COMMENTARY: Crowley signs NFL contract with Arizona

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Followers of local youth sports, Division I college football or the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars probably spent a few hours watching this past weekend’s NFL draft. And since I fall into each of the above categories I spent more than a few hours tuned in to the three-day event myself.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have anything better to do with my time. I did, but I had a very special interest in watching the draft proceedings to the bitter end. My very special interest: a local guy named Lucas Crowley.

As you may have guessed, Lucas Crowley is a football player and a very good one at that. As a four-year starter at center for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, he received numerous national and All-ACC honors. His 2016 performances against Illinois, Miami and Georgia Tech earned him ACC Lineman of the Week three times. He was chosen Second Team All-ACC center as a senior and was a two-time nominee for the Rimington Award given annually to the nation’s best center.

Before arriving in Chapel Hill, Lucas made a name for himself playing for the Nease High School Panthers. Rated by ESPN.com as the fifth best high school center in the country plus first team All-State honors, he attracted the attention of more than a few Division I schools upon graduation. He opted for UNC and quickly earned the starting job at center for the Tar Heels and kept it of four years

I first met Lucas when he was 6 years old. Laurie, his mom, approached me to see if Lucas – a very big 6-year old – could play football in our Ponte Vedra junior player development football program. The answer of course was yes, so Lucas and his best buddy, Drew Taylor, who went on to star for Fletcher High School, started a long connection with Ponte Vedra youth football. My longtime interest in Lucas’ career had begun.

In his final year in JDL football, one of Lucas’s teammates was Jon Heck, son of then Jaguar coach Andy Heck. Lucas went on to play for Nease while Jon starred as an offensive lineman for The Bolles School. The two former JDL players met again as members of the 2015 Tar Heels offensive line nominated for the Joe Moore Award, an honor recognizing the best offensive line play in the country.

But back to the NFL draft.

Lucas entered the 2017 NFL draft and last weekend became the first Ponte Vedra JDL player ever to do so. But would he become the first-ever former JDL player to be drafted by the NFL?

Unfortunately, after seven rounds of draft picks, Lucas’ name was never called. That might have been heartbreaking but for one thing. Once Mr. Irrelevant’s name (the name of the last player selected) is called, all NFL teams move quickly to sign quality undrafted players as undrafted free agents (UDFAs). Obviously, not all undrafted players are offered contracts but fortunately Lucas was – by several teams in fact, including the Arizona Cardinals, the team with which he chose to sign. As it turns out, that is one of the few upsides of going undrafted – you get to choose your destination.

Lucas certainly shouldn’t fret about not being drafted in the three-day event. The list of undrafted free agents is long and notable including Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner, Tony Romo, Warren Moon, James Harrison, Adam Vinatieri and Herm Edwards, just to name a few.

Lucas is already the first-ever former JDL player under contract to an NFL team. The challenge now remains for Lucas to make the Cardinals' 53-man opening day roster. Knowing Lucas, I’m sure he will.

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