Five players to cheer for as they start their NFL careers

The NFL draft makes for the most hopeful weekend on the league calendar each year, as more than 300 players fulfill childhood dreams and embark on a professional journey in a sport that has occupied their formative years. First-round draft selections often grab the headlines, and rightly so, but the Day 2 and 3 picks -- along with those signing contracts as undrafted free agents -- experience no less of a milestone as they begin their careers.

The following five players are not the highest draft picks on their respective teams, but they're the ones who made the most profound impact on me this draft season because of their individual stories and unique paths to the NFL.

1) Amik Robertson, CB, Las Vegas Raiders

Drafted No. 139 overall (Round 4).

"He's not afraid to go make a play," Raiders GM Mike Mayock said about Amik Robertson during a post-draft press conference Saturday evening. Robertson is indeed fearless in his pursuit of game-changing, momentum-snatching plays. His 14 interceptions and 23 tackles for loss during his three seasons at Louisiana Tech speak to the bravado of his playmaking ability.

"Confidence and passion -- that's what sets Amik apart," Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz told me during a phone conversation Sunday morning. "You can't tell him he's not tall enough."

But make no mistake, he's been told. Robertson's fourth-round draft selection was the league issuing him another reminder of his size, but Robertson is undaunted by his 5-foot-8 frame. Opponents overlook him because of it, but at their own peril, because Amik has a knack for making his presence felt. Whether it's in run support or separating a receiver from the ball -- evidenced in his performance in the Bulldogs' win over Southern Miss last October, a game that I called from the booth and which was aired on NFL Network -- multiple running backs and wide receivers around Conference USA can attest to Robertson's tenacity.

When I asked Holtz to describe Robertson, he said, "Loyal, driven, determined -- Amik is on a mission." Part of that mission is his determination to rise above adversity in his life that could have easily brought him down. His father was in prison for the early part of his life, and Robertson had a son, Ayden Miguel, when he was just 15 years old. Ahead of a game against Grambling State last September, he told me that on the day his son was born, holding him for the first time, he made a promise to Ayden: The challenges I've faced will not be the challenges of your childhood.

I'll make my own promise: Amik Robertson will be a fan favorite of Raider Nation.

2) Jason Huntley, RB, Detroit Lions

Drafted No. 172 overall (Round 5).

Jason Huntley likes to have fun. On the field, he was a triple threat for the New Mexico State Aggies. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards at more than 7 yards per carry this past season, hauled in 134 career receptions during his four-year run in Las Cruces and also returned five kicks for touchdowns throughout his highlight reel of a college career.

And off the field, he doesn't seem to take himself or his confidence in his ability too seriously. Before his final home game at NMSU, Huntley called his shot, predicting he'd rush for more than 200 yards and three touchdowns vs. UTEP. He racked up just over 190 and the three TDs. So, naturally, when we had Huntley on the roster in our NFL Network production of the NFL Players Association Collegiate Bowl back in January, I had to ask him what his prediction would be for that game. He went back and forth for a bit, taking into account the limited opportunities an all-star game offers, but eventually settled on 50 total yards and said, "If you give it to me at the goal line, I'm gonna score."

That score came just over 5 minutes into the third quarter on a slashing scamper from 11 yards out. On just a few more touches throughout the second half, Huntley would continue to work his way toward the 50-yard mark before breaking that threshold with just under 2 minutes to go in the game. Huntley again proved his intuition, confidence and ability are worth more than what's on the stat sheet.

So, Lions fans, don't cringe if a guarantee of some kind comes courtesy of Huntley's crystal ball. Relish in the fact that he has the confidence and ability to call his shot, and with a football in his hands, he'll probably pay it off.

3) Simon Stepaniak, OG, Green Bay Packers

Drafted No. 209 overall (Round 6).

Two things were on Simon Stepaniak's mind when watching Day 3 of the NFL draft: carrying on a growing tradition of Indiana Hoosiers offensive linemen to be selected in the draft, and becoming just the second player ever selected from Ross High School in Hamilton, Ohio. The first player of such distinction at Ross High School was Jay Bachman, an offensive lineman selected in the fifth round of the 1967 NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers. As it turns out, Stepaniak, with whom I spoke Sunday morning over the phone, is more connected to Bachman now than he could have ever imagined. Two Ross HS alums, two offensive linemen, two Green Bay Packers.

"Toughness. That's the first thing that comes to mind," said Hoosiers coach Tom Allen about Stepaniak during a phone conversation Sunday morning. "He's physical. He wants to maul you. From snap to whistle and then some, Simon brings it on every down."

It's easy to see the impact Stepaniak had on the Hoosiers program with reviews like that. He had earned a spot on Allen's leadership council his senior year when Allen made it clear leading by example was not enough from this group. Verbal leadership was necessary for this team to accomplish its goals. According to Allen, Stepaniak took the message to heart, accepted the responsibility and started to communicate that accountability to his teammates. It didn't go unnoticed. By the end of the season, Stepaniak had helped lead the Hoosiers to their most successful season in 25 years -- although Simon was forced to watch the conclusion from the sideline.

In preparation for Indiana's Gator Bowl appearance vs. Tennessee, Simon, with a draftable resume and NFL career ahead, had given zero thought to skipping out on his final college game in order to preserve himself for the next level -- as we've seen from so many others. He still hasn't, even after tearing his ACL in a pre-bowl game practice, an injury that stole the pinnacle of his collegiate career and likely hampered his draft stock. The injury, however, didn't hinder his performance in the bench press at the NFL Scouting Combine, where he impressed talent evaluators by putting up 37 reps at 225 pounds, second-most among all offensive linemen in Indianapolis.

"You can hit him with a two-by-four, and it wouldn't faze him. The two-by-four might snap, but it won't faze Simon," said Allen, reminding me of Stepaniak's mindset, which kept him from batting an eye after the injury. It was just the next defensive tackle to stonewall, the next linebacker to reach at the second level. It's a championship-level attitude, an edge that should fit in quite well in Titletown.

4) Omar Bayless, WR, Carolina Panthers

Signed as undrafted free agent.

Celebrating a win for Omar Bayless after he signed with the Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent is a powerful exercise, when considering that the former Arkansas State wide receiver has endured more personal loss in the last two years than most of us would expect in a lifetime.

From April to August of 2018, four people very close to Bayless died, including his uncle. Bayless, who told me his story in January after a NFLPA Collegiate Bowl practice, played the 2018 season at Arkansas State with a heavy heart and upon returning home to Laurel, Mississippi, the following January, it hit him. Those people whom he had grown up with, counted on and confided in were no longer there. It was an empty feeling and one that had him questioning a return to Arkansas State for his final season. His head coach, Blake Anderson, supported him through this difficult time, encouraging him to return to school not because he had unfinished business on the field but because he was so close to graduating. Anderson said at one point that he was going to drive to Laurel himself and pick Bayless up to bring him back to Jonesboro. After careful consideration, Bayless returned. But, so did the loss.

While Anderson supported Bayless, he was also shepherding his own family during a difficult time, as his wife, Wendy, was battling cancer. During her fight, Bayless had developed a strong relationship with Wendy, so much so that he would regularly show up at the Anderson home just to sit and talk with her -- for hours. They talked about good times, bad times, about life.

In August of 2019, as Bayless was preparing for his final season, Wendy's fight with cancer came to an unfortunate end. Now, it was the player's turn to support his coach in Anderson's time of mourning, assuring his coach he'd be fine and, in fact, would be dedicating his final season to Wendy. Tragically, Bayless would add to that dedication, with his best friend passing away just days after Wendy, but again, he was determined to persevere through the grief.

Heading into the 2019 season, Bayless had just one 100-yard receiving game in his career. By the end of 2019, he had NINE, an Arkansas State program record. He finished as an All-American, the nation's receiving yards leader (93 catches for 1,653 yards and 17 TDs) and the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year. From devastation to distinguished pass catcher, this is a comeback story Panthers fans and NFL fans in general can get behind.

5) Cole Christiansen, LB, Los Angeles Chargers

Signed as undrafted free agent.

In 39 straight starts for the Army Black Knights, Cole Christiansen earned a reputation as a tackling machine, piling up 275 stops while also distinguishing himself as a two-time captain -- an elite leader in an environment full of them at West Point. In fact, he is affectionately referred to as "Captain America" by those in his Army football family -- a family that also has an appropriate nickname, courtesy of Black Knights head coach Jeff Monken, "The National Champions of toughness." Christiansen is no exception to that moniker. He's the kind of man that allows us to sleep better at night knowing he is on our side, willing to, as Monken appropriately puts it, "stand in the gap between the freedom we enjoy and the people that want to take it."

While preparing to call Army's game against UTSA on NFL Network this past season, I found an interview in which Christiansen was asked what he wanted to do during his Army career and whether that included logistics or engineering. Cole responded, "No. I wanna be in the fight." Does that sound like the mindset you want for an NFL linebacker? Christiansen's NFL fight is just beginning, and he acknowledged in a phone call Monday morning that the assignment ahead is as daunting as any he's faced.

"This might be my biggest challenge yet, the amount of effort and focus that it will take to earn a roster spot," he said, "but I'm confident in myself and in those around me that have helped me get to this point and I'm ready for the challenge."

The challenge is one he's uniquely prepared for thanks to his collegiate experience, saying, "I don't think I'd be anywhere near the position I'm in today without West Point," where dealing with difficult situations is the name of the game. Calm in the face of pressure. Aggressive with a target in sight. The stakes may have changed, but his approach will not, as he apprised me of his plan to "tackle this task both mentally and physically." That's one tackle I wouldn't count on Christiansen to miss.

Follow Rhett Lewis on Twitter @RhettNFL.

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