By Len Pasquarelli

With last weekend's draft winding down, and the odds lengthening against West Virginia middle linebacker Grant Wiley hearing his name called among 255 selections, the phone lines began ringing incessantly in the Los Angeles office of agent Gary Wichard.

Even before the draft officially concludes with the choice of "Mr. Irrelevant," most teams usually begin trolling for free-agent candidates. And given that Wiley had recorded 492 tackles as a four-year starter for the Mountaineers, including 300 combined tackles in his final two seasons, it is not surprising that the gritty middle 'backer had multiple suitors.

Yet as Wichard and Wiley quickly assessed the opportunities, thumbing through rosters and trying to determine which proposal offered the best fit, the Minnesota Vikings began to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

Some of that advantage came from the fact that the Vikings' pitch included a signing bonus of $15,000, notably higher than those offered by other clubs interested in bringing Wiley to camp. It didn't hurt the Vikings' case, either, that incumbent middle linebacker Greg Biekert is set to retire, that heir apparent E.J. Henderson still faces some offseason legal difficulties, and that veteran Henri Crockett likely will be released before camp.

"But maybe the factor that most swayed (Wiley) to Minnesota is that the guy who called us was (vice president of football operations) Rob Brzezinski," recalled Wichard earlier this week. "A lot of teams might have some assistant in the personnel office hitting the phones. Most teams have their scouts calling around. Instead, here we were cutting right through all the red tape, talking with the guy who could make the decision. So, yeah, it meant something that Rob was the voice on the other end of the line."

It might not be that way, certainly, in all cases. But the feisty Wiley, whose lack of size and borderline speed probably kept him from being chosen, was considered a "priority free agent" on many draft boards. It was the Vikings, though, who went the extra mile. And when it comes to lining up free agents, a onetime afterthought that has evolved now into a frenetic scramble, Minnesota has become one of several clubs adroit in the recruiting process.

Truth be told, the energy invested in signing free agents, even the ones regarded in the "priority" subset, characteristically produces piddling returns. Over the last seven years, the average number of undrafted players who earn regular-season roster berths has held steady, at just under two per team. But it's become increasingly important to scouting departments to identify and acquire draft remnant players who have a chance to make the team, and some franchises have clearly honed that relatively esoteric craft.

There remains some teams, knocking around in the football Dark Ages, who still don't take the pursuit of undrafted free agents very seriously at all, and merely go through the motions. Those teams refuse to get into the five-figure signing bonuses it sometimes takes to land a player, and treat the free agent process as trivial. Then there are cap-strapped franchises, such as Tennessee and Indianapolis, who regularly sign 20-25 undrafted prospects because they require cheap labor to fill out camp rosters, and also understand they might unearth a nugget or two.

"You can see how some teams just take it more seriously and are more aggressive about it," said agent Joe Linta. "Yeah, there are some teams that set themselves apart, that you know you can call, and they'll at least be receptive to listening about a kid."

Not only have the Vikings put together consecutive draft classes that look impressive (all seven of the club's 2003 choices made the roster and the '04 group, at first blush, appears equally solid), but Minnesota seems to have brought in some promising free agents for a second year in a row. Offensive linemen Anthony Herrera (Tennessee) and Alan Reuber (Texas A&M) could make the team. Ben Nauman (Augustana, S.D.) reminds some of current Vikings free safety Brian Russell, who tied for the NFL lead in interceptions in 2003. At worst, Wiley could contribute on special teams.

Jarrett Payton, top, had 985 rushing yards for the 'Canes in 2003.
Among the other teams who seem to have hustled in the hour or two after the draft, and assembled interesting free-agent groups: Buffalo, Carolina, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Tennessee. The Colts signed tailback Ran Carthon (Florida) and the Titans got tailback Jarrett Payton (Miami), a nice touch for both clubs, finding spots for players with family connections to the league.

But it is players with far less recognizable surnames who are among the most compelling of the free agents. All of them, of course, have some sort of shortcomings. But with the practice squads increased to eight players for the 2004 season, there will be more free agents on payrolls. Here is a look at some other undrafted prospects with a legitimate shot to make a team's regular-season rosterE Uyi Osunde, Connecticut (signed by Cleveland): An undersized "tweener" who has played linebacker and end and could develop into a situational pass rusher. Not as quick as you'd like, but a high-energy player with some upside.

TE Ben Utecht, Minnesota (Indianapolis): Converted wide receiver with a large frame, caught 83 passes in career, and has decent speed. The Colts use a preponderance of two-tight end sets and that will help him.

WR Kendrick Starling, San Jose State (Houston): The Texans already have a pretty sound kickoff returner in J.J. Moses, but Starling, who averaged nearly 28 yards per runback in 2003 and has run in the 4.3s, could provide some competition for him.

TE Jason Peters, Arkansas (Buffalo): At the combine, checked in at 6-feet-4½ and 336 pounds and still ran an incredible 4.94 time in the 40. Might actually project better to left offensive tackle, may be the kind of kid you stash on the practice squad for a year, and allow him to develop.

DT Jordan Carstens, Iowa State (Carolina): A bit short-armed, but has gotten bigger and better every year after initialing making the team as a walk-on. Gritty competitor and better athlete than some people think.

CB Randall Gay, LSU (New England): Thin build, but has been clocked at under 4.4 in the 40, and is a fluid cover defender. Has played corner, "nickel" back and free safety. The Pats love having developmental-style corners around to groom for the future.

DE Tommy Kelly, Mississippi State (Oakland): Huge frame, has lined up at both end and tackle. Not a big sack threat but, at 302 pounds, might have a future as strong-side end and could perhaps move inside on passing downs.

WR Justin Jenkins, Mississippi State (Philadelphia): Built more like a tailback and only runs in the 4.6 range, but productive possession receiver with ability to beat the jam and to settle down in an open zone.

LB Roderick Royal, McNeese State (Atlanta): Has played both outside linebacker spots and some defensive end. Was clocked in the mid-4.6s and it won't hurt him that Atlanta is thin at linebacker.

FS Kentrell Curry, Georgia (Cleveland): Played all over the secondary for Bulldogs but saw only limited playing time in '03 because of injuries. Began the season as a potential high-round draft choice. Live body, good hitter, could play quickly on special teams.