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A broken process? Lies and high pressure are the norm for undrafted free agents in the NFL

Published: Sunday, July 5 2015 12:32 p.m. MDT

Brigham Young defensive lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014. (Michael Conroy, Associated Press) Brigham Young defensive lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Monday, Feb. 24, 2014. (Michael Conroy, Associated Press)

Editor's note: This is the third in an occasional series on a group of local athletes trying to make NFL rosters. The Deseret News will follow the seven men for the next year as they struggle to make their dreams come true on the most high-profile stage in sports.

“Undrafted free agency is the single worst part of my profession. It’s a completely broken terrible process. Feel awful for the kids.”

That was one of three tweets posted by agent David Canter after the NFL draft ended last Saturday night. He took some heat on social media for criticizing the process, but not only does he feel the system undermines the ability of undrafted free agents to succeed, he has some suggestions on how it needs to change.

While he’s not alone, there are powerful obstacles to real change — including some of the agents who represent players and the NFL teams who employ them.

“One of the problems in the business is that there are agents who really care about the players,” Canter said, “and there are agents who really care about their wallets.”

The single biggest issue with the undrafted free agent process for rookies may be that dishonesty is an accepted practice.

“You have to know the first thing that goes on in the football business is that everyone lies for a living,” Canter said.

The lies serve a number of purposes, including leading players to believe teams are more interested in them than they really are. Players want to go where they’re wanted because they feel they’ll have a better shot at making a team. That, in turn, gives teams an edge when players have more than one offer.

“You don’t really know the truth,” said agent Evan Brennan. “Teams rank players and where they rank them is very, very secret. ... What the NFL thinks about a player is very secret. Just because a team has an interest in a player doesn’t mean they will offer him. It’s not in the team’s interest to delineate between the two. It’s like trying to read tea leaves that are constantly moving.”

So what happens is that even before the draft ends, teams start calling undrafted players and offering them free agent deals. The only stipulation is that they have to decide immediately.

It’s the ultimate high-pressure sales pitch.

“It’s worse than high pressure,” Brennan said. “Duress, I would say. ... It’s a flawed system. It’s unlike any other negotiation you’ll ever see.”

The problem is illustrated by the situation Canter faced with former BYU defensive lineman Eathyn Manumaleuna last Saturday night.

While some saw Manumaleuna going as high as the fifth round of the draft, others felt he was a very valuable free agent. So when he went undrafted, Canter expected to hear from the teams who had expressed interest in the senior lineman.

“Right after the draft, all the teams that we thought were going to call, didn’t call,” Canter said. “Twenty minutes after the draft, nobody called. Thirty minutes after the draft, nobody called.”

In a game where minutes are crucial, Canter began calling teams on Manumaleuna’s behalf. The Timpview graduate quickly accepted an offer from the New York Giants, and Canter said he’s thrilled to be in New York. That doesn’t change the unfairness of the situation he faced.

“Thirty minutes later, he has three other offers,” Canter said, including Denver and Baltimore. The problem is that Manumaleuna didn’t get to decide where he had the best chance at making a team or what system might allow him to excel, he simply had to take the Giants’ offer because he didn’t know if he’d get others.

Canter suggests not allowing teams to sign players until the following day.

“Use a lottery system,” he said. “Every team could submit a bid and players could go to the rosters, spend a night analyzing the offers, talking to coaches, their families and the players could pick teams.”

Currently, most teams have all the free agents they’ll need within an hour of the end of the draft.

“If it’s been an hour, you’ve got to get nervous,” Canter said.

Brennan agrees the time frame allowed to consider free agent deals should be longer.

“People have to have time to consider offers,” he said. “Right not, it’s whoever commits first.”

In order to change the system, however, teams and agents would have to agree to a system that gives undrafted players more power.

Brennan said critics often become the subject of criticism from within their own ranks. “If anyone is whining about this, there are agents who will say, ‘Well, they’re just not prepared’,” Brennan said. “There are agents who will try to one-up someone else and make it look like it was poor research or poor planning. They say they don’t mind the system because they’re prepared. But this situation could be changed. It really isn’t a situation that exists anywhere else in life.”

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