I’ve always been an underdog.
In college, I had a great career. I started every game. I had the second-most tackles in Kansas history. I was one of the best players, offense or defense, in the nation.
When draft day came around in 2011, I sat in a room with my family and friends waiting for my phone to ring.
But it didn’t ring. I wasn’t drafted at all.
There’s a huge stigma to going undrafted. Not a lot of people talk about it, but there is. For a guy who’s drafted, and in particular drafted high, you’re allowed to make so many more mistakes. People want you to succeed, and any shortcomings you have are viewed as temporary. An “adjustment phase.”
When you’re undrafted, you just don’t have that same margin for error. You have to go above and beyond — and then above and beyond that.
Like a lot of guys who were snubbed in the draft, I play with a chip on my shoulder. Every play is an opportunity to prove wrong everyone who did not recognize my talent.
As an undrafted player, you’re playing every game against a team that passed on you … with every single pick they owned. Other coaches, other players and even some members of the media assume there must be a reason you were not drafted.
They’re looking, waiting, just hoping for you to make a mistake.
Because if you do make one, they can think to themselves, “Oh. That’s why he went undrafted. Okay. We’re fine. We did our jobs.” And that’s the stigma you don’t hear as much about. It’s not just that everyone thinks you’re a fringe player. It’s that, in this weird way, everyone wants you to be one.
Still, there’s that stigma. Even after you prove yourself, it follows you around.
Name. Pedigree. Reputation. They’re hard to overcome.
Luckily, I came in with veteran players who didn’t care about any of that. And I mean I got really lucky. I got two all-timers: Brian Dawkins and Champ Bailey. Out of everyone in the league, those were probably the two best and most professional guys to be able to play under. I got both of them. And once they saw I could play, nothing else mattered. They wanted to win. Pretty soon they were fighting our coaches to put me in.
I made first-team All Rookie that year. And I’ve been playing on an elite level ever since.
But still, there’s that stigma. Even after you prove yourself, it follows you around. It’s the difference between having and lacking pedigree: When you have it, you’re “confirming.” When you lack it, you’re “proving.”
Sometimes, it’s in subtle ways. When I tore my ACL last January, a lot of people wrote me off. Most guys, if they tear their ACL at 25, people are optimistic. But with me, for whatever reason, it was like, “He won’t get it back. He’s on the downside now.”
I came back in seven months, which shocked people. Then I put up a Pro-Bowl and All-Pro season, which shocked them even more.
Earlier this summer, the football analytics site Pro Football Focus released their annual list of the Top 100 players in the NFL. I came in at No. 4 — behind only J.J. Watt, Aaron Rodgers and Justin Houston.
When the list came out, some people made a big deal about my ranking being so high.
But to me, it honestly didn’t seem strange at all.
To arrive at their rankings, Pro Football Focus uses a lot of advanced metrics — high-end stats and high-end film. But at the same time, they really only use one metric, and it’s the simplest one there is: performance. I’ll quote them: “This list is based solely on 2014 play. Nothing that happened in previous years or may happen in the future is accounted for. This isn’t about class or talent; it’s about form throughout 2014.”
And that’s what separates the PFF list from other lists. It’s name-blind, pedigree-blind and reputation-blind. It asks one question: Did you perform? And it measures one thing: How did that performance stack up against the rest of the league?
There are two main things you want from a cornerback: First, don’t give up touchdowns. And second, don’t give up big plays. I didn’t give up a single touchdown last year. And I didn’t give up a single play over 22 yards. Zero and zero. If I was a pitcher in baseball, I’d have pitched a shutout — for an entire season.
A couple of months later, NFL Network released its own Top 100 list. In a way, it was the complete opposite of the Pro Football Focus list. This one, voted on by players, had no defined criteria.
And when a list’s criteria are “undefined,” what that really means is they’re defined by our default settings — the instinctive ways that we judge people: Name. Pedigree. Reputation.
So when the NFL Network list came out, I didn’t even need to look. I could already guess. And I guessed right.
They left me off entirely.
Remembered by facts and forgotten by opinions: That’s the life of the undrafted underdog in the NFL.
So, yeah, I know I’m not the most famous player. I know I’m always going to rank higher on certain lists than others. But I know who I am. I know what I’m capable of. And I know there is only one way to make sure that people never forget my name.
Win the Super Bowl.