Not a raw deal: Stephen Denmark has the tools to defy expectations
By Robert Zeglinski
The career outlook for an NFL draft pick has always depended on the subjectivity of perspective. Subjectivity, like most opinions, is fluid. And perspective, sometimes cruelly, is everything.
If the rose-colored glasses you choose to wear are as thick as old school soda bottles, a prospective rookie is on his way to being a star purely because he possesses a modicum of talent, plays football, and now wears the uniform of a team you’re familiar with. Most high selections, particularly in the first and second round, automatically have this label adorned upon them whether they belong as professionals or not. They’re not allowed to fail, and they’re not going to fail. The insanity and unpredictability of the lottery of the draft doesn’t apply to these players because they’re not seen as risks: there was no gamble in taking a sure thing, after all. If you’re inclined towards being more even-keeled, and prefer to take the unbiased stock of a situation – an impossibility in an era where an avalanche of superfluous, largely empty information rushes down at the simple indication of existence – a rookie merely needs time to prove himself amongst established veterans. Time in this case acting as a crutch of a talking point. There’s a learning curve of time to get up to speed, one appropriately afforded to almost everyone. And then that time is snatched away, ruthlessly, once the clock has run out. This vantage point can apply to any pick, but finds itself dwelling among the mid-rounders who weren’t quite talented or polished or familiar enough to be drafted early like their esteemed peers.
They could be successful, it’s said. They’re a little raw, is a sentiment reiterated. Just give them a shot, just give them some time. It’ll work out.
Where the crux of attitude and opinion regarding the draft meets an unhappy balance is with the latest selections, such as Bears’ seventh-rounder Stephen Denmark out of Valdosta State. (It’s okay if you want to Google where that is. There’s no judgment here.) The last picks of the litter are regularly the most overlooked, most scrutinized, and realistically, are unworthy of establishing themselves in a league that will likely always be more than a few steps ahead, if they’re lucky, of what they’re capable of.
To believe in something special, to believe in anything with guys like Denmark means the rose-colored glasses you’re wearing have to be like kaleidoscopes: patterns that are astutely overwhelming on the senses, and pretty on the eyes with ceaseless variety. And that’s when the kaleidoscope is actually working as intended. To be measured and give the Denmarks of the NFL world a realistic chance, you have to force yourself to acknowledge basic math: a seventh-round pick will have one of the shortest leashes on an active roster. They’re at the bottom of the totem pole, and they’re part of the rare class of draft picks who don’t receive any patience or learning curves by virtue of their draft status. No one cares if you were drafted on Day 3. Outside of being drafted altogether, it’s not a special achievement. It’s either sink or swim, and most often it’s quietly drowning alone by the time you’ve made it a few agonizing meters.
What Denmark has going for him to break the mold of excessive analysis and wring out a successful career, a career that isn’t in accordance with remotely any expectations, are his raw, physical gifts. They’re gifts Bears general manager Ryan Pace was sure to gloss up at first crack in discussing Denmark’s merits. They’re traits of which give Denmark a chance to float with a life preserver.
“That late in the draft, it’s just a very interesting, intriguing prospect,” Pace told the Chicago Sun-Times in April. “I can tell you this: When we go to the rookie minicamp, he’s going to be one of the guys I’m going to be most interested in watching, just because of the traits he possesses.”
Most male human beings aren’t built like Hercules or any powerful figure from Greek mythology such as the 6-foot-3, 220 pound Denmark. Most male human beings can’t run a 4.46 40-yard dash, jump over three feet (43 inches) straight into the air, and almost 11 feet from distance like Denmark can. But Denmark has never been normal. He’s never been like the others. He’s always been special, and it’s always meant something. To him, his polished gifts come with grace and they should help him transition with ease. They’re his golden ticket to making a name for himself, and he can’t afford to loosen his grip or else be at risk of letting the ticket blow away in the wind.
In a field where size and status is decisively not at a premium, Denmark’s eye-popping frame, top speed, and sheer leaping ability might normally not stand out. Everyone who plays in the NFL is large and built like a brick wall. Everyone who plays in the NFL is fast and uncommonly light on their feet. Everyone that in some shape or form features in the NFL is a gladiator fine-tuned for punishing, grueling battle and actualized physical feats an average Joe can’t fathom. In the NFL, you’re not special because you’re not built like the average person. No one in the NFL is built like the average person. That’s part of the appeal and mythos of the league itself. When that size and status comes at a position like cornerback typically known more for flexibility and being nimble, the potential for a small school athlete with limited experience like Denmark is boundless.
If prototypical cornerbacks are more wiry and awkwardly gawky, then Denmark is like a super-soldier: he’s tailor-made to set a high bar. He’s the answer many would seek to change even the most cynical and woe-is-me of perspectives. Players such as the 49ers’ Richard Sherman and Jaguars’ Jalen Ramsey originally popularized this type of intimidating cornerback. Denmark can continue to help make it the norm, to realize his own dream. That’s so long as he makes sure to keep a dream journal so that when he wakes up, he sadly doesn’t forget the dream within 10 minutes.
Don’t you hate it when that happens?
The main question with the receiver convert in Denmark is whether he gets the chance to add to his limited experience on the defensive boundary. Whether he gets the opportunity to extend his short leash enough to make an impression on Bears coaches in a manner that makes them believe his workout warrior mold can translate outside of the gym with more equipment on than shorts, a shirt, and sometimes the latest hot brand of Nikes. Anyone can run fast in a straight line with no opposition, no pressure, and not a care in the world. Anyone can chisel themselves up to the point of being seen as a reasonable freak. But if they can’t apply their tools in a practical, if legitimately useful fashion, what’s the point? It’s those who can do it when someone is lined up across from them actively attempting to impede their progress who make it in the NFL. Denmark still has to prove he’s capable of the latter, far more difficult distinction of competition. Denmark still has to prove he’s not a one-note player.
When push comes to its last pathetic flailing shove, Denmark probably won’t make the cut in the NFL. The cold pressure of judgment dictates his already limited chance, apropos of his being a seventh-rounder, has no meaningful way of launching well. There have been plenty of Greek God players such as Denmark who have seen a sliver of hope, who have been given a shot because of their tantalizing ability, and most of them failed because they couldn’t translate their gifts to the game. Denmark won’t be the last and he likely won’t have much of a different heartbreaking but unsurprising story to tell either.
But even those of you who are the most pessimistic when it comes to the draft can’t help but feel like Denmark might have more of an imprint. Even if it’s small in relative terms, like he’ll have some kind of an impact. Perspective is everything, meaning the increasingly lowest of low odds of late-rounders thriving in the NFL be damned.
In this entirely subjective sense, Denmark might have more lasting power than you give him credit for.
Robert is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.