

Jeron Johnson, safety, Boise State: Beat out fifth-round draft choice Mark LeGree. Seattle had high hopes for LeGree on draft day, but Johnson made this choice easy.

Josh Portis, quarterback, California (Pa.): Showed enough promise during preseason to factor into the team's long-term plans if he continues on his current track.

Jarriel King, tackle, South Carolina: Claimed off waivers from the New York Giants. King had longer arms than any player at the combine, but the long arm of the law was too often longer when King was in college. Off-field issues kept teams from drafting him.

Doug Baldwin, receiver, Stanford: It's interesting that Baldwin stuck in Seattle when his college coach, Jim Harbaugh, was in San Francisco. The 49ers drafted USC's Ronald Johnson, then cut him and didn't sign him to their practice squad. Seattle sees a bright future for Baldwin as a slot receiver.

San Francisco 49ers (3)

Demarcus Dobbs, defensive end, Georgia: Dobbs stood out repeatedly during preseason and made the 49ers feel good about keeping more defensive linemen than usual. As Harbaugh explained, it's tough finding big guys who move well.

Ian Williams, nose tackle, Notre Dame: Nose tackles are also tough to find.

Scott Tolzien, quarterback, Wisconsin: The 49ers wanted to keep a veteran quarterback, but they couldn't find one good enough to justify a roster spot. Might that change in the future? Tough to say.

St. Louis Rams (1)

Jake McQuaide, long-snapper, Ohio State: The Rams parted with longtime snapper Chris Massey, 32, after a strong camp from McQuaide.

Arizona Cardinals

None.

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