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The conversation took place mere minutes after Brock Purdy’s first career start.
The San Francisco 49ers rookie quarterback had just guided a 35-7 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, completing 16-of-21 passes for 185 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers.
Now, before he even had a chance to jog off the Levi’s Stadium field, the Buccaneers’ …14-year veteran kicker came over to congratulate him?
Ryan Succop’s position and career stage differed dramatically from the rookie he approached that day on Dec. 11. But he and Purdy shared a key distinction: Each was the last selection in his respective NFL Draft. Each is endearingly celebrated as his year’s “Mr. Irrelevant.”
So, in true Mr. Irrelevant spirit, Succop reminded the young quarterback that hearing his name in the final spot of the draft was neither a slight nor source of embarrassment.
“He was like, ‘Man, wear it with some honor,’” Purdy told Yahoo Sports in a recent interview. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, man. You, too.’ It was cool.”
NFL fans and league members alike have referred to the final draft pick as Mr. Irrelevant since NFL alumnus Paul Salata coined the term in 1976. But perhaps Mr. Irrelevant has never been more relevant than now, in the wake of Purdy’s rapid rise from third-string, presumably developmental quarterback to winner of two playoff games as a rookie.
Purdy’s immediate next step is recovering from a UCL tear suffered during the NFC Championship. Even so, his unexpected rookie campaign fuels a fresh round of interest in who will join the Mr. Irrelevant fraternity this week — and more broadly, how NFL teams can learn from his recipe for success.
“The traits that made Purdy a hit, I think teams are going to place a lot more premium on,” said NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, who spent 10 years as an NFL scout. “Accuracy, intelligence, decision-making, and more than anything else, I think the fact that he has played a lot of football.
“A guy who’s played a lot of football, he is a good player, (but) maybe he does not have ‘wow’ traits? (Purdy’s success) helps a player like that.”
What are NFL teams looking for in Mr. Irrelevant?
To understand what influences the success of Mr. Irrelevants, and selections in the seventh round of the NFL Draft more broadly, it helps to understand what NFL teams seek in their final throws at the proverbial dart board.
NFL coaching, executive and personnel sources describe several priorities in their final pick. Some targets check multiple boxes.
First, if a player is expected to spark a highly competitive or expensive undrafted free agency bidding process, teams may prioritize that player in the seventh round to mitigate the risk of losing the bid. Quarterbacks and kickers, like Purdy and Succop, often fall in this category.
Then come players with either a very high floor or a very high ceiling.
High-floor players have often played a lot of football at the college level and thus boast more established resumés. Their traits may be less flashy than their counterparts drafted in prior rounds, but their extensive experience indicates they could offer immediate depth. Purdy, with 46 starts at Iowa State, fell in this category.
High-ceiling players, meanwhile, boast elite measurements — perhaps at size, speed or both — but haven’t demonstrated the application of those traits sufficiently to earn an earlier selection. Here, teams “trait hunt,” eyeing the tantalizing potential if they can effectively develop the prospect.
“There has to be unique tangible traits that make you say this guy’s got potential … to be someone that he hasn’t shown yet in college because he didn’t have the opportunity, or maybe he was kind of played out of position, in our opinion,” Cowboys special teams coordinator John Fassel told Yahoo Sports. “Tangibles that give you a chance to match up athletically with the top-of-the-line guys.”
Fassel said he and his assistant Rayna Stewart typically watch about 50 middle- to late-round prospects to gauge their special teams potential. Contributing on that third phase of the game is key for a later-round player to diversify his routes to a spot on an active game-day roster.
2021 Mr. Irrelevant Grant Stuard has taken the field in 32 games with both the Tampa Bay Bucs and Indianapolis Colts by cementing his presence on special teams. While 5-11 at linebacker, Stuard’s “motor was so strong and his movement skills were so good,” Fassel said — evidence hinting he had the chops to make plays on special teams.
The Giants saw special teams potential in 2020 Mr. Irrelevant Tae Crowder as well, his running-back-to-linebacker transition at Georgia a sign of versatility. Within five games, Crowder was elevated to a defensive starter. He’d start 31 of the next 33 games for the Giants defense, becoming the first Mr. Irrelevant since 2000 to crack a team’s starting lineup for multiple seasons, per Pro Football Reference.
Purdy could soon follow suit.
“You’ve just got to come in and work a little bit harder than a lot more people,” Crowder told Yahoo Sports. “The last round is the last round, (but) what are you going to do from there? Whenever you get your opportunity, how are you going to maximize it?”
And how likely is it that seventh-round players will?
How likely is it that seventh-rounders make the cut?
Crowder, Stuard and Purdy found roles each in different phases of the game. Nonetheless, the three-year streak of Mr. Irrelevants sticking hasn’t always been the norm for the final pick of the draft or even seventh-round picks more broadly. From 2001 to 2010, only three of 10 Mr. Irrelevants ever saw NFL action.
NFL opportunities are unsurprisingly fewer and further between for seventh-round picks than their class predecessors, an analysis by 2023 NFL Big Data Bowl Finalist Joseph Ferraiola and Yahoo Sports found. More than 95% of players drafted in each of the first four rounds since 2000 have seen NFL action, and more than half of players drafted in the top half of the draft have earned a starting role during their career.
In comparison, one in four seventh-round draft picks since 2000 never made it to the field. Four of five never earned a starter role. Quarterbacks are the least likely seventh-round draft picks to get into a game or start, as only 11.4% of seventh-round QBs are ever handed the keys to their team.
Purdy undoubtedly deserves the bulk of the credit for how he studied and quickly adapted to throwing under center, integrating play action and identifying formations and motions at the line of scrimmage markedly different from the college concepts he ran. Nonetheless, he touts how 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan eased his transition.
“You get to learn from almost like the godfather of this offense,” Purdy said. “To be able to learn from him and run those kinds of concepts at first was difficult. But I think over a while, with all the preparation, it’s finally starting to make sense and I’m excited to just build off that.”
He’s also eager to see who becomes 2023’s Mr. Irrelevant — entering the draft, the Houston Texans hold the 259th and final slot. Purdy is planning to reach out to his successor the way Stuard reached out to him last year. In fact, expect the 49ers quarterback to follow the final picks for several years to come, keeping tabs on which players he might have a chance to encourage on a postgame field in 14 years the way Succop did for him.
“I’m excited to see who are the next Mr. Irrelevants for the next couple drafts moving forward,” Purdy said. “I’m excited for those guys that they have an opportunity to go and do what I did in terms of making a team and being ready for their opportunity. That’s all you can ask for going into the NFL.
“It’s going to be fun moving forward with whoever now is the new Mr. Irrelevant.”