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Commentary: Tonight is Huge, Especially For the Undrafted Rookies

Everybody loves the underdog. The underdog is as American as Apple Pie and baseball football. We see it in everything from movies (Rocky I, Rocky II, Rocky III, Rocky IV, Rocky V, Rocky VI, Rocky VII, Rocky VIII, Rocky IX, Rocky X and in Rudy) to sports. Unless your team is the projected winner, you find yourself rooting for the underdog (unless the underdog is the Steelers).

The NFL has some great underdog stories, and not just classic games. Kurt Warner makes a good underdog story, as does Antonio Gates, Jeff Saturday and Tony Romo. They were all undrafted free agent rookies who went on to make a name for themselves. That doesn't happen very often. 

Last year, the Bengals began the season by keeping six undrafted free agents on their final 53-man roster (Cedric Peerman, Kyle Cook, Nate Livings, Dennis roland, Dan Skuta and Tom Nelson). That's six out of 53. That's only 11 percent of the team. If every NFL team averages about six undrafted rookies on their final rosters, that would equal out to be only 192 undrafted rookies among 1,696 players. If you're an undrafted free agent, you're chances aren't that great. 

The draft is there for a reason. The best college players go into the draft and get selected by teams to fill their roster. Undrafted free agents may have some sort of special circumstances that kept them out of the draft, or maybe they just got lucky.

Heading into the Bengals first preseason game of the 2011 season, the team has 13 undrafted rookies on their roster of 90 players. In the coming weeks, they'll have to trim that roster down to 53 and the vast majority of the undrafted rookies will be lost in the process. Those 13 are Jonathan Williams, Thomas Weber, Chris Riley, Matthew O'Donnell, Lolomana Mikaele, Bart Johnson, Jamere Holland, Andrew Hawkins, John Griffin, Stephen Franklin, DeQuin Evans, Landon Cox and Colin Cochart. Two or three of these guys may be lucky enough to find themselves on the final 53 roster and it's perfectly possible that none of them will.

The best and only chance that these 13 players have to make their dream of playing in the NFL a reality exist in the next few weeks when the Bengals play their four preseason games. Of those four games, the early ones, like the one tonight against the Lions, will be when they get the most playing time. Later in the preseason, the starters will play more and more often. So, tonight and next Sunday in New York, will be the best opportunity for the undrafted rookies to show that they're worth taking keeping around.

Head coach Marvin Lewis is going to be watching out for people who are making the most of those opportunities.

"It is going to put a premium on guys making the most of their opportunities," Lewis said. "At this point, practice time has to be devoted to the preparation of the (regular season) opener and the beginning part of the season.

"We have to continue evaluating while keeping our focus on our real target. Also, some of the young people have to stay focused on the development of play on special teams and on their offensive and defensive responsibilities. Hopefully, as we go, they get a chance to show those things early on."

The 13 undrafted rookies will be fighting an uphill battle. Guys who have stood out in camp, like Jonathan Williams and Colin Cochart, might have a leg up on the competition but they don't have a leg up on veterans or drafted players. They're going to have to do something special that the team can't get from any of the other players.

That's going to be a tough thing to do. I wish them the best of luck.

They're going to need it.