Despite signing with the Los Angeles Chargers as a coveted undrafted free agent (UDFA), the odds of making an NFL roster have become stacked against Joe Gaziano.
Gaziano is one of 50 defensive lineman who qualify as UDFAs according to Spotrac. There were 87 d-lineman signed after the 2019 draft, and only 38 of them are guaranteed a portion of their contract entering 2020. Daniel Wise, a defensive tackle for the Dallas Cowboys, is guaranteed more money than any other 2019 undrafted defensive lineman free agent…with $100,000. He did not even play in an NFL game last season. Although this statistic may seem staggering in itself, it may be even harder for defensive lineman — and other position players — UDFAs to find jobs with COVID-19’s presence this year.
Sure, there are plenty of UDFA success stories. Tyler Lancaster, defensive tackle for the Packers, is one name that comes to mind. Beyond the former Wildcat, defensive UDFAs James Harrison, Cameron Wake and Michael Bennett have all built impressive careers in the NFL.
Unfortunately for Gaziano and the 49 other UDFA defensive linemen, COVID-19 may prevent them the same opportunities their predecessors had in making an NFL roster.
While the NFL has successfully conducted its free agency period and annual draft in the face of the novel coronavirus, many remaining components of the NFL offseason will be hard to complete.
In a world free of COVID, the 2020 NFL offseason schedule for rookies would have aligned like this: in early May, all clubs would host separate rookie minicamps. In mid-July, training camps for rookies would open a week before the veterans arrive.
According to Gilbert Manzano, Chargers beat writer for the Orange County Register and Los Angeles Daily News, these offseason programs are vital for rookies, especially undrafted rookies, in order to make a name for themselves in their new organizations.
The New Orleans Saints have already cancelled their offseason program, and all NFL teams will almost certainly follow suit. Although the NFL initially scheduled virtual offseason workouts to take place through May 15th, the workouts now extend through May. Training camp in mid-July may be delayed.
Teams will be permitted to begin opening their facilities with 50 percent capacity on May 19 as long as local regulations permit, according to a memo sent to clubs by Commissioner Roger Goodell. But, the only players allowed in facilities will be those “currently undergoing medical treatment or rehabilitation,” and it remains to be seen when significant team activities can take place.
The Chargers will be at a disadvantage as California’s stay-at-home order is stricter than those in other parts of the nation, said AP NFL writer Joe Reedy. He said it’s anyone’s guess when the team will be able to open its facility.
Cancelling offseason programs and conducting them remotely, hit undrafted free agents like Gaziano the hardest.
“If the UDFAs lose May, June and then all of July, you are kind of close coming into it in August, and then you are worried about how behind these guys are,” Manzano said. “You can learn the playbook, but without reps on the field, it won’t do you any favors. This is a concern for rookies who then get there and are immediately competing with guys like Bosa and Ingram. If you are not keeping up with those guys, it looks bad on your part.”
Another issue here, according to Manzano, is the lack of position battles in training camp. Usually, there are some scattered camp battles between undrafted free agents and veterans. With a shortened offseason, coaches may bank on veterans when trimming down rosters due to the limited reps UDFAs will see this offseason.
If the NFL does have a preseason, it would benefit UDFAs. In Gaziano’s case, Manzano believes he has a chance at making the Chargers roster due to Los Angeles’ need at defensive end.
“If Isaac Rochelle [a backup defensive end on the roster] slips up…maybe Joe can compete with him and win one of those battles,” he said.
While it is possible that NFL coaches will devote their attention towards a team’s starters once the season resumes to make sure the most valuable players are up to speed, Manzano believes it is more nuanced than this.
He said while most think the coaching staff would favor the starters, they think all about the 53 guys, especially since the Chargers suffered many injuries in 2019.
“Especially in a unique offseason where you are trying to speed everything up, maybe that leads to a lot of injuries down the line,” Manzano said. “You need those backups to back these guys up, and I think the Chargers will think about that.”