When a head coach takes the time to wander over to special teams drills specifically to give instruction to an undrafted free agent, that’s a pretty indication a team is really interested in that player.
For New York Giants undrafted free agent tight end C.J. Conrad, that was the case during a practice this spring when Pat Shurmur was spotted giving him some one-on-one attention.
Conrad, who played collegiately at Kentucky, has continued to catch everyone’s eye since the opening of training camp.
Friday, with Evan Engram getting a maintenance day after missing much of the spring with a hamstring issue, Conrad got work with the first team and caught a pass from Eli Manning. Working with the third team, he shook free from undrafted linebacker Josiah Tauaefa for a nice gain on a pass from Alex Tanney.
Saturday, after lead-blocking for a run play, Conrad was getting congratulations from teammates.
Sunday, Conrad made a spectacular leaping grab of an Alex Tanney deep pass along the right sideline to take the ball away from a defensive back.
Keep watching practice, and Conrad just keeps showing up in good ways.
“He’s done a good job. He’s kind of caught our eye as a rookie. He’s a tough, kind of gritty guy,” Shurmur said. “I think the one thing about him, and you can say this about a lot of rookies, is he gets better with more reps. So he’ll benefit [from that]. And he’s a tough guy. He loves the reps. He benefits from it.”
Conrad said it was “pretty cool” catching a ball from Manning.
What do the first-teams reps mean?
“It means they’re seeing progress in me, which is good. I’m just trying to take every day and take advantage of all the reps I can get,” Conrad said. “If it’s ones, it’s two’s, it’s three’s, I don’t care. Whenever I’m out there I don’t worry about that, I just say hey it’s an opportunity to show a reason to keep me around.”
Did the Giants get a steal?
In the spring, Kentucky tight ends coach Vince Marrow told me that Conrad would have a long NFL career.
“I think the Giants got a steal in getting this kid as a free agent, I really do. I think he’s a guy who’s going to play 8-10 years in the league. He’s exactly what you want in a tight end. He’s a good inline blocker, very good athlete,” Marrow said. “I look at some of the guys that got drafted and you look at his film and watch where he played and look at some of the guys that he blocked in this league and you tell me he wasn’t better than half of those guys that got drafted? You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
Marrow also told me that Conrad “sacrificed his own personal gain for the team” at Kentucky. He made 80 receptions in four seasons, but Marrow said Conrad could have compiled many more had the team not needed him so badly as a blocker.
“That was our game plan. We had a really good running back [Benny Snell, a fourth-round pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers], really good run-blocking offensive line. Really physical team in general,” Conrad said. “I was just all about what was best for the team and what was best for the team during my career there was we were a run-first team. I made some plays off the pass game because we were so good.
“I had my opportunities and I was able to show what I wanted to show.”
Marrow also compared Conrad to Dallas Cowboys’ great Jason Witten because of the all-around nature of Conrad’s game.
It’s a comparison Conrad told me he likes.
“I do,” he said. “I like to be a complete tight end. That’s what he [Marrow] coached me to be and that’s what I strive to be every single day, and that’s what I think Jason Witten was. Just a really solid blocker, also super reliable in the pass game. I don’t think we’re burners or guys like Evan Engram who are extremely fast, but just guys who find a way to get open and catch the ball when you get an opportunity.”
Passionate about his blocking
Some guys do the grunt work of blocking because they have to. When you talk to Conrad, you can tell he wants to knock people out of the way for a running back.
“I’m excited to get the pads on to show what I can do as a blocker. I feel very comfortable in that aspect of my game,” he told me before Saturday’s initial padded practice. “I think the hardest thing to do as a tight end is run block, and then you let your athleticism show and you get some passes.
“I think it’s easier to figure out if you can run some routes compared to if you’re a good run blocker.”
So, what does it take to run block?
“I think it takes toughness to start with,” Conrad said. “The coaches really teach the technique, but you can’t teach heart, or toughness, or physicality.”
How he ended up with the Giants
You watch Conrad play and you think “this kid is too good to have gone undrafted.”
In case you don’t know the story it wasn’t lack of talent or poor workout results that kept him from hearing his name called during the draft. A heart ailment diagnosed during his pre-NFL Scouting Combine physical kept him off the field and put his future as an NFL player in jeopardy.
Fortunately, cardiologists as Mass General Hospital in Boston cleared Conrad a few weeks later. He had missed his Combine opportunity, though, and having not trained for several weeks wasn’t ready for the UK Pro Day.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve been through in my life. Easily. Hands down. But it taught me a lot of lessons,” Conrad said. “I really just think that was the plan set out for me. That’s what was meant for me and it’s all working out right now because I’m in an opportunity with an unbelievable organization and I’m trying to make the most of it.”
While Conrad dropped off the draft radar, the Giants kept in touch. That is mostly because Conrad and Giants tight ends coach Lunda Wells had formed a relationship at the East-West Shrine Game, where Conrad was playing and Wells was working as a position coach.
Conrad said he received post-draft interest from about 15 teams, but choosing the Giants was a “no-brainer” largely because Wells was the “only position coach that I felt like I had a personal relationship with.”
An oddity about Conrad landing with the Giants
Every football fan knows the last few seasons have been rough for the Giants. For Conrad, this is a familiar story.
At Keystone High School in Ohio, he played on a team that went 0-10 when he was a freshman. That grew to 5-5, 7-3 and then 8-2 with a playoff berth his senior year.
In four seasons at Kentucky, the Wildcats went 5-7, 7-6, 7-6 and then finally 10-3 with a bowl game victory.
Conrad acknowledged the similarities, calling them “kinda weird.”
“This is nothing new to me,” Conrad said. “Me and George [seventh-round pick George Asafo Adjei, also from Kentucky] kinda feel like we know what it takes. Obviously this is a different league and we’ve gotta get used to it, but we want to be a positive force in this locker room and do the things we did at Kentucky.”
We are, of course, a long way from finding out if Conrad can help the Giants do those things. He is, however, off to a promising start.