West Virginia football coach Neal Brown knows all the knocks on Bryce Ford-Wheaton, the former Mountaineers wide receiver who is trying to prove the naysayers wrong by sticking with the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent.
Drops too many passes; Isn’t crisp enough in his route running; Doesn’t always play to his size or produce the way a player with his stunningly good athletic profile might be expected to.
“Here’s what I would say to that. Is he a finished product? I would say absolutely not,” Brown said. “What I would defend on Bryce is this, and I said this to the scouts, I said this to all the pro personnel I talked to is he reminds me of a basketball player that comes out and he’s a long, skinny guy and he has a couple really good traits and he’s able to get by with those traits because he is just bigger than everybody else at lower levels. And then he really doesn’t develop his game, whether it’s in college or in the NBA, until he has the strength.
“When strength comes, so does ability to actually utilize your, your length and your God-given traits that make you different than everybody else. He’s a guy that always looked the part, okay, from a length standpoint, but from a strength and ability to bend those didn’t come till later in his career.”
Brown took over as West Virginia head coach in 2019, and has watched Ford-Wheaton ever since he stepped on the field for the first time as a redshirt freshman during Brown’s first season with the Mountaineers. He watched Ford-Wheaton’s production increase yearly — 12 catches, 201 yards in 2019; 27 catches, 416 yards in 2020; 42 catches, 575 yards in 2021; 62 catches, 675 yards, a career-best 7 touchdowns in 2022.
“When people think of underachievers, you’re thinking of guys that weren’t productive. I mean, he was, he was highly productive here, and his level of production increased every single year,” Brown said. “He improved, you know, and like I said, I think he’s rare because I think the assumption is that you’re getting a finished product when you get a guy that stays in college and plays at the Power 5 level for four or five years.
“With Bryce, I think it’s the exception because I think there’s still a big area of improvement in his game. And so I look at that as a positive, not necessarily as a negative.”
Dropped passes have been a concern for Ford-Wheaton. Dane Brugler of The Athletic listed Ford-Wheaton with 18 drops during his career as a Mountaineer, and his career 11.2% drop rate has to improve if he is going to be relied upon by NFL offenses.
“I think it’s fair to say when he came to college, he was not a natural ball catcher,” Brown said. “I think too, as he matured through his career I don’t think he’s a guy that as a 17, 18, 19-year-old necessarily saw himself in the same light as some other people did. I think people saw him as a tall guy that could really run and this massive potential and future NFL player.
“I think he struggled with some confidence issues. I think he struggled with the expectations because of his family legacy here in West Virginia. And I think as he progressed through his career, you know, he started seeing some glimpses.”
Ford-Wheaton is a third-generation Mountaineer. His maternal grandfather (Garrett Ford Sr.) was a running back at West Virginia (1964-67) and became the first player in school history to reach the 1,000-yard rushing mark. He was picked in the third round of the 1968 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos and later became the first black coach in school history when he returned to West Virginia as an assistant under Bobby Bowden. He later became an assistant athletic director. Bryce’s uncle (Garrett Ford Jr.) was a running back at West Virginia (1989-92). Bryce’s mother (Tracie Ford) and father (Keith Wheaton) both earned degrees from West Virginia.
“His grandfather was a great player here in West Virginia. And then being a trailblazer really in the athletic administration here at West Virginia. His uncle played here as well. So strong ties to the university,” Brown said. “Came here to West Virginia with a lot of expectations and he had the size but it still wasn’t where it needed to be. He is like a lot of big guys. And it took him a little while to kind of grow into his body.”
There were, as Brown said, glimpses along the way of what Ford-Wheaton might be able to become. There was a three-catch, 104-yard game against nationally-ranked Kansas State in 2020 where he helped West Virginia win. There was a six-catch, 106-yard, two-touchdown game in 2021 against Iowa State. In 2022, Ford-Wheaton had 20 receptions for 249 yards and four touchdowns in the season’s first two games.
Despite those glimpses, the year-over-year improvement, and the other-worldly athletic testing numbers — 87th percentile height, 90th percentile weight, 89th percentile arm length, 90th percentile 40-yard dash, 95th percentile vertical jump, 89th percentile broad jump, 71st percentile 20-yard shuttle — Ford-Wheaton was not one of the 33 wide receivers selected in the 2023 NFL Draft.
“I was shocked. I really was,” Brown said. “The question marks were there. I think those were fair, but he had such a good combine and his workout here on campus running routes and catching the football was really impressive, and we had almost every team accounted for here.”
There were a number of teams seeking to sign Ford-Wheaton as an undrafted free agent. The Giants won out, giving him a substantial UDFA guarantee of $236,000 ($216,000 guaranteed salary, $20,000 bonus).
“I think at the end of the day, it [being undrafted] may end up being the best thing that happened for him,” Brown said. “I think he’s landed in a spot that is gonna allow him to develop. And I think it bodes well for him to have the opportunity to make that football team. And so I think it may have worked out, but I was really surprised that he did not get drafted.”
Brown believes Ford-Wheaton will be “ a real success story for a guy that’s undrafted.”
“I think they’re [the Giants] looking at a guy that I think they’re impressed with his football IQ, I think they’re impressed with his improvement, just like I’ve spoken about his improvement as he’s gone through his college career,” Brown said. “They’re obviously intrigued by his size and his speed, and I think they feel like if he’ll continue the progression he made through his college career over his first two years in the NFL I think they feel like they’ve got a steal and they want to make sure that they have him locked up and he’s doing his development as a Giant.”
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