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Canzano: Ex-NFL player says undrafted Oregon Ducks should have called him
JJ Birden says he's willing to give honest advice.
I wrote a column last month about four University of Oregon underclassmen who declared for the NFL Draft.
None of them were picked.
A UO football-program insider said, “They got horrible advice.”
Running back CJ Verdell was eventually signed as an undrafted free agent by the Colts. Receiver Devon Williams did the same with the Ravens. Defensive back Verone McKinley III signed as an undrafted free agent with the Dolphins and Mykael Wright was invited to rookie mini-camp with the Seattle Seahawks.
He logged into the comment section.
The former Oregon wide receiver played nine seasons in the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons. Birden saw my column and waded into the fray, offering insight that nobody should miss.
Offered Birden: “I don’t know how many times when I hear an Oregon player declare early and I say to myself, ‘He’s not ready.’ Whoever is advising them is unqualified or has an ulterior motive.”
Probably some of both. I heard from a line of coaches in the wake of that column, including some on staff at a variety of Pac-12 universities. Oregon’s Dan Lanning read the column and told me he was going to distribute it to his players next season.
All of the college coaches I heard from shared the same sentiment: they’re concerned that players are being told what they want to hear, not what they need to hear.
“It’s why the NFL average career has dropped…” Birden said. “College players are coming out too early and getting bad advice when they are not ready for the NFL. It’s just a shame. I know there are reasons players do this and its usually not the right reasons when it comes down to it.”
Verdell’s college career ended when he fractured his left fibula and dislocated his ankle against Stanford. He’d probably seen enough of college and wondered what he had left to prove, but another season might have eased questions about his durability and health.
Wright needed speed work. He ran a 4.57-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine — second-worst among the 31 defensive backs who participated. McKinley III, an All-American, was told by an agent that he was a sure-fire pick, per a source. He also needed to improve his measurables. And Williams was eager to get to the NFL, despite having a modest 557 receiving yards last season.
All four could have benefitted from playing a season under Lanning, who arrived and hired a dedicated speed coach. Lanning knows the value of being able to run one step faster. On his first signing day at Oregon, in fact, Lanning inked nine high school players with track and field backgrounds. Five of those ran better than 10.7 seconds in the 100 meters in high school.
The undrafted Ducks also should have talked with Birden, who played 93 games in the NFL. He’d have told them about his first training camp and the lesson he learned. It’s insight that an agent, parent or sycophant isn’t going to share.
“Everyone at that level is a great athlete and you don’t realize it until you get there,” Birden said. “Those who fall into an entitlement mentally and start dwelling on how amazing they were in college, fail. The player who makes the adjustments and works on making those incremental daily improvements, they have a shot.”
In Birden’s first NFL training camp with the Browns, he was put into a 1-on-1 drill. He looked up and saw a slow, veteran defensive back named Hanford Dixon lined up against him. Birden, who once ran a blistering 4.3 seconds in the 40, licked his chops.
Said Birden: “He jammed me at the line and threw me to the ground. Right then and there, I had a decision to make — to get better ASAP or start feeling sorry for myself. I saw many college players fail to push through those moments.”
When Birden was on the ground, he looked up at Dixon and said, “Dang man, it’s just practice.” Dixon whipped around, squatted beside the receiver and said, “Rookie, in the NFL every day is game day. If you don’t do better than that, you won’t be around here very long.”
On Tuesday, I reached Birden, who was on vacation with his wife in Hawaii. He was still fired up about the four Ducks who left too early and was happy to talk about it.
“I was disappointed because I felt they probably hadn’t been given the right advice,” he said. “You only get one shot to be ready for the NFL and if a player is leaving college too early when he’s not ready, he’s going fight some tough odds from Day 1.”
An invitation to a mini-camp or being signed as an undrafted free agent isn’t necessarily the end of the road. It makes it an uphill climb, though. There are cases of undrafted college players (See: Kurt Warner, Warren Moon, Larry Allen, Priest Holmes) who fought their way into the league and had stellar careers. But when an NFL team has a draft pick, a bonus and guaranteed salary invested in a player, it’s willing to be more patient.
Birden thinks prospective NFL players should talk with their college coaches, their family and their agents. In the case of the four Oregon players, Mario Cristobal’s departure to Miami left a void and may have played a role. But Birden also thinks a candid sit-down consult with a former NFL player who not only played in the league, but stuck around a while, is essential.
“It would be nice if there was someway they had access to former NFL players who played at that college and played for five years or more,” he said. “It’s hard to make it in the NFL but it’s even harder to stay there. And the most important thing is we don’t have an ulterior motive.
“We want them to succeed.”
Would Birden field the call of a UO player seeking advice?
“I would,” he said, “because I don’t like seeing some Oregon Ducks’ football players have solid college careers, then prematurely jump to the NFL and jeopardize their chance to have a long NFL career.”
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