There's a pecking order in NFL training camps.
At the top sit established veterans who've proven they can produce consistently.
Next up are the second- or third-year players who believe this is their year to make the leap.
Then there are the drafted rookies. If you were a high pick, you're essentially in zero danger of getting cut. The odds for lower picks are a bit more perilous.
All the way at the bottom, you've got undrafted free agents, or UDFAs. These are the players who weren't one of the 250 or so players selected in that year's draft, but are still thought of (at least by one team) as a potential NFL player. They sign for peanuts compared to what a first-round pick makes, and the fact that the franchise didn't spend a draft pick on them makes them easily expendable.
This is the situation Geronimo Allison found himself facing as he entered 2016 training camp with the Green Bay Packers. By the time the Packers reached the NFC Championship game later that season, Allison had recorded at least one reception in each of the team's last five games and positioned himself as the fourth receiver on the depth chart.
It was a remarkable rise for a UDFA. Allison—who made the practice squad out of camp before being promoted to the 53-man roster in the middle of the season—attributes his success to a few key factors (aside from his obvious talent).
First off, Allison believed he belonged in the NFL right from the jump. While he knew that most UDFAs are long shots to make the team, he wasn't going to beat himself with negative thinking. "My mindset was to make the team and make the most of any opportunity I was blessed with," Allison said. "(I remember) believing I belong here."
Allison was a sponge during OTAs and training camp, soaking up as much insight as possible. He would often eavesdrop on coach's conversations with other receivers during practice to ensure he was gaining as much knowledge as possible. "If coach was coaching someone else up, I'd listen in. I tried to be all-ears and all-eyes and learn from every experience," Allison said. This allowed Allison to essentially receive constructive criticism on every rep of practice and not just the reps that he participated in. For a UDFA rookie, that can make a world of difference.
Next, Allison aimed to learn from the team's veteran receivers—specifically Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson—at every opportunity. "In the meeting room, anytime those guys were critiquing us or themselves, I'm listening to what they're saying. I'm paying attention to what's coming out of their mouth. In practice, I'm watching how those guys come in and out of their cuts, watching their blocking technique," Allison says. "If they're talking with Aaron (Rodgers) or any of the coaches, anything those guys are saying, I'm trying to learn. I'm trying to take things from them and put it in my toolbox and make myself a better player."
Allison quickly learned that very good wasn't good enough for Rodgers—the Packers quarterback demands perfection. Some players can get frustrated if they feel like they're constantly being critiqued, but Allison fully embraced Rodgers' expertise and expectations of excellence. "His presence demands excellence. He's one of the greats, so he wants the guys around him to be great also," Allison says. "Any little thing you do that's not done to perfection, he's going to let you know it could be done better. There's always improvements to be made."
The final ingredient to Allison's success last season was perseverance. Despite impressing both coaches and Rodgers during training camp, there simply wasn't room for him on the 53-man roster for Week 1. But as Allison began the season on the practice squad, he never lost faith that his number would eventually be called. He continued to fine-tune his game and become more familiar with the playbook, and he was called up to the 53-man roster during Week 8. At the announcement of his call-up, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said Allison was "clearly a different receiver today than he was in Week 1."
But Allison wasn't satisfied with just being on the active roster—he wanted to play, and he wanted to play well. Rodgers has been vocal that the best way for a player to earn his trust is to consistently make plays during practice, and Allison did exactly that. He wasn't yet piling up gaudy numbers during games—after spending 8 weeks on the active roster, he'd totaled four receptions for 45 yards and a touchdown—but he was building a rapport with Rodgers behind the scenes.
Allison emerged in the public eye just when the Packers needed him most. Sitting at 8-6 with two games left to play, the Packers had to beat Minnesota and Detroit in consecutive weeks to capture the NFC North crown. Allison totaled 4 receptions for 66 yards in a 38-25 victory over Minnesota. He then recorded 4 receptions for 91 yards and a touchdown in a 31-24 victory over Detroit. Allison displayed tremendous chemistry with Rodgers on his touchdown catch, working to find space as Rodgers extended the play with his legs:
Allison's success during these pivotal contests didn't surprise Rodgers one bit. "He's made plays consistently in practice over the last five or six weeks. Which gives you the feeling that if he gets an opportunity or we need him to be in there, he's going to make a play. And that's why he's been a big part of our success and I've gone to him in certain situations, because I've seen it in practice," Rodgers told the Wisconsin State Journal.
Allison continued to contribute during the Packers' run to the NFC Championship. Now, he's ready for an even bigger role in his second year.
He was obsessed with making the offense second nature, so his playbook never left his side this offseason. He trained by running the same routes that he runs in the Packers' offense, a luxury he didn't have last Spring. After joining the team as a "string bean" last year, Allison's also bulked up to 202 pounds. "He's made a huge leap," Cobb recently told Packers.com of Allison.
One of Allison's biggest focuses this offseason was improving the efficiency of his breaks—that is, how quickly he's able to change directions during a route without telegraphing his intentions. "(Getting) in and out of your breaks is about getting your foot in the ground before the defensive back recognizes what's going on and can get their plant foot in the ground. Typically, the first person to get that plant foot in the ground and get going where they're trying to go is going to be the person who wins. So you try not to give any indicators in your route that you're getting ready to stop," Allison says.
If this brilliant run-and-catch from a recent preseason game is any indication, Allison could be in for a big season in 2017. Not bad for a dude who didn't get drafted.
Photo Credit: Evan Siegle and Matt Becker, Packers.com
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