Wednesday, May 19, 2004 By Len Pasquarelli ESPN.com In one of his first meetings with the freshman class of 2004, coach Tony Dungy offered his new recruits a videotape montage of some of the big plays authored by Indianapolis Colts rookie free agents last season. The graphic illustration, highlighting the contributions of five undrafted youngsters who earned spots on the Indianapolis roster a year ago, was both inspiration for the nearly two dozen walk-ons in attendance, as well as validation for the aggressive manner in which the Colts' personnel department typically attacks the free-agent market. Dungy and the Colts have a history of relying on undrafted rookies. Principally under the direction of team president and general manager Bill Polian, few teams have been as consistent as the Colts at unearthing productive players in the frenetic free-agent meat market that actually begins hours before the draft concludes. And the bet is, even more than two months before the beginning of training camp, that Polian and his staff will strike pay dirt again, and that the Indianapolis free-agent class of '04 will turn out a few more contributors. "I don't know that we're necessarily more aggressive than other teams," said Dungy. "We do place a premium on the draft, though, and we consider all the free agents that we sign to be a part of our draft class. You can look at the history here, which is something that we stress to players, and see that we give our free agents a chance to play and to make the roster if they're good enough. Our approach has paid off." In part, because the Colts have recently paid out more than most teams to secure free agents, with this year being no exception. According to NFL Players Association documents, the Colts invested $179,000 in signing bonuses for their undrafted free agents this year. That is nearly $50,000 more than the No. 2 team doled out and almost triple the NFL average of $62,656 per franchise. Indianapolis awarded signing bonuses to 22 of the 23 undrafted players it signed. The Colts ranked third leaguewide in 2003 in signing bonus money paid to free agents. There were 23 free agents who pocketed signing bonuses of $15,000 or more and the Colts signed three of them. Two of the Indianapolis free agents, tailback Ran Carthon of Florida and defensive back Louis Ayeni of Northwestern, were among the eight players who received signing bonuses of $20,000 or more. None of the emphasis that Indianapolis places on luring free agents should come as a surprise. In previous incarnations at Buffalo and Carolina, Polian characteristically had strong free-agent classes. Dungy laughed when asked if he had a soft spot for free agents but the fact he entered the NFL as an undrafted player with Pittsburgh in 1977, and saw firsthand the equal opportunity tutelage offered by coach Chuck Noll and his staff, can't help but have affected him. The upshot of the shared Polian-Dungy paradigm for bringing quality undrafted free agents, not just training camp bodies, to the team: The Colts' final 2003 roster included 14 players, among the highest count in the league, who began their NFL careers as free agents. Indianapolis started four former undrafted players -- tight ends Marcus Pollard and Joe Dean Davenport, right guard Tupe Peko and center Jeff Saturday -- in last year's AFC championship game. Indianapolis, as Dungy noted earlier this week, got meaningful contributions from at least five rookie free agents last season: linebacker Gary Brackett, defensive back Anthony Floyd, fullback Tom Lopienski, and wide receivers Aaron Moorehead and Brad Pyatt. The last of that quintet, Pyatt was signed almost as an afterthought, after he wasn't taken in the summertime supplemental draft. So even months after the regular-phase draft, the Colts personnel department was still scouring for viable prospects. "It's a testimony to our scouts," Dungy said. "We're committed to bringing in people who can help us. If the draft ends, and there are still guys on our board with good grades and we feel strongly about them, we're going to go after them. You play the odds and you trust in your scouts. And we've been a team that has paid. If an extra $2,500 (in signing bonus money) is going to close a deal for us, we'll do it. It counts against our rookie (allocation) pool but, for a player we like, we'll be competitive (financially)." Of course, one reason the Colts have recently invested so heavily in free agents is that the cap room apportioned to the franchise's high-profile offensive stars like Peyton Manning means the Indianapolis roster has to include some less expensive, fixed-income players. The fact Indianapolis is willing to go the extra mile, or the additional thousands bucks or so, doesn't always guarantee results. But one of the elements indicative of the focus that teams place on securing viable free agents is the financial angle. Beyond the Colts, there were four other teams -- Dallas ($132,500), Cleveland ($124,500), Minnesota ($123,000) and the New York Giants ($105,000) -- that spent six figures on free agent bonuses. Four of the top five franchises this year were also in the top five spenders in 2003. In the money There are 10 undrafted college free agents this year who received signing bonuses of more than $15,000. A look at those 10: Player -- Team -- Bonus OT Brad Lekkerkerker -- Texans -- $25,000 CB Roc Alexander -- Broncos -- $20,000 FS Louis Ayeni -- Colts -- $20,000 RB Ran Carthon -- Colts -- $20,000 OT Tyson Clabo -- Broncos -- $20,000 FS Kentrell Curry -- Browns -- $20,000 LB Ryan Fuller -- Cowboys -- $20,000 OG Shannon Snell -- Broncos -- $20,000 DT Jon Bradley -- Eagles -- $17,500 FB Lousaka Polite -- Cowboys -- $17,500 --Len Pasquarelli There was, as of May 14, a total of 442 free agent signings. Of that group, 343 players received signing bonuses, ranging from $500 to $25,000. Sixty-eight players received signing bonuses of at least $10,000. Fifteen players got $15,000 in upfront money and eight earned $20,000 or more. The Denver Broncos invested only $87,500 in signing bonuses but three of their six free agents each got $20,000 in upfront payments. In all, teams spent slightly in excess of $2 million on signing bonuses for free agents. That is a modest increase over the 2003 total of $1.969 million. From an individual standpoint, the big winner was offensive tackle Brad Lekkerkerker from the University of California-Davis, who received a $25,000 signing bonus from the Houston Texans. The mammoth Lekkerkerker (6-feet-7 and 317 pounds) is an intriguing guy who drew serious interest from nine teams. Lekkerkerker didn't play any sports in high school and then spent the next four years working on the family farm before enrolling in college. He is raw and overaged, at 25, but a legitimate prospect. Agent Michael Vlaming noted that there was at least one other team that offered a $25,000 signing bonus, but that his client opted for the Texans because he felt they offered the best competitive opportunity. "It was," acknowledged Vlaming early this week, "pretty hectic just trying to balance the phone calls from all the different teams." The $25,000 signing bonus Lekkerkerker earned is actually more than five teams invested in signing bonuses for their entire free-agent classes. Some franchises, like Tennessee, are cap-strapped and, while signing lots of free agents, simply can't afford much upfront cash for undrafted players. The Titans signed 27 players but paid out just $18,500 in bonuses, including $2,500 to tailback Jarrett Payton, son of the late Walter Payton. For the second consecutive year, the St. Louis Rams spent just $7,500 on their free agent signing bonuses, the lowest amount in the league. Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.