When New York Giants general manager Joe Schoen name-dropped undrafted free agent wide receiver Bryce Ford-Wheaton as a potential special teams punt gunner during Friday’s Giants-Carolina Panthers television broadcast, that got the attention of everyone trying to figure out the Giants’ initial 53-man roster.
Ford-Wheaton found out about Schoen’s remarks from media members after the game. His reaction? Cool, but now it’s time to get back to work.
“It was good to hear somebody like that speak well on me, but still just got to keep coming to work every day and putting my best foot forward,” Ford-Wheaton said on Tuesday. “It’s not like I’m just comfortable with him saying that. Still a lot of work to be done.”
Ford-Wheaton drew attention from the Giants’ fanbase when the team signed him after the draft. The Giants paid Ford-Wheaton more than any other undrafted free agent they signed, guaranteeing him $236,000 (a full year’s practice squad salary, plus a $20,000 signing bonus).
Ford-Wheaton’s physical traits — size at 6-3, 224 pounds, 90th percentile speed at 4.38 in the 40-yard dash, upper tier athleticism with a 95th percentile 41-inch vertical jump and 89th percentile 129-inch broad jump — gave fans visions of the next Plaxico Burress. Not to mention, making many wonder why 33 wide receivers were selected by NFL teams while Ford-Wheaton was left looking for an opportunity.
Once Ford-Wheaton got that opportunity with the Giants, he knew that special teams more than his work as a receiver would be the ticket that would determine whether or not he was able to make the roster.
He was prepared. Even though he starred at West Virginia, with 104 receptions over his final two seasons with the Mountaineers, Ford-Wheaton also carried a full load on special teams.
“I did everything but, but kickoff, so I was kind of prepared to do everything in the league too,” he said. “I kind of knew that my body like type was going to be, I guess, appealing to some NFL special teams coordinators in terms of, I could play probably everything on special teams. My college did a good job of preparing me for this experience and just knowing that special teams is kind of what can give you a chance in the league.”
West Virginia coach Neal Brown told the ‘Valentine’s Views’ podcast in the spring that he was “shocked” Ford-Wheaton wasn’t drafted, and that his special teams work was one of the reasons.
“For us, he was part of the [special teams] core,” Brown said. “He was 220 pounds and he’s fast enough to be a gunner. We used him as a tackle on our punt team and on our punt return team he was a block guy. That was something I know the Giants really liked. He showed some physicality on our punt team because he had several tackles. He had a really big-time play against Pitt last year in our opener last year on the punt team that I know the Giants asked about a couple different times. Other than kickoff, I think he’s got a chance to play on the other three core special teams.”
The gunner spot is one that Ford-Wheaton did not play at West Virginia. He certainly, though, understands why the Giants are using him that way.
“I feel like I just kind of have some type of natural gifts and I feel like a lot of the receiver work translates over to gunner just in terms of false stepping and getting off the ball,” Ford-Wheaton said. “I’m still raw and I’m still learning a lot of things, but I feel like, um, I’m on a good path.”
Ford-Wheaton, as you might expect for a receiver who weighs 224 pounds, likes to play physically as a receiver, to block, and to tackle on special teams.
“Yeah. Especially just being a bigger receiver I definitely like to make sure people know that I’m a bigger receiver,” Ford-Wheaton said. “I like going to fit up on safeties. I like challenging myself blocking a D end sometimes. And then, of course, getting to hit somebody in special teams.”
Special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey said Tuesday that Ford-Wheaton has “a really, really big upside” on special teams.
“The obvious with Bryce is just size, speed. He’s 6-4, he’s 225 pounds, or 230, whatever he is, and runs 4.40. Those measurables are pretty special,” McGaughey said. “Whenever you can get — and with him, he’s a very mature rookie. He goes about his business very professionally, he comes into meetings, he works his tail off, he’s attentive, and he wants to learn. So, when you have those qualities — smart, tough, dependable — and just those physical attributes, he has a really, really big upside, I think.:
Ford-Wheaton had a catch negated against the Detroit Lions in the Giants’ first preseason game when was penalized for offensive pass interference after bodying a defensive back to gain position to haul in a slant pass from Tommy DeVito.
“It’s kind of something I did in college where it was fine to do, but it doesn’t work like that at this level, so it was good,” said Ford-Wheaton. “It was a learning experience, so I know not to do it again. It was just kind of me almost kind of running over somebody else to get the ball. Yeah, can’t do that.”
Ford-Wheaton knows that the big knock on him coming out of West Virginia was his inconsistency in catching the ball, marked by an unacceptably high drop rate of 11.2% while playing for the Mountaineers.
“I feel like every receiver’s, every receiver drops balls,” Ford-Wheaton said. “There will be more dropped balls because that’s the position I play. It’s like saying for a quarterback, you threw incompletions. How are you gonna stop doing incompletions? It is gonna happen, right? But, you just gotta keep coming to work. You gotta stay consistent. I mean, I’ve still been on the same routine. I’ve been catching balls before and after practice ... I’ve been, I’ve been trying, so I’ve been getting better, uh, hopefully. And, um, whenever my time comes at receivers, just, you know, I’ll try to take advantage of it.”
Ford-Wheaton has been using an interesting method to try and improve his hand-eye coordination. He is doing visual training using strobe glasses he was sent by a company called Senaptec.
Ford-Wheaton catches tennis balls while wearing the specialized glasses.
“It makes it harder to see things. It kind of flashes light and it makes it harder for you to do regular tasks, like catch a tennis ball is how I do it,” said Ford-Wheaton. “It helps in like your depth perception and things like that. I can just sit there at the house and I’ll just juggle with tennis balls while I’m wearing them. It just makes it harder. And then I take ‘em off and do it too, and it makes it easier.”
Roster cuts are coming in less than a week. That is a new experience for Ford-Wheaton, who says he has had to learn not to obsess over whether or not he will make the team.
“I cared way more when we were first starting and I was just thinking everything I did, especially being undrafted, I was thinking I have very limited mistakes that I can make,” Ford-Wheaton said. “It was kind of putting like more stress and like pressure on myself. But as I’ve kind of been going on, it’s just worrying about that situation does nothing for me. It just, if I’m worrying, I’m too far in the future, and if I’m dwelling on something then I’m living in the past. So I’m trying to be where my feet are at and just keep coming to work every day. Just doing my best.”
We will find out in a few days if that best is enough to make him part of the team’s inital 53-man roster.