All three local football players who were expected to get NFL tryouts this year signed as undrafted free agents Saturday night.
Former Rockford Lutheran teammates James Robinson and Nate Wieting signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns, respectively, and former Harlem offensive tackle Anthony McKinney signed with the Tennessee Titans.
McKinney was more of a wrestler than football player in high school and started out at a junior college before becoming one of the top JUCO recruits in the nation and signing with TCU after the Horned Frogs had finished fifth in the nation.
"That’s what makes it a beautiful story," the 6-foot-8, 314-pound McKinney said, "and it’s not done yet. It’s crazy to look back and think of the quick transition. The sport wasn’t even in my sight and all of a sudden it’s my entire life.
"It still feels surreal. Talking to family and coaches a little more this morning, it’s starting to finally sink in. I am thankful for the opportunity and am going to make the most of it."
McKinney, who still has a semester left to finish his degree in mass communication with a minor in sociology, didn’t have quite the senior season at TCU he was hoping for, but isn’t looking back.
"It doesn’t matter," he said. "It’s a new opportunity and a clean slate. I am thankful for everything TCU provided me."
Robinson set the Illinois high school state rushing record and ranks No. 2 in Illinois State history after rushing for 4,444 yards and 44 TDs as a Redbird. He may have also landed in the best spot. Leonard Fournette, the No. 4 overall pick in 2017, was the only Jaguar running back to run for even 110 yards last year. Jacksonville did not draft a running back this year and has been trying to trade Fournette for a month. Jacksonville also runs predominantly between the tackles, as Robinson mostly did at ISU.
"They seemed like a great fit," Robinson said. "We will see once we get there how things work out, but it’s good to be on a team now.
"It was a weird draft this year," Robinson added about not being picked. "I can only control what I can control. I don’t want to think about it too much. I just want to try to get on a team."
Trying to make the NFL as an undrafted free agent will be a familiar story for Wieting, who battled through injuries at Lutheran and started at Iowa as a walk-on. He caught only 13 passes for 185 yards during his Hawkeye career but was a strong blocker and started for a school that has produced more good NFL tight ends than any other college in the nation the last few years.
"Tight end is a cool position," Wieting said. "You can be 230 and be a big receiver lining up in the slot against a corner or a safety, or you could be a 250-pound inline guy playing every down. There is a lot of versatility in the position. I think I can do some things other guys can’t and they can do things I can’t. I think that’s why it’s a good opportunity in Cleveland."
Wieting said he was in contact with the Browns tight end coach and area scout before and during the draft.
The Browns signed Austin Hooper from Atlanta earlier this offseason, making him the highest-paid tight end in the NFL (four years, $44 million). But Hooper, 25, is more of a receiving tight end. The Browns also have David Njoku, a late first-round pick in 2017 who has averaged less than 400 yards receiving in his three seasons. Njoku will probably be playing the final year on his rookie contract as Cleveland is unlikely to pick up his fifth-year option. The Browns also drafted Harrison Bryant in the fourth round.
One reason Wieting picked Cleveland is that new Browns coach Kevin Stefanski is known for preferring to play two tight ends at the same time more than three wide receivers. The opening sentence in a recent Cleveland Plain Dealer story was: "When it comes to tight ends, Kevin Stefanski can never have enough."
"I liked what their tight ends coach was saying about how they use their tight ends," Wieting said. "They drafted a tight end who is a really good player, but there is an opportunity there. I thought it was the best fit."
Wieting said he will find out more about what happens next in the coming week.
"In two weekends we’re having a virtual rookie minicamp meeting, with introductions, exchanging playbooks and getting to know the coaches, that kind of stuff," he said. "From there, we will figure it out as we go."
Matt Trowbridge: firstname.lastname@example.org; @matttrowbridge