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Klee: NFL free agents face uphill battle; Just ask Bronco C.J. Anderson

By: Paul Klee
August 16, 2013 Updated: August 16, 2013 at 7:20 pm
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SEATTLE - This was one of those memorable conversations. Real talk, as the kids say.

C.J. Anderson, when you're in the film room with Peyton Manning, what does he say?

"I've never seen anything like it. What he does is he reads the body language of certain players on the defense," Anderson told me, a shine in his eyes. "When I look at it, I'm thinking, 'I don't think that guy's coming.'

"But because of the way that guy's standing, Peyton will tell you, 'He's about to blitz.'"

Please, go on.

"Which is prrrretty amazing! You want to ask him how he does that. How is he reading somebody's body language? I mean, that's not normal."

This was Wednesday. An undrafted free agent, Anderson told stories about Manning, a future Hall of Famer, with the enthusiasm of Seattle's Bill Gates explaining his first computer.

That's what made Thursday so utterly nauseating.

On one play, in the final half-hour of the final day of training camp, a man's football dream hit a chilling detour. Anderson crumpled to the ground, gripping his right knee.

"I heard him scream," safety Mike Adams said.

To say I felt sorry for Anderson doesn't do it justice. I felt sick to my stomach. He's out for six weeks with a sprained MCL.

Hello, practice squad? I think he will still make the team.

Do you know how hard it is for an undrafted college free agent to make an NFL roster?

It's like solving a Rubik's cube with Steve Atwater coming on a blitz from the living room.

I thought Seattle, where the Broncos play their second preseason game on Saturday, would be the next place for Anderson to prove he deserves a roster spot.

This is a city where things come out of nowhere, or the woods, to slay the odds and leap into our every-day culture: flannel, $5 coffees, Edward Cullen and Edward Vedder.

For the borderline NFL players scratching and clawing to make the Broncos roster, the Pacific Northwest is the next proving ground.

"He (Anderson) isn't even borderline, though," said Adams, himself a former undrafted free agent. "I'm telling you: He's catching the eyes of players, catching the eyes of the coaching staff. He's catching the eyes of everybody, really."

"When you're in that position (as an undrafted free agent), every day is a battle, man," said safety Duke Ihenacho, another one.

The Broncos and Seahawks have rosters built to win a Super Bowl.

But a big chunk of the players on CenturyLink Field are just hoping to win a job.

They're rookies fighting established veterans. They're fighting perception. They're fighting players who were drafted and awarded money up front.

I'm no NFL scout, but I know that a guy's draft position should have as much impact on his chances of making the team as the color of his cleats.

"When teams invest in a guy, of course they're going to put their investment in him. That makes perfect sense," Anderson said. "But you've got to know they also invest in you by calling your phone. If they bring you in, they're investing in you also, undrafted or not."

I'm telling you: Anderson is good enough to make this Broncos roster as a running back.

"I feel good about where I'm at," he told me the day before the injury.

When an undrafted college free agent suffers an injury in an NFL training camp, it's not like Danilo Gallinari blowing out a knee, or Carlos Gonzalez hitting the DL with sprained finger.

Those guys get another chance.

But C.J. Anderson, an undrafted free agent out of Cal?

A guy who said he can recite the names of the 22 running backs drafted instead of him?

"There were a couple of the picks where I said, 'OK. OK. I can see that,'" Anderson said. "Then a couple of the picks I said, 'Whuuuut?'"

He's not guaranteed a darn thing.

"Makes you sick," Adams told me. "Honestly, I felt sick."

That makes two of us.

"Like a kick in the gut," coach John Fox said.

It's hard to feel bad for MLB, NBA, NFL or NHL players. I usually don't. Next time you see one of them whine, slap him upside the head with a hockey stick.

Playing a game beats a real job every day, twice on Sundays.

But in the NFL, undrafted free agents are one tackle away from watching that dream go the way of grunge music.

Wes Welker went undrafted. Think about that. Then he was cut by the Chargers.

Think aboutthat.

You need a little luck, too.

There's no other way to explain Seattle's Sir Mix-A-Lot: Right place, right time, right hit.

There's no other way for an undrafted free agent to make an NFL roster: Right place, right time, don't-take-a-hit.

Anderson took a hit. He slapped the side of the cart as it wheeled him off to the training room.

"Did you get the chance to talk to C.J.?" Adams asked me.


"Great guy."

The Broncos gamble on the hidden gem more than most. An undrafted college free agent has made their Week One roster in nine straight seasons, a rarity when teams devote money and time in their precious draft picks.

"If you ask any free agent, they'll tell you the same thing: It hurts when you don't get drafted," Ihenacho said. "But you can't let that stop you."

There's not a better underdog story in this Broncos preseason than Ihenacho, a former undrafted free agent thriving with the first-team defense.

Ihenacho is one of the few: undrafted and about to hit the big time.

C.J. is one of the many: undrafted and about to hit the training room.

I just feel sick about it.


Twitter: @Klee_Gazette

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