At this point in the offseason, there are nearly 3,000 players on NFL rosters. I'm guessing that only one of them played intramural flag football in college.
Bengals rookie Alex Erickson eventually earned All-Big 10 honors at Wisconsin, but he arrived there without a scholarship and didn't begin practicing with the Badgers until the spring of his freshman year.
"My first semester at school I wasn't on the team right away," Alex told me. "I was coming off of a broken wrist so I probably would have had to sit out most of the first season. So in October of my first year in college, a couple of buddies that I played against in high school asked if I would join their intramural team. I only played in two or three games, but it was fun to get out there and run around a little bit."
Erickson was a quarterback in high school, rushing for 3,856 yards and 57 touchdowns and passing for 3,648 yards and 37 TDs. He also played defensive back and had 14 interceptions. But after joining the Badgers as a walk-on, Alex gradually became a standout at wide receiver.
"It was just consistency," said Erickson. "Catching the football consistently, preparing consistently, and getting better every single day. I had never played the position before going to Wisconsin, so I was already behind the eight ball and I had a lot of great guys in front of me. I just tried to focus and learn every day."
His dedication paid off. Last year Erickson finished second in the Big 10 with 77 receptions – the second-highest total in school history. And while he was not selected in the NFL draft, the 23-year-old from Darlington, Wisconsin quickly signed with the Bengals as a college free agent.
"I had visited down here with Cincinnati, met with the coaching staff and had a good relationship with (receivers coach) James Urban so I felt like it was a great fit," said Erickson. "The things they saw in me as a player are the things that I would say about myself. The ways they talked about using me here are the same ways that I was used at Wisconsin – inside and outside, being able to play multiple positions, and the special teams' component is huge. So when I got the call after the draft it was a no-brainer to come down here to Cincinnati. Getting an opportunity to compete for a roster spot with the Bengals is all that I could ask for."
Erickson isn't big at 6'0", 195 pounds and doesn't have blazing speed as he was timed at 4.52 seconds in the 40-yard dash at Wisconsin's pro day. But he made a strong impression during the Bengals' OTAs and minicamp.
"Alex Erickson is a smart, crafty, bright-eyed, hard-working football player," said Urban. "We'll see how he looks when the pads come on. Sometimes little guys disappear, and sometimes they show up bigger than you ever think. I would not bet against him in any way. I'm anxious to see him in pads."
"I never felt that if I was bigger I could have more success," said Erickson. "It is what it is. You're not going to be able to change what God gave you in that sense, so I've never looked at my size as an issue."
"He gets in and out of cuts with a very low center of gravity and does a good job of creating separation," said my broadcast partner Dave Lapham. "There are a lot of abilities that you have to have to be able to play in the National Football League and people look at him and say that he's not a very big guy or a super-fast guy and that's why he didn't get drafted, but there's reliability and accountability. If I'm a quarterback and I throw the ball Erickson's way – from what I've seen here at the camps he catches it. Nothing has hit the ground that he should have caught. You can have all the speed in the world and all of the route-running ability in the world, but if you can't catch the football it's all a moot point. This guy makes plays. Every single practice that I've been to, he ends up making plays."
"I've been trying to study the playbook and ask questions," said Erickson. "They've thrown a lot at us and a lot of the playbook is installed, so it's a constant battle to keep studying and keep looking at your notes and asking questions. You're not sure how many opportunities you're going to get, so you've got to make the most of every single one of them."
The free agent departures of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu have obviously created opportunities on the roster at wide receiver and Erickson admits that was a factor when he elected to sign with Cincinnati.
"You obviously have to look at the numbers side of it," said Erickson. "My agent had it broken down where guys on this team that had played huge roles had left and those spots are going to need to be filled. So I thought it would be a good place to come and compete and try to earn a spot."
He'll need to shine in training camp and preseason games to make the Bengals roster or practice squad. But simply having the opportunity represents quite a climb from intramural flag football.
"It's been a unique journey to say the least, but I wouldn't trade it for anything," he said.
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