Free agency not necessarily end of the road for undrafted rookies

Former Clemson safety Robert Smith signed a free-agent contract with the Indianapolis Colts Saturday. Gwinn Davis/Special to The Post and Courier/File

CLEMSON — Being an undrafted free agent isn’t as bad as it sounds on the surface. The positive part is right there in the middle: free.

Players left out of the NFL draft’s 256 picks are free to deal with whichever suitor they choose, foregoing the haggling process once it’s time to sign a contract.

On the other hand, the money’s not great — even preferred free agents are guaranteed very little cash up front. Plus, as former Clemson safety and Woodland product Robert Smith found out Saturday, it’s a hectic free-for-all once 32 teams are off the clock.

“It happens fast. It happens real fast,” Smith said Monday in a phone interview from his home in St. George. “You’ve kind of got to make a (quick) decision because you can’t sit there and tell them to hold on for 30 minutes, or they’re going to move on to another quality player if you say ‘no.’ ”

Smith was officially unemployed for less than half an hour, agreeing to terms with the Indianapolis Colts quickly after the conclusion of the draft. Defensive end Corey Crawford (Redskins) and quarterback Cole Stoudt (Chargers) were two other former Clemson players who didn’t wait long to sign free-agent deals.

In Smith’s case, he said during the seventh round a team besides the Colts called him and was presumably prepared to select Smith. When that didn’t happen, that same team called Smith back within 10 minutes of the final pick; when Smith didn’t feel right about signing there, he accepted the Colts’ offer on his next phone call.

“They went a different way; that’s usually how things work in the NFL, it’s a business,” Smith said, declining to divulge the identity of that team. “That kind of threw me a curveball. I’m proud to be where I’m at, I made a great decision and I knew the Colts have liked me for a long time.”

Smith made 159 tackles in the previous two seasons as a starter in Clemson’s secondary.

Although Smith was a spread quarterback in high school and only switched to safety in college to develop for the next level, Smith found a role model who used to star for his new squad.

“The one thing that stuck out to me was Bob Sanders,” Smith said. “I remember him: No. 21, hard hitter, relentless. Growing up paying attention to the Colts, besides Peyton Manning, people pretty much remember Bob Sanders.”

Of course, much more is invested in the Sammy Watkins and Vic Beasley types at the professional ranks. But Smith doesn’t have to look very hard to see anything is possible.

For one, Clemson’s rival quarterback at South Carolina made it happen. Connor Shaw was not drafted last spring, but latched on with the Cleveland Browns and started Week 17 against the Ravens, and hasn’t been ruled out of the Browns’ mix for this coming season.

As for Clemson products, former offensive lineman Jeff Bostic was not drafted in 1980, earned All-Pro honors in 1983 and went on to win three Super Bowls with the Washington Redskins.

The school’s all-time leading scorer also wasn’t drafted last spring. But kicker Chandler Catanzaro won the Cardinals’ starting job last fall and made 29 of 33 field goal attempts.

Tight end Michael Palmer has played 74 games with the Falcons and Steelers in five years. Receiver Jaron Brown went undrafted in 2013 yet has played all 16 games in both his NFL seasons with Arizona, making 33 catches.

So there’s precedent for Smith, Crawford, Stoudt, Adam Humphries, Garry Peters and others to earn an NFL paycheck come September or thereafter. Players who get cut before the active roster is whittled to 53 men will not get to bank any base salary.

“Nothing’s guaranteed, even after the third round. Everybody has to go out there and fight,” Smith said. “I’ve been preparing for this moment my whole life. I’ll go out there with my mentality that it’s all or nothing. As long as you do what you have to do, you’ll never regret it in the end.”