Everyone likes underdogs. From longshots at the horse track to undersized freshmen on varsity wrestling teams, seeing David triumph over Goliath usually provides movie producers with Disney-worthy narratives and journalists with mountains of fresh material. In the NFL, the proverbial Davids are college prospects who were not among the players to hear their names called on draft day.
Undrafted free agents are truly the greatest prospects in the NFL, simply because there are no tangible risks in kicking the tires on these guys. Most teams have at least one star player on the roster who managed to fall through the cracks during their respective drafts. For every James Harrison, Tony Romo or Arian Foster, however, there are hundreds of undrafted free agents whose NFL careers didn't pan out. Some players manage to hang around on practice squads for a few seasons, but most simply walk away from the NFL to pursue dreams elsewhere.
Canaan Severin is hoping to create his own legacy as an NFL star.
Severin, a former standout at the University of Virginia, signed with the Steelers several weeks ago after the 2016 NFL Draft officially concluded. Despite earning All-ACC honors last season, Severin wasn't invited to the NFL Combine, and neither Todd McShay nor Mel Kiper Jr. included Severin on their respective Big Boards; both of which contained over 300 prospects.
Now, I watched Severin play in person once before. Last October, Severin and his Virginia team traveled to Heinz Field to face the University of Pittsburgh in a mid-season ACC matchup. One of my friends with whom I attended the game pointed to Severin and said, "Hey, check out No. 9 for Virginia; he looks like A.J. Green!"
He wasn't kidding. Severin, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 205 pounds, certainly looked the part of a top-tier receiving prospect. In that game, Severin had five catches for 56 yards, including a 32-yard touchdown grab over the head of star safety Jordan Whitehead with less than six minutes remaining. Severin's performance in that game, as well as an 11-catch effort against Notre Dame and a three-touchdown game against Louisville, served as limited samples of what could have been had he played in a more consistent offense.
Virginia's passing attack was one of the poorest in the nation last season, with starting QB Matt Johns having attempted only 400 passes and having thrown for just over 2,800 yards on the season. Severin, despite his lofty accolades, caught only 54 passes for 759 yards and eight touchdowns; decent numbers, but undoubtedly a substantial drop-off from what some of the other top receivers in the country managed to post.
Although Severin didn't have a chance to wow scouts with his statistics or pre-draft measurements (he runs his 40 in the 4.5-4.6-second range, according to StreakingtheLawn.com, if you were wondering), he does have three major advantages over the majority of his peers; he played in a pro-style offense, he had the opportunity to choose which team he wanted to play for and he has something to prove.
"I kind of feel prepared coming from pro-style offenses," Severin said, according to Chris Adamski of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "So it's all just the terminology is just a little different but it's the same concept coming from a pro-style offense though. So yeah, just go catch the ball."
Playing in the offense is one thing, but choosing to join a team that boasts one of the league's most robust receiving corps is an entirely different story.
As Adamski points out, Pittsburgh's enviable receiver depth doesn't extend far beyond this season. Markus Wheaton will be an unrestricted free agent next March, and after seeing the hefty contracts awarded to Marvin Jones and Mohammad Sanu, you have to imagine Wheaton could command a similar deal. Darrius Heyward-Bey is a capable, albeit one-dimensional veteran player whose role likely won't expand into anything too meaningful over the next season or two (or three). Sammie Coates showed some potential in the limited action that he's received thus far, but he is by no means projected to become an immediate superstar in the NFL. Aside from these players, the Steelers have a handful of unproven players (including seventh-round draft pick Demarcus Ayers and 2015 camp darling Eli Rogers) who, like Severin, will be doing their best to seize an open roster spot.
Looking at the current depth chart, there is no reason why Severin can't at least compete for this spot. Martavis Bryant will miss the entire 2016 after being suspended for a substance abuse violation, which should allow one of the plethora of young receivers on Pittsburgh's current roster to sneak into the final 53-man roster. Severin sees no reason why it can't be him.
"Not being drafted definitely puts a chip on my shoulder," Severin said, "So I've just got to work to improve my whole game and prove to people that I can play in this league and make plays in this league."
Fortunately for Severin, he can place all his focus on bettering himself on the field, as he's already checked all the boxes away from it. He was a team captain in his final season at Virginia. He managed to receive his degree from there, as well, which is a noteworthy accomplishment even for someone who isn't splitting their time between studying and football. When he was 9 years-old, Severin's mother passed away due to complications from sickle cell anemia. At this point, Severin learned he also had the sickle cell trait.
Severin's condition never really impacted him until his sophomore year at Virginia. By this point, Severin, a four-star high school recruit on scholarship, had caught just five total passes in two seasons of work. Practices became exceedingly difficult, and heaviness in his legs and chest prevented him from running effective routes. At a crossroads in his football career, Severin totally overhauled his diet and workout regimen. He packed on lean muscle, his endurance improved, and soon, his statistics ballooned. Over his final two seasons at Virginia, Severin caught 96 passes for 1,337 yards in one of the most stagnant passing attacks in the FBS.
Severin's odds of becoming the next Rod Smith or Wes Welker are steep, but not insurmountable. Based on Severin's record of accomplishment, it is clear that if anyone can overcome the challenges of making an NFL roster as an undrafted free agent, it's him.
Fortunately, Severin has an entire summer of OTA's, training camp and preseason games to make his mark.