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Tyrell Sutton walked across Ryan Field in Evanston, Illinois, on Friday, June 19, graduating with the rest of his class; on Monday, June 21, he walked out onto Clark Hinkle Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin trying to win a job as a running back for the Green Bay Packers. According to Packers sources, including running backs coach Edgar Bennett, starting running back Ryan Grant, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers, he has a real chance.
It will be an uphill battle; Mr. Sutton was not drafted by the Packers in the NFL draft in April, but rather signed as an undrafted free agent. Further, because Northwestern’s quarter system academic calendar extends into June, Mr. Sutton missed a number of practice sessions in order to stay in school, a requirement mandated by the NFL that matched Sutton’s desire to finish what he started when he came to Evanston four years ago.
On April 25 and 26, Mr. Sutton and several teammates wondered whether an NFL team would call their name during one of the seven rounds of the annual NFL draft. None were called. “I thought I had a shot, but you know, some things happened. It really doesn’t matter,” explained Sutton, the disappointment of those two days still evident in his eyes and his demeanor. Although he participated in the NFL combine in February, an invitation-only talent showcase giving NFL teams the opportunity to evaluate players, he was not selected. Nor were any of his Northwestern teammates.
Sutton’s roommate (during the preseason), defensive back Brandon Underwood, was selected by the Packers in the 6th round. He remembers that day, saying, “It’s a crazy experience because it’s something that you know is your goal since you first start playing… the whole feeling of actually being drafted [is] a surreal feeling that you’ve achieved your goals and reached your dreams.” Not one Northwestern player got to experience that surreal feeling.
Going undrafted does not mean the end of the road, however. “I was told that once the 4th round [of the draft] ends, it’s pretty much best to go free agency because you get to pick and choose where you go. More of a selection… There are a lot of guys who go undrafted who make it big here,” said Sutton. At least four teams offered Sutton a chance after the draft. Sutton chose the Packers over the Chicago Bears, the New York Giants, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “You can’t get a better history than the Packers. And it’s close to college [Green Bay is about a 3.5 hour drive from Evanston]. It was the best situation out of the given choices,” said Sutton.
Two of Sutton’s teammates also signed free agent contracts. Defensive Tackle John Gill signed with the Detroit Lions and wide receiver Eric Peterman signed with the Chicago Bears. Sutton talks to them, as well as other former Northwestern players in the NFL. Trying to make the team as an undrafted free agent is a difficult path, but not impossible. A draft pick starts with a certain advantage because the team has an investment in that player – the team could have used the pick to select someone else. Still there are advantages to going undrafted. Sutton sees it this way: “Being undrafted just means that you have to work harder. At the same time, you can slide under the radar, and the guys who are drafted really high have a lot of pressure on them to go out there and exceed expectations.”
One player who understands what it’s like to watch as teams take a pass round after round on draft day is Packers wide receiver Donald Driver. The Packers selected Driver out of Alcorn State University in Mississippi in the seventh and final round of the 1999 NFL draft. “You want to prove to the world that you can play in the National Football League,” said Driver. “You want to prove people wrong, and that’s the attitude you have to have.”
Driver proved it. He has played in the Pro Bowl, the NFL’s all-star game, three times. “When I came in here they had 13 or 14 wide receivers on the roster [ahead of me], and my goal was to see how many of those guys I can knock out before they release me.” None of those receivers remain in the NFL.
Driver thinks Sutton has a chance to prove some people wrong. “I think a lot of teams made a mistake. Watching him in practice, I think, you know, wow, he’s a good running back, but maybe teams didn’t see that in him,” Driver said.
Sutton’s path has been complicated somewhat by the Northwestern academic calendar and NFL rules that prohibit a college player from participating in NFL practice if school is still in session. The NFL makes an exception for a weekend rookie camp, and Sutton was in Green Bay for practices May 1-3. He missed three weeks of practice thereafter. Other players start that much farther ahead.
“At this point you can’t really use [missing some practice time] as an excuse,” Sutton replied when asked about the situation. “I had a prior engagement and I just have to make up for it…. But I’ve got something [a college diploma] that can never be taken away from me [as a result]… There [are] so many guys who get to this level and forget how important school actually is… I’ve been doing it [going to college] for three and a half years and it would be a shame to get this close…” Sutton, who majored in communication studies at Northwestern, added, “I made a promise to my mom that I wasn’t leaving early, I just had to stay and get that degree.”
Packers’ running backs coach Edgar Bennett does not think missing time set Sutton back. “He’s a bright kid and he’s out in extra work to get caught up on what we’re asking him to do. I think he’s done a good job as far as picking it up… I think he’s doing really well.”
Sutton said that he will do whatever it takes to make the team. “I’ll carry a clipboard if I need to,” he said. He also plays on special teams (the punting team and the kickoff team) knowing that starring in such a role significantly increases his chances. Special teams’ coach Shawn Slocum is impressed, calling Sutton a “dynamite football player” who is “intelligent and tough” as well as “sudden” with a “good change of direction.”
Special teams’ will not be enough, though. Sutton needs to make an impression on the Packers’ offense. He is off to a pretty good start.
Packers’ starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers likes what he has seen out of Sutton. “I don’t want to say he’s a surprise after what he did in college, but he’s definitely a bright star of the spring and summer [practices]. He’s done some nice things for us,” said Rodgers, “You can tell he’s studying and learning our system, learning to pick up the blitz. He’s very quick. I think he’s got a good shot [to make the team].”
Starting running back Ryan Grant also sees something in Sutton. “He’s a change of pace guy, he’s definitely a scat back, shifty, he’s got some wheels…” said Grant. “He’s running hard [and] fast picking up the offense. He’s excited to be out there. So he’s good [for the team].”
Coach Bennett assesses Sutton as follows: “Very instinctive runner, very good vision, good change of direction, and he has good hands. So I’m kind of excited to get him out there with pads on and see him compete…I think he’s going to jump out there and compete and I think he certainly has the attributes that we look for in a football player, not just a running back.”
Competition to make an NFL roster is fierce, though. Currently, the Packers’ roster contains over 80 players according to the official Packers’ website. The roster must be cut to 75 by September 1 and 53 by September 5 per NFL rules. Five on the roster are running backs, and last year the Packers began the season with just 3 running backs. Ryan Grant is the starter and Brandon Jackson the back-up, according to Packers’ officials, meaning that Sutton is in a battle with DeShawn Wynn and Kregg Lumpkin, two running backs who played with the Packers all of last year, for what might be only one roster spot. This calculus presumes, of course, that the Packers do not bring in an additional running back later in the year. Ryan Grant, for example, came to the Packers in a trade just before the cut to 53 in 2007 and the Packers could add additional running backs at any time.
As if to bring the odds into stark relief, players woke up Tuesday after the Monday practice to find one of their colleagues, wide receiver Lorne Sam, had been released. Sutton roommate Underwood describes the experience. “[J]ust to get to know Sam pretty well for the short time that I’ve been here, it’s just a real feeling that you’ve got to take advantage of every opportunity that you get. Period.”
June practices are just the beginning of the process for Sutton. In May and June, players do not dress in full shoulder pads and do not tackle. The real work, and the real opportunity, begins in August when official training camp practices begin and players “put the pads on” for full contact drills.
Coach Bennett: “Right now, he’s got to lay the foundation from the preparation standpoint and get familiar with our scheme and after that just allow his natural ability to take over, so again, he’s off to a good start and we’ll be able to see more and evaluate him as we put the pads on.”
Sutton says that he is ready. “I’m ready to get in those pads!” he said.
While other classmates are out looking for jobs in a down economy, Tyrell Sutton gets the opportunity to try out for his dream job. “I feel very fortunate to, first of all, be able to [interview] for a job that I’ve been dreaming about since I was about 6, 7, 8 years old. But then at the same time be making corporate level money. You know, you can’t get much better than that especially when you know you’re not sitting behind a desk, you’re actually doing something that you love,” says Sutton, smiling all the way.