What is an undrafted free agent and how do the rules work?

The Niners have had a number of undrafted free agents who have made impacts over the years.
A general view of the NFL shield logo before the NFL Draft at
A general view of the NFL shield logo before the NFL Draft at / Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Nearly a third of NFL players start off their careers as undrafted free agents, so it helps to know how this classification works.

Each year, hundreds of pro-eligible players declare themselves ready for the annual NFL Draft toward the end of April.

Any given year, there are approximately 260 or so players who'll get drafted, leaving hundreds upon hundreds more who never got the phone call from a team during the three days of the draft itself.

While this can be disheartening, entering the league as an undrafted free agent does have its benefits.

So, what exactly is a free agent, and how does the system work for players who don't hear their names called on draft day?

What is an undrafted free agent in the NFL?

An undrafted free agent (UDFA) is a pro-eligible player who was not drafted by an NFL team between Rounds 1 through 7.

Having gone undrafted, the player becomes the rookie equivalent of an unrestricted free agent who can sign with any team that offers a contract.

Some are viewed as "priority" undrafted free agents who often command multiple UDFA offers from teams and can subsequently choose which offer, team and situation suits them best. UDFAs may consider the size of the contract, guaranteed money, signing bonuses, coaching staff and the likelihood of making the 53-man regular-season roster when making a final decision.

How much money do undrafted free agents earn?

Unlike drafted players, who are subject to a rookie wage scale set by the terms of the current collective bargaining agreement, UDFA players can sign for whatever money gets offered to them by teams. In some cases, that amount can be more than what drafted players must receive toward the very end of the draft.

Here's an excellent breakdown by Brett Yaris of Pro Football Network:

"Most times, NFL undrafted free agents sign for the league’s minimum salary of $750,000 per year. The length and size of UDFA deals can vary. For example, players who went undrafted have signed three-year contracts worth $2,470,000, which is the equivalent of $823,333 per year, with $45,000 guaranteed.

Still, other players have signed a three-year deal with teams for $2,425,000 and no guaranteed money, averaging $808,333 per year. It is entirely up to the team signing the player, which is different from how it works for drafted players who are subject to the rookie wage scale dependent on their draft slot."

Usually, teams only offer guaranteed money to UDFAs they feel have a good chance of making a 53-man roster, often to entice that player to sign there instead of joining another team.

However, many UDFA contracts contain zero guaranteed money, meaning the signing team would have zero salary cap ramifications if said player fails to make the regular-season roster.

Undrafted free agency and the 49ers

There are reasons why teams prefer to draft players in the later rounds instead of signing them as undrafted free agents.

Case in point, the San Francisco 49ers used the final pick of the 2022 NFL Draft on Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy although they could have waited until after the draft to sign him. However, had they pursued that route, Purdy could have signed elsewhere if the contract was more enticing, which would have forever changed the Niners' future from that point onward.

Additionally, San Francisco was able to budget Purdy's contractual value for the next four years because of the rookie wage scale for drafted players.

The 49ers have had other undrafted players make impacts in recent years, though.

Cornerback Charvarius Ward, who signed with the Niners as a high-profile free agent in 2022, began his NFL career as an undrafted free-agent pickup of the Kansas City Chiefs. While most UDFAs start off as long shots to make a 53-man roster, Ward made the most of his chances and turned into a Pro Bowl-caliber player.

In 2017, San Francisco signed former Southern Mississippi quarterback Nick Mullens as an undrafted free agent, and he rose to modest fame in 2018 after injuries to other signal-callers forced him into a starting role.

That same year, UDFA running back Matt Breida led the 49ers in rushing with 814 yards and enjoyed a career-best 5.3 yards per carry.

While most undrafted free agents fade into obscurity within a year or two, a handful of others establish themselves as crucial contributors at the NFL level for whichever teams took a chance on them.

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