Making the Cut
“Faith and perseverance always pay off” Weslye Saunders.
Draft Day has come and gone and while some NFL prospects were lucky enough to hear their names called, others will have to take the harder path to making a roster as undrafted free agents. The Draft, however, was just the beginning. The real competition starts now and rookies and vets alike compete for a coveted spot on a team’s final 53 man roster.
One player who knows better than maybe anyone just how tough it is to make a roster is Tight End Wes Saunders. Wes was primed as a high pick in the 2011 draft, but suffered an unfortunate injury just weeks beforehand. He was ultimately forced to take the tougher path to the NFL. Wes has played for two teams in his career and continues to work relentlessly to keep his playing career alive.
We sat down with Wes to gain a first-hand perspective into the journey of making the cut, from pre-draft preparation right through to currently fighting and grinding for the opportunity to make a team.
GG: Tell us about your pre-draft process? How did you prepare for the draft to put yourself in the best position to be drafted?
WS: Well, upon entering the draft in 2011, I was predicted to be a high pick. So NIKE sponsored my NFL combine training in Dallas, TX at the Michael Johnson Performance Center. Under their awesome tutelage, I turned my body into a machine! But unfortunately, I overdid my training just a bit, and suffered a fracture in my foot just weeks before the combine. I tried to ‘tough it out’ during a few events but the pain was too unbearable.
GG: Did you expect to be drafted?
WS: I fully expected to be drafted! But in the back of my mind, I knew what I was up against. I had just missed my entire senior season, I had recently broken my foot, and I was not able to showcase my physical gifts at the NFL combine…it was a ‘perfect storm’ so to speak.
GG: After going undrafted, how did it feel when you finally got picked up by a team?
WS: Once the NFL lockout was over and I was picked up by the Steelers, I was overcome with emotion. Feelings of joy, of course, but also of intense desire. As an undrafted player, I knew I had to TAKE my spot on the roster. But ‘undrafted’ was just a word to me. It didn’t mean sh*t. I knew I was the man. Still that 1st round talent. I just had to make sure the world saw it!
GG: How hard was it to make the final 53 man roster?
WS: Making the roster in 2011 was one of the tougher obstacles I’ve faced. Following a +3 month lockout, teams and players were put in a precarious situation. We were essentially forced to have a full training camp/preseason in only 14 days. Unheard of! But thankfully, I had Heath Miller and a plethora of other Steeler veterans to turn to. In a matter of 2 weeks, I elevated my game from that of a rookie, to a seasoned NFL player. Teammates such a Troy Polamalu and Hines Ward, helped me hone in, prepare my body, and execute my job in ways I hadn’t known before! I was really blessed to have those guys around me.
GG: What did it feel like when you found out you had made the final roster?
WS: When I found out I made the roster, I felt slight relief. For about 2 seconds. Then my attention turned to the season
GG: You’ve spent time with both the Steelers and the Colts. What major differences did you find between the two teams?
WS: When I arrived to the Steelers, we were the ‘oldest’ team in the NFL. Guys like James Farrior, Brett Kiesel and a slew of other veterans stacked out roster. But when I got to the Colts in 2012, we were literally the youngest team in the NFL! It was Andrew Luck’s first season, and the club’s 1st without the great Peyton Manning. So we were really trying to find our identity. Then Coach Pagano got sick, and we instantly rallied together and found our purpose. Made the playoffs after being picked to finish LAST in the NFL!
GG: For you, what was the hardest part to making an NFL Roster?
WS: The hardest part for me about making an NFL roster was the predicament I put myself in prior to the draft. Had I fulfilled my obligations in college, I would have been a 1st round selection, and the road would have been ‘paved,’ figuratively speaking. Being an undrafted player makes the road that much tougher for you! When an NFL team has no real money invested in you,that makes you disposable. So there’s much more to prove. But I wouldn’t trade the path I took for anything! I seem to thrive under that kind of pressure. And I truly believe that everything happens exactly the way it’s supposed to.
GG: Now that you’re a free agent, how do you put yourself in the best position to get signed by an NFL Team?
WS:Well, I was hoping you might have some insight on that? Haha But seriously, just staying in shape and staying on the phone with teams is the best way to stay relevant. Being ready when my time comes is the most important thing.
GG: Is it hard to stay motivated?
WS: It’s not hard to stay motivated because of my passion for football. If I wasn’t an elite player, or if I didn’t absolutely love the game, I don’t think I could remain this dedicated. But faith and perseverance always pay off!
GG: If you could pick any team to play for in the league, who would it be and why?
WS: I’d pick the team who puts their best players on the field!
Talking with Wes really gives you a sense of how everything needs to align perfectly for you to make it as pro football player. There are no guarantees, no matter how good you are. From everyone at Gaelic Gridiron, we wish Wes all the best in chasing his NFL dream and we hope a team sees his potential!