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Rookie Minicamp Brings Opportunity, Pressure

Posted May 9, 2018

Weekend practices are pivotal for undrafted players aiming to make an impression

Cardinals tight end Ricky Seals-Jones was worried about getting cut a year ago at this time.

The future is bright for Ricky Seals-Jones.

The Cardinals’ second-year tight end had an impressive rookie season and seems poised to carve out a substantial role for 2018. But it was only a year ago when Seals-Jones prepped for rookie minicamp with the Cardinals as an undrafted signee, unsure of how he’d fare or how long he’d stick around.

“It’s terrifying,” Seals-Jones said. “You only have two or three days to show what you’ve got.”

The newest batch of Cardinals rookies will face that pressure-packed situation this weekend. They will arrive at the Cardinals’ facility on Thursday and then hit the field Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Draft picks like quarterback Josh Rosen and wide receiver Christian Kirk hope to get off on the right foot, but either way, their roster spots are secure.

It’s the recently-signed undrafted free agents and the tryout players who have the most to gain – or lose.

“When you make a mistake, in the back of your head you’re like, ‘Could this one play be it?’” Seals-Jones said. “Every time I messed up I’m like, ‘I’m going home.’”

While negative thoughts pervaded Seals-Jones’ mind, he didn’t let it affect his preparation. The workdays are long for rookies, but that didn’t stop him from studying the playbook after getting back to his hotel each night.

“I kept grinding,” Seals-Jones said. “It paid off.”

Elijhaa Penny’s circumstance was even more perilous than Seals-Jones’ because the undrafted running back out of Idaho was a tryout player without a contract in 2016. That meant he had to beat out someone already on the roster to stick around. But the lack of expectations was comforting.

“I looked at it like being here was just a bonus for me,” Penny said. “I’m not even supposed to be here. I’m a tryout guy. Every day is a blessing for me. I couldn’t lose. It wasn’t like I could have been labeled a bust or anything. All I could do was go out there and raise some eyebrows, like, ‘Hey, he’s pretty good.’”

Penny was signed after his tryout, made the practice squad as a rookie and the active roster last year. Seals-Jones was kept on after rookie camp and made the active roster when the season rolled around. He had 12 catches for 201 yards and three touchdowns over the final seven games of the season.

Guys like Penny, Seals-Jones, and ex-Cardinals Tony Jefferson, a safety, and Jaron Brown, a wide receiver, are among the better-known undrafted success stories of recent years. Coach Steve Wilks said finding contributors among that group is huge.

“It’s majorly important, because you’re talking about salary cap, you’re talking about different things in regards to that,” Wilks said. “We also talking about this all the time: you have to build the back end of your roster. Everybody’s not going to get a first- or second-rounder at your position. So it’s about developing players.”

Seals-Jones said the start of an NFL career for an undrafted rookie brings with it a flood of emotions. On the one hand, you’ve made it onto a roster at the sport’s highest level. On the other, the dream can fade quickly. The most important thing for every undrafted player, Seals-Jones said, is to go above and beyond with preparation and work ethic.

“If you just continue to learn and you show progress, you’ll most likely get a shot,” Seals-Jones said. “That’s what I’d tell the guys. Just come in and go to work. If it plays out, it plays out. And if not, it’s not the end of the world. You can always get cut but get picked back up. It’s a grind.”

The first big opportunity starts Friday.

“Ignore the noise and get your foot in the door,” Penny said.

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