Nothing is handed to anyone in the NFL. Players have to earn everything they get.
It doesn't matter if you're a first-round draft pick, a Day 3 selection or an undrafted player. Making it in the NFL comes down to talent and how a player works and applies himself each day. Every year, former first-rounders get cut or flame out, while one-time underdogs sign new contracts.
As a third-round draft pick myself back in 2001, I can vouch for that. Roster spots are not to be taken for granted. I was primarily a kick and punt returner during my rookie season with the Carolina Panthers -- I returned the opening kickoff of the season for a touchdown and led all rookies with 1,994 all-purpose yards. I was determined to make my mark and solidify my value to the team. I was named a starter at wide receiver in my second season -- and remained one throughout the rest of my 16-year career. In the process, I discovered there were many factors that go into making it in this league and, in turn, having a long career. Making it doesn't happen overnight, and it certainly didn't go that way for me (I'll get to that later on).
Flash-forward to the present. This week's "Thursday Night Football" matchup features a Jets team loaded with young talent and the Cleveland Browns, the youngest team in the league entering the season. Jets rookie quarterback Sam Darnold has already experienced ups and downs in the early going, throwing a pick-six on his first regular-season pass, winning his first start and losing his second. On the opposite side of the field, first overall draft pick Baker Mayfield will watch from the Browns sideline, having been pegged by Hue Jackson as the backup behind Tyrod Taylor. Regardless of a player's current role, there are a number of things that can be done right now to help one climb the depth chart or build the foundation of a long career.
So, what does it require to truly make it in the league? I recently spoke with former and current NFL players about this topic. Combining their experiences with my own, I have distilled everything down to five key pieces of advice:
1) Know what your body requires to perform at the highest level. It's no secret that the best players in the league are the most in tune with their bodies. Just look at Tom Brady: He printed his own cookbook and has everybody eating avocado ice cream, for goodness' sake. It's common for older players to begin taking notice of what helps or hinders their performance, but there are some guys who figure this out early on. Second-year Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey has dished on his obsessive diet, and I've heard that the kid's basically got it down to a science.
I, on the other hand, had to learn the importance of body maintenance the hard way.
First, the change in climate throughout the season was particularly huge for me as I moved through various environments -- from training camp in South Carolina, where the heat index combined with the humidity made it feel like it was over 100 degrees on the practice field, to playing away games in high altitude, to late-December bouts in winter. I remember my body locked up during my first preseason game in Jacksonville. I was not prepared and lost a lot of sodium due to the extreme heat, which was detrimental for me because I played with such high energy. I received IVs as a short-term solution, but quickly learned just how important hydration was for me. So much so that hydrating became a week-long process that I followed throughout my career.
Five seasons into my career, I came into training camp five pounds overweight. What can I say? I was enjoying life, eating that delicious southern BBQ, and it caught up to me. But what seemed to be a minor thing came with consequences. The extra weight played a part in two torn hamstrings, and I missed training camp and the first two weeks of the 2006 regular season. I pretty much spent most of the season playing at 75 percent.
Taking care of your body is one of the most important keys to having longevity in this league. I recently spoke with Los Angeles Chargers CB Jason Verrett after his latest injury, a season-ending torn Achilles suffered in training camp. He has, unfortunately, been plagued with serious injuries throughout his career, having logged more than six games in just one season: 2015, when he made the Pro Bowl. He wished he would've taken his health more seriously early on, saying via text: "I would tell younger Jason to find a chef, find a masseuse, get ya blood tested to see what foods your body is inflamed to." It's the small things that you do outside of the team facility that can lead to better health and on-field performance. The sooner a player understands this, the better.
2) Earn the trust of veteran players. This point really hit home during a text conversation with one of my former teammates in Baltimore, who said, "I wish I knew how important it was to have the vets trust you. I didn't see the field 'til they [trusted me]."
I experienced a similar situation as a rookie in Carolina, and although I was a starter on special teams, relationships with some veterans didn't get off to a great start. I'm not going to lie -- I came into the league thinking I knew everything. And because I was a Chatty Cathy, some of my teammates just tuned me out. I talked more than I listened, and you don't want to be that guy, because when you need help, guidance or support, you find yourself high and dry. Against Green Bay in my rookie season, I fumbled the ball on back-to-back kick returns. I remember feeling isolated and fearful that I was going to get released. The veteran players sat back and let me feel the self-inflicted wound I created. I had to figure it out on my own, and it was a tough lesson to learn.
Along with earning the veterans' trust, young players need to mine their wisdom. Veterans have so much more knowledge than young players. One current defensive player who I recently spoke with told me he learned this the hard way, particularly when it came to the unfamiliar -- and very effective -- techniques he encountered going up against experienced offensive linemen. The former first-rounder, who I know prides himself on having proper fundamentals and sound technique, told me he got crushed as a rookie going up against one veteran lineman in particular.
"Half the time I didn't know what happened," the defensive player said. "Basically, I found out there were some tricks that the older guys had that I had to learn and learn quickly."
It doesn't matter if a player is the first overall pick or the 200th; he's going to experience hundreds of teachable moments throughout his career. That on-the-job training pays off spectacularly if guys make an effort to soak everything up.
3) The obvious: Learn to be a pro. I know what you're thinking: Here's where we hear about staying out of trouble off the field and refraining from putting yourself in compromising situations. And there's no question that's important. But I believe "acting like a pro" starts with how you conduct yourself in the workplace on a daily basis, learning the business of being on time to meetings, appearances, practice, etc. We've all heard about "Tom Coughlin time," which is five minutes fast. This is what I experienced with my mentor and wide receivers coach at the University of Utah, Fred Graves. Actually, his watch was ahead by seven minutes -- one minute for every day of the week. To this day, I have the clock on my nightstand set that way.
Another important aspect of professionalism: Learning how to balance a checkbook and taking financial responsibility, as former teammate (and current Ravens long snapper) Morgan Cox told me: Learn financial discipline, so you're free to play without that stress. It's true. The more responsible you are with money, time and relationships, the better you'll be able to focus on the game.
4) Treat your playbook like the Bible and learn study habits. There's a reason great players emphasize preparation. Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe recently told me: "Don't mistake habit for hard work. Doing something every day doesn't mean you're working. Have [people] around you that tell you what you need to know, not what you want to hear." So many players make the mistake of going through the motions. It took me some time to figure this out on the field and in the classroom. Wide receivers often catch around 100 passes every day on the JUGS machine, but I learned it was ineffective for me, because it beat up my hands. I wanted to get reps and get stronger, but that seemed counterproductive for me. So, I had hand grippers to strengthen my hands and forearms -- I used those things religiously. I also found my own path when it came to study habits and film-watching.
In college, Coach Graves taught me how to study and what to look for during film sessions. And I learned a great deal from teammates in college and early on in the NFL by asking a lot of questions -- it's OK to pinpoint what you don't understand. Eventually, I figured out how to retain the playbook in a short period of time. Once I was in the league for several years, I started to create my own habits in the film room. Like most players, I watched my opponent, but I discovered that watching him in a sequence of a game worked best for me (rather than gathering footnotes on certain players or watching specific plays). I could assess the player's entire game performance and ask myself questions like: How does he react to being blocked? Why is he good? Why is he not very good? I learned the opponent's mannerisms and behavior. I spent a ton of time watching top-tier cornerbacks, because I never wanted to be surprised when I got on the field. For example, I had six DVDs full of Champ Bailey plays, three of Darrelle Revis and four of Dre' Bly.
After putting in all that time watching film, I felt like I'd never be caught off guard in a game. And honestly, that feeling of preparedness was the biggest thing for me: The extensive tape work allowed me to go into every game feeling comfortable.
5) Find your identity as a player. I always played with a chip on my shoulder and took challenges head on. During my junior year in college, we played New Mexico, which had a player who was hyped as a potential top-10 draft pick. Everyone told me facing him would be a daunting task, but I made it a point to go straight at him. I had a great performance and recall our conversation following the game. I said, "If you're a first-round pick, I know I'm going to the league." He shrugged and replied, "We'll see." That player? Hall of Fame linebacker Brian Urlacher. We still have a laugh about that.
I played my professional career with that same never-back-down approach. That became my identity out on the field, and I was able to play that way due to my preparation. My cockiness and confidence weren't based off the opinions of others; rather, they stemmed from how I prepared during the week. It all derived from the work done in the days leading up to kickoff.
There are a ton of personalities in the locker room, and not all players work under the same circumstances. Finding your unique identity will help you reach peak performance on the field.
These five keys will certainly help build an NFL career. But to truly make it in this league, the player must be ALL in.