Not being drafted is not the end of the world. Last season, roughly a quarter of NFL players weren’t picked in their respective drafts.
Rare, however, is the undrafted player who makes an immediate impact and achieves longevity in the league. Texans running back Arian Foster, undrafted in 2009 and then a Pro Bowler from 2010 to ’12, is a true anomaly. Seldom do players of his caliber slip through the NFL’s expansive scouting machine.
Russell Allen is also an anomaly. Picked up by the Jaguars in 2009 after four forgettable seasons at San Diego State, the 27-year-old SAM linebacker is now entering his fifth season. In 2012, he finished fifth in the NFL with 107 solo tackles. The MMQB asked Allen to give us a primer on how an undrafted rookie can beat the odds and stick with an NFL team.
I made my share of mistakes when I was a rookie, and in the four seasons since I made the team, I’ve seen other undrafted rookies repeat the same mistakes and invent new ones.
There are minor errors—like playing general manager in your head and trying to figure out who’s getting cut instead of strictly focusing on what you can control—and then there are the big no-nos. We had a player a few years ago who was repeatedly late to meetings and actually missed a team flight. Around teammates, he behaved as though he was a 10-year veteran who was headed to the Hall of Fame. He even talked about his hypothetical second contract. He was promptly shown the door, and no longer plays in the NFL.
But that player’s cockiness isn’t the norm. It’s hard to admit, but being undrafted can damage your confidence. Before my first camp I had moments of thinking Maybe everyone else is that much better than me, and when I get there I’ll realize I don’t belong. But as soon as I arrived, I knew I could play at this level. You just have to trust in your abilities and let it fly every time you take the field. Yes, there will be mistakes, and your coaches will yell—I definitely had some issues along the way with coaches who made it tougher for me—but that’s part of the game. Football, at every level, is a game. Don’t make it bigger than it really is. You are on a roster because you’re an elite athlete who plays the game at an extremely high level. That’s how you have to think of yourself.
When you get to camp, identify a successful veteran and latch onto him. Learn what makes him tick; there’s a reason he’s been doing it for as long as he has. I observed Daryl Smith, a linebacker who played for the Jags for nine years before the Ravens picked him up this offseason. He might be the most underrated player in the NFL. There was never a time he actually sat down and taught me, but I learned just from watching him, being around him, chatting with him. He has an ability to make the game simple. He doesn’t overdo it. It’s almost effortless. He’s always under control. He always understands the moment.
You aren’t a GM, so don’t try to think like one. When I first arrived in camp, I tried to read between the lines. I knew there were 80 guys and only 53 spots on the final roster, so I kept attempting to do the math and figure out who was going to make the team. That will drive you crazy and keep you awake at night. And it always turns out completely different than what you expect. Because you have so little control, you’ll over-analyze everything. I learned the hard way not to do that. Just play ball!
They’re watching you, on and off the field. They’re watching and re-watching every play from practice on tape. And you’re being graded and analyzed not only by your coaches, but by the front office as well. So, as the saying goes, play every play like it’s your last. Because if you don’t, it could be. At some point during my first camp, a scout said something about a practice rep from the week before. I was like, Oh jeez, he saw that? In Jacksonville we’ve had guys who didn’t understand the gravity of each play, every day. They come in and they’ve been on scholarship for four years, so they think Oh yeah, I’ll get it right tomorrow. It doesn’t work that way anymore.
You are now a professional football player, which means your body is your business. Take advantage of any and all resources offered by your club to help keep your body at its peak. Sixteen games is a long season, especially when you consider the four preseason games, which will be the most important games of your life! The only chance you have to stay healthy and strong is to do all the little things, even when you don’t feel like it. We like to say, “Availability supersedes ability.” Don’t miss an opportunity because you didn’t take care of your body. I have seen extremes in both directions and I can assure you, the guys who take their physical preparation seriously are the ones who stick around in this league. Everyone wants to make it to the NFL. Some of us want to stay.