It's not easy for an undrafted free agent to stick on a 53-man NFL roster. Normally they lack the eye-popping measurables of draft choices, and often since the team's investment in them financially is small they're expendable. Those that manage to get themselves noticed on the practice field, however, do get the chance to hang around long enough to convince coaching staffs that they belong at the NFL level. Bills tight end Jonathan Stupar is one of those players.
"It's hard to make it as a free agent," Stupar said. "Not that they don't because there are a lot of us out there. But it's harder because of the business aspect of the game and all the other things that go into football besides just football. It makes it tougher. That's one of the great things my uncle taught me, which was take advantage of every opportunity you get because you're never guaranteed anything."
Stupar's uncle, former New York Giants quarterback Jeff Hostetler, had a 15-year career but was also a third-round draft choice. Stupar was an undrafted free agent signee of New England, but failed to make the team's roster out of training camp. Buffalo signed him to their practice squad a short time later just before the season began in 2008.
It's been an uphill climb ever since, but Stupar is not only expected to make Buffalo's 53-man roster, he sits atop the depth chart at the tight end position ahead of former fourth-round pick Shawn Nelson, veteran Michael Matthews and Derek Schouman.
While Stupar's skill set might not overwhelm the masses, his well-rounded game suits Bills head coach Chan Gailey just fine.
"Stoop is a very solid, consistent football player," said Gailey. "He can't go in there and knock people off the ball and he can't run down the field and run a 4.5, but he's a good route runner, he's an intelligent player. He fights every snap. He's more than an adequate blocker. He's done a good job so far. He's been one of the pleasant surprises in camp."
Stupar's consistency is what has him perched atop the depth chart and starting for Buffalo just two years removed from toiling on the team's practice squad. Ironically, it was that 2008 season running plays on the scout team that gave him the confidence that he belonged in the NFL on a 53-man roster.
"Confidence is a huge thing in the NFL and when you're going out every day against the first string defense and you're catching balls in practice and you go out and have a good preseason, things just start getting easier," said Stupar. "I think that's when it started for me. That whole first year in Buffalo gave me the feeling that I belonged here and could do this."
With a new staff and a new offensive scheme coming in this offseason however, the process for Stupar started anew. He had to pick up a new scheme and convince a new staff that he could make plays and execute every requirement of a tight end. Thus far he's been successful in doing so, but in no way is he taking what he's accomplished for granted.
"It does feel great to know that the coaches see that I can play and they trust me to start for them right now," he said. "It's very satisfying, but at the same time I'm trying to stay as hungry as I can because I don't want it to go away."
The benefit of the doubt isn't often handed out as easily to free agents as they might be for top draft picks. Stupar has seen how players that come up the hard way are given less rope. You either execute and make an impact or struggle and watch your reps disappear.
"Every opportunity I get every time I come out here I try to make the most of," said Stupar. "It's gotten me this far."
What has helped is a good working relationship with Buffalo's quarterbacks, particularly Trent Edwards.
"Trent is a great guy, but I've got a great relationship with all of our quarterbacks," said Stupar. "They're all easy to get along with and I think it definitely rolls over to the games and in practices because you've got that confidence in each other that you know you're there for them and you'll be in the right spot when you need to be there."
On the cusp of earning a starting job in year three of his career, Stupar is trying to stay humble and not get too excited about the regular season opportunities that lie ahead. So he focuses on all aspects of his game, almost to serve as a distraction from what is expected to be his first prominent offensive role on an NFL team.
"There are always going to be little things that you need to work on in your game," he said. "I could get better at my blocking and better at my route running. You try never to be satisfied with one area of your game. To me it's always about trying to push every aspect of it and trying to get better every day.
"In the back of your mind you're always thinking about what if, so this is definitely something I want to take advantage of and see what happens. I just try to come out here and do my best and we'll see where it goes."