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A Long Shot: From Undrafted To NFL Contributor

It's a steep hill to climb, but each season players go from college free agent to active squad member. It takes a lot of dedication and patience to get there.

Darrel Young remembers what it was like to be considered nothing more than "just a training camp body."

A countdown of the top-10 images of defensive lineman Chris Baker during the 2014 season.

Originally brought on with the Redskins as a linebacker, Young didn't have a long-term contract like some of his teammates.

He didn't even have a helmet sticker – a move made by previous coaching staffs to differentiate players.

So goes life as a college free agent.

"The guys who had stickers, names on the back of their jerseys, [were] the guys they signed in the draft and free agent guys," Young said. "So my mindset was to get my name on the back of my jersey and move forward then."

By now, Young has more than earned his name on the back of his jersey and so much more, as he's now a mainstay in the Redskins' offense and considered one of the best fullbacks in the league.

That didn't come without hard work, though.

"It's about to be the best/worst time of [your] life because you're in the locker room – all you can ask for is an opportunity – but when you're sixth on the depth chart, it's kind of mind-boggling," he said. "You've just got to stay focused. It's stressful but only God knows the opportunity that will be there for you. You've got to make the most of it when your number's called. It may not be until the last preseason game."

Chris Baker also understands the feeling of being the last player at his position to get his number called.

Undrafted out of Hampton, Baker would sign with the Denver Broncos as a college free agent in 2009.

It wasn't until the 2012 season that he'd see any significant regular season playing time, however, bouncing between practice squads during the years.

"I've been in the league for seven years now and my first four years I barely played," he said. "But you just have to keep working hard and when you get your chance just take advantage of it and sooner or later you're going to get that break. Take advantage of it."

Baker remembered his first offseason as a college free agent, a difficult transition for a guy who was "the man" on his college team.

"You go to a minicamp where you don't really get any reps," he said. "But you just have to stay focused on the mental aspect of the game because your reps are going to go down, they're going to go to the first group and second group. Every time you get your chance you have to take advantage of it. You can't go in and you're not always in and you have mental errors. So it's a tough adjustment, but you just have to stay patient and trust the process."

Tight end Chase Dixon's attachment to a team took a lot longer during his rookie season than he would have liked, as the Central Arkansas product went nearly four months between his tenure with the Seahawks and the Redskins.

A member of Washington's practice squad during the last few weeks of the season, Dixon had to learn on the fly while also knowing that he probably wouldn't see any game action.  

It wasn't easy.

"It was difficult at first, but being on a team, being solidified knowing that I was going to be there kind of gave me a sense of relief," he said. "You know I was out for half of the season, but I didn't know where I was going to end up, so having the opportunity to come here was a big thing for me. I was grateful for that opportunity, but as a competitor, I wanted to be on the field obviously."

Currently filling out the Redskins' 90-man roster are 14 rookie college free agents.

One of those rookie college free agents, linebacker Houston Bates out of Illinois, said not hearing his name called during the NFL Draft has given him a "chip on my shoulder."

"I have a point to prove by making the team, doing the best that I can, and getting on an NFL team of 53," he said. "I just want to be on a team, and to be with these guys, a great team, a great organization is a blessing honestly. I'm just going to further my dream and keep pushing forward. That's my motivation right now."

What makes it hard for Bates and others in his position is the lack of reps to prove you're ready to perform at the NFL level.

"You never know when it might be your last rep, and honestly I never really knew what that expression meant until I got here," he said. "You might get four reps a day or five and to know this could be your last one and they don't need you anymore, that's a scary feeling. You know you have got to go hard every single play to get the job done, so it definitely pushes you a little bit every day when you get up in the morning."

For wide receiver Colin Lockett out of San Diego, he knows the competition at the NFL level is like "a dog-eat-dog world," but he wouldn't have it any other way.

"Everybody knows how this business is, especially if you've played in it," he said. "So I just have to go out each and every day and compete, whether it's running the ball on special teams, field drills, whatever it is. …You've got guys like Victor Cruz, and guys of that caliber that came from free agency and came out there and did their thing. So I'm just going to come out here every day and compete whether it's raining, whether it's hot, whether it's humid, anything."

At the end of the day, regardless of your years of experience of where you might have been drafted, once the whistle blows it's another chance to prove your worth.

"People always said that I couldn't do this and I couldn't do that, but I've always been able to outwork people and let the coaches see what kind of ability I have. When I put on the pads I'm a football player, so I always show up when it's time to play football," Baker said.




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