Chargers running back Austin Ekeler has carved out a solid NFL career after going undrafted, and he recognizes that his success came from his ability to work out with teammates and coaches in the offseason of his rookie year. Ekeler realizes that this will make it harder for undrafted players everywhere to make a difference in a limited time frame.
“I don’t know, honestly, if I would have made the team if I didn’t have OTAs,” Ekeler said via Lindsay Thiry of ESPN.com. “For me, I needed OTAs to go out there and I’d try 100 percent, but I needed to go out there and mess up because I went and messed up and I was like, ‘OK, these are the things that I need this next month to go work on.’”
Undrafted players won’t have the benefit of that month they would have had in the spring. The margin for error will be razor thin during training camp, making it harder than usual for young guys in whom no draft capital was invested to get the attention of the people who will slice the roster from 90 to 53.
“It’s so rough,” Ekeler said. “It’s honestly pretty sad just as far as how unfortunate it is for these guys to have an opportunity, the opportunity is already small, but now it’s even smaller. . . . They’re going to be smacked with all this information and the mental game right now, in Zoom meetings, it’s nowhere near seeing it actually on the field.”
This dynamic actually helps Ekeler hold the starting job (his new contract doesn’t hurt, either), given that the young running backs on the roster will have fewer chances to establish themselves. But they’ll potentially find inspiration on the other side of the ball.
New Chargers cornerback Chris Harris Jr. entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2011 with the Broncos, after the lockout ended and young players had to figure things out quickly. Harris recently explained on the #PFTPM podcast how he managed to win a roster spot with limited repetitions.
“Everybody can play,” Harris said. “Everybody has a lot of talent. But I think what really separated me was being smart. Being able to learn multiple positions. Being able to play corner, safety, or nickel. And being pretty good at all of them. I think that’s what really separated myself and able to make the team and able to find myself on the field early as a rookie.”
So it’s not impossible, as Harris has proven. But it will be a challenge for the rookies, who in some cities may not even get the benefit of showing up a few days early in order to get comfortable, before the veterans roll in.