Former Heels left waiting

The undrafted can't sign yet

Staff WriterMay 6, 2011 

Zack Pianalto watched every minute of the NFL draft on television and waited to hear his name.

And waited ... and waited some more.

After seven rounds and 254 players were drafted, the only thing that the former North Carolina tight end can do now is wait. With the NFL lockout, Pianalto and the other undrafted college players can't sign free-agent contracts or even talk to prospective teams.

"It's a tough situation," Pianalto said. "Hopefully, the lockout has a chance to be lifted soon, and we'll be able to find free-agent deals."

Typically after the draft, teams load up on undrafted free agents, with about 350 finding spots in minicamps across the league and working their way to training camp. As many as 60 undrafted players usually make an opening-day roster for the NFL's 32 teams.

That's less than 20 percent of undrafted players that fulfill their pro dreams. Those are the odds facing Pianalto and UNC teammates Kendric Burney, Deunta Williams, Mike Ingersoll, Shaun Draughn and Anthony Elzy. South Carolina tight end Weslye Saunders, N.C. State receiver Owen Spencer and Wake Forest running back Josh Adams find themselves in the same limbo.

They can take heart in knowing that 2010 was unofficially the "Year of the Undrafted Free Agent" in the NFL. Twenty-three undrafted free agents made the Pro Bowl, and the Green Bay Packers started two of them, cornerback Sam Shields and linebacker Frank Zombo, in their Super Bowl XLV win over Pittsburgh.

Those examples keep Burney, who was projected to go as high as the third round by some analysts, remarkably upbeat in the aftermath of the draft snub. His family had a cookout set up at their Jacksonville home for both Friday, in case he went in the third round, and for Saturday's final four rounds.

For almost 60 picks during Saturday's broadcast on ESPN, and for more than hour, Burney's name was tantalizingly displayed on the ESPN crawl as Mel Kiper Jr.'s "top available" prospect. That was as close as Burney came to seeing his name posted on the draft board.

"I can't lie, it was frustrating" Burney said. "At the same time, it's more fuel to the fire."

Williams' draft cameo was even worse. When Tennessee tight end Luke Stocker went in the fourth round, the highlight of Williams breaking his right leg in UNC's Music City Bowl win (while tackling Stocker) was shown twice in a 60-second clip on the NFL Network.

Burney, Williams, Pianalto and Saunders were projected as top NFL prospects before the season started by Kiper.

After catching 32 passes as a junior, Saunders did not play in 2010, when the Gamecocks won their first SEC East title.

The 6-foot-5 South Carolina tight end, whose father is a metro columnist for The News & Observer, was dismissed from the team at South Carolina for a violation of team rules. Saunders later admitted to lying to the NCAA about accepting impermissible benefits from a Columbia, S.C., friend classified as a runner for an agent.

Then he was unable to show off his talents at the NFL combine because of a broken bone in his right foot.

Burney (seven games) and Williams (four) were both docked games by the NCAA for accepting improper benefits and their association with former UNC player Chris Hawkins, whom the NCAA has defined as an agent. In a truncated senior season, neither Burney nor Williams was able to duplicate their All-ACC form from the 2009 season when UNC had the best defense in the conference and one of the best in the country.

Williams' gruesome leg injury - he broke his right fibula at the ankle joint - prevented him from working out for NFL teams before the draft, and he is still rehabilitating his leg.

Pianalto was in the middle of a career year - 30 catches in six games - before he broke his right fibula and missed the final seven games.

Still, the trio of UNC players had dotted mock draft boards across the Internet and seemed certain to get picked, even if in the later rounds. Pianalto even heard from different teams on Saturday during the draft about the possibility of being their pick.

"To be completely honest, those lists mean nothing," Pianalto said. "No disrespect to Mel Kiper or Todd McShay, but they have no idea who's going to perform or who's going to get suspended or who's going to get hurt. They're just putting names on a list."

So while UNC had a school-record nine players taken in the draft, which tied Southern California for the most this year by any college, there was still some hand-wringing over the players who didn't get picked.

"I don't get it," said former UNC quarterback T.J. Yates, who was drafted by the Houston Texans in the fifth round. "That was such a shock. I mean, maybe I can see the injury concerns with Zack or Deunta, but Kendric? Come on.

"Are you kidding me? Kendric made a ton of plays for us."

There were 53 defensive backs drafted, but not Burney or his close friend Williams, a fact not lost on Burney.

"Deunta and I are going to have a great story to tell when we finally retire," Burney said. "I'm not the type to hate on anybody, but once I get [to an NFL camp], I'm going to work harder than anybody there."

Burney acknowledged teams have reservations about his height (5-9) and the 40-yard dash time he turned in at the pre-draft combine (4.7 seconds), but he suggested teams take a look at the tape from his four-year career, which included 11 interceptions.

"If you can make plays, it all cancels out," Burney said.

Injury issues damaged Pianalto's prospects. In his four-year career, he missed 24 games for a variety of injuries, compared with 27 games played. He had recovered from his latest leg injury to work out at the combine and at UNC's pro day at the end of March.

Before the draft, he worked out for Cleveland, Philadelphia and New England. The Browns and Patriots took tight ends, two of only 13 selected in this year's draft.

"There were a lot of teams scared by the injuries, which is understandable," Pianalto said.

Pianalto graduated from UNC with a degree in communications in December. He always wanted to be a football coach, but he said he hasn't really thought about a Plan B. Like a lot of recent college graduates, his future is unclear, but that hasn't hampered his sense of humor.

He joked he will go "wherever the wind takes me." He's eager to prove his worth on the field, though.

"There's still an opportunity, as long as you get a spot in camp, chance to prove yourself, that's all that really matters," Pianalto said.

Until then, Pianalto and the other undrafted players have no choice but to wait.

jp.giglio@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8938

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