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Odds for NFL rookie free agents are long but not impossible

From left: Shaun Prater, Carrington Byndom, Jeff Beathard, Ronald Zamort and Trevon Hartfield are all battling to make the roster. (Photo by Adam Green/Arizona Sports)

TEMPE, Ariz. — Tony Jefferson didn’t need any motivation when he arrived for Cardinals offseason workouts as a rookie free agent out of Oklahoma in 2013.

“I didn’t really care who was in front of me,” Arizona’s fourth-year safety said. “I was just like ‘line ’em up and I’ll know who I have to beat out.’

“I had as much confidence in myself as ever, I was really mad that I didn’t get drafted, I had a chip on my shoulder about everything and I was ready to go out and give them some hell.”

Jefferson was so impressive in OTAs, mini-camp and training camp that he made the team and has been a mainstay in the secondary ever since. For every success story like Jefferson’s, however, there are a dozen sad stories. As many as four rookie free agents in a year have made the Cardinals roster over the past nine seasons, and as few as none. Seven have made the club in Bruce Arians’ three years as coach.

Some will only last a few days, some may get tryouts with other teams, some may make the practice squad and a tiny percentage will land roster spots. Regardless of outcome, the mindset has to be the same.

“You have to prove yourself every day, every play, every minute,” said Arizona State product Colin Parker, who made the Cardinals practice squad as an undrafted rookie free agent linebacker in 2012, but was cut at the end of 2013 training camp, Arians’ first year as coach.

“You really don’t get the opportunities and reps that some of the drafted or veterans guys get so you have to recognize that you have to prove yourself from the first minute or they’ll be moving on pretty quickly,” Parker said.

Rookie Trevon Hartfield is hoping the Cardinals’ need for depth at cornerback will play to his favor in this year’s camp. The Southwest Oklahoma State product chose the Cardinals in part due to their history with small-school players such as John Brown and David Johnson, and in part because he liked the people he met upon his visit.

“I watch Pat Pete(rson) a lot. I watch Tony a lot and Tony was obviously in the same situation I was in and he’s panned out very well here,” Hartfield said. “You kind of measure yourself against those guys and I think that’s what you have to do. If you come in thinking you want to make the practice squad you may not be here long.

“You have to look at the elite talent and say, ‘How do I compare to these guys? Can I play with these guys?’ And I feel I can.”

Jefferson said the reps that a rookie free agent gets are all magnified because of undrafted rookies’ place in the pecking order.

“Especially with the higher drafted guys, whether they come and perform or not, they’ve got the money invested in them to make the team so they’re going to get a better shots,” Jefferson said. “But there’s still those end of the roster sports where you have the opportunity whether you’re drafted or not and the great thing about this organization is, regardless of where you came from or how you got here, they don’t care. If you can help the team you can make it.”

Hartfield said he is trying not to focus too much on making splashy plays when he does get his opportunities.

“I just play my position to the best of my ability,” he said. “If you play your position the right way, those things will come, but sometimes, if you play your position the right way they may not even throw the ball your way, so I don’t look at getting picks or PBUs. I think that’s putting too much pressure on yourself. It’s really about learning how to be a pro, studying the playbook and getting in that film room more than anything.”

Jefferson’s fate was decided three years ago. Hartfield’s fate is still unknown. The hardest part, Parker said, is knowing when to let go after you have been cut.

“It’s toughest those first couple of months when you don’t know if you’re going to get a call tomorrow, six months down the road or never so you stay in shape,” said Parker, who works in sales for ADP and recently got engaged. “After the (2013) season ended and they were starting to do futures contracts and I wasn’t getting calls, I had to look hard in the mirror and ask if I wanted to keep chasing this dream.”

After a year in the NFL in 1989, Parker’s dad, Anthony, played for the New York/New Jersey Knights of the World League of American Football before finding his way back to the NFL for eight more seasons.

“For me, it was easier than for some others to move on because I knew I wanted to do the NFL or bust. I didn’t want to play in another league like the CFL and hope for another chance down the road,” Colin Parker said. “It did cross my mind because my dad is the perfect example, but when I weighed the pros and cons of staying in shape to see if this works and eventually leads to something, I just felt it was a better use of my time to move on.”

Time has cooled Jefferson’s anger and provided him with perspective on the trials he endured to make it to the NFL, and the trials others are facing this spring.

“The draft is cool and it definitely makes it easier, but it’s just a signing bonus and some money up front,” he said. “If you can play football, you’ll get your opportunity whether you get drafted or not.”

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The list of undrafted rookie free agents who made the Cardinals roster is short (source: azcardinals.com)

2015: LB Alani Fua, DT Xavier Williams

2014: K Chandler Catanzaro, LB Glenn Carson

2013: WR Jaron Brown, LB Kenny Demens, S Tony Jefferson

2012: WR LaRon Byrd

2011: None

2010: QB Max Hall, CB A.J. Jefferson, WR Max Komar, WR Stephen Williams

2009: LB Reggie Walker

2008: LB Ali Highsmith

2007: FB Tim Castille, C Lyle Sendlein

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