There are always dozens of stories that come out of cutdown weekend, which was Labor Day weekend in the NFL. There’s one that has a happy ending that also illustrates a couple factors you usually see in players that make teams despite long odds.

Browns defensive back Robert Nelson made the 53 (not the practice squad) in Cleveland this year despite not being drafted. That’s rare, but not crazy. However, what IS crazy is that he made the team only after arriving on a tryout basis the week after the draft. In other words, he arrived at camp without even having signed a contract as an undrafted free agent. He was in town with 20 other players (16 from FBS schools) competing for one contract, and he made it.

Here’s what I find interesting:

  • The percentage of undrafted free agents who make rosters is usually pegged at about eight percent. I don’t know of anyone who’s ever figured the percentage of tryout players who actually make rosters, but I’d guess it would be under one percent. Nelson got the job despite competing with 12 other undrafted free agents in camp with the Browns AFTER competing with 20 just to get a UDFA deal; he was a true long shot. In essence, he made the team twice despite going undrafted.
  • One reason the Browns may have been able to slide him in on a tryout basis is that he plays in the west. Yes, the Pac-12 is a big-time conference, but there are just fewer scouts trolling the western states. It’s much easier to send scouts around to see dozens of schools in the east, where population is denser. Sleepers are rare, but they’re more common in the west.
  • Even with Nelson’s obvious ability, he probably wouldn’t have gotten a Browns invite but for two factors that were primarily coincidental (both are mentioned in the above linked article). One, he had the game of this life on the day the Browns were scouting Oregon State WR Brandin Cooks, a player they liked quite a bit. Two, one of the Browns coaches, Jeff Hafley, had a connection to Arizona State, most likely due to someone he had worked with along the line.

We always hear of players who beat the odds, who wind up making teams despite having very little chance of doing so. There are always interesting facets to each of these players’ stories. I hope this story just goes to show the capricious way things work out in the NFL these days. Even with scouting techniques incredibly advances and armies of evaluators out there breaking down players, there are still those that slip through the cracks.