It’s the third day of the 2017 NFL Draft. Memphis Tigers cornerback Arthur Maulet is surrounded by friends and teammates while NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and a host of guests announce the final day’s draft picks. Maulet, just 22-years old and weighing in at a little over 5-foot-9, 190-pounds, watched as fifty-seven defensive backs got selected and he didn’t. His teammate, kicker Jake Elliott, got picked by the Cincinnati Bengals in the fifth round.
He’d known it would be a long shot, going from Bonnabel High to walking onto Copiah-Lincoln Community College and then transferring to Memphis. But hard work turned into opportunity, and the New Orleans Saints made Maulet a competitive offer in undrafted free agency: $27,000 guaranteed and an invitation to the team’s offseason program. His dedication and persistence made a lasting impression on Tigers defensive backs coach Marcus Woodson:
“Whichever team drafts him and gives him an opportunity, he’s going to take full advantage of it. I can see him playing a long time at the next level, and it’s all because of his work ethic. He has the ability, but at that level, it’s more about what you do off the field that makes you continue to play for a long time. And I think he’ll be a guy that will play a while.”
Maulet has already made another nice impression, winning each of his one-on-one matches and bagging an occasional interception. He even earned some praise and heightened expectations from head coach Sean Payton:
“I think he is tough. I like his physicality, even without pads. You can see his is put together well. He’s smart. That’s a good trait. He’s someone I think that can possibly play in the nickel. I said the other day; he was a sought-after free agent for us. We had competition (from other teams to sign him). I am anxious to see how he does once we start getting into preseason games. I would say (I am) encouraged.”
These statements sound like superlatives, and it’s easy to brush them off for it. Many of the same things were said last year of undrafted rookies Ken Crawley and De’Vante Harris, who had strong showings in rookie minicamps and organized team activities. Each of those guys had strong summers and eventually got on the field in the fall, but things fell apart against real competition. We’ll have to wait and see if Maulet’s story takes a similar turn.
On the other hand, consider the accomplishments of Denver Broncos slot cornerback Chris Harris Jr. Like Maulet, the Kansas Jayhawks graduate sat and watched, frustrated, as fifty-seven other defensive backs had their names called in the 2011 NFL Draft. Then-Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen recruited him as an undrafted signee, the same Saints coordinator who this summer courted Maulet. He signed on with his hometown team just like Maulet, though for just $2,000-guaranteed. But the scrappy rookie caught the eye of future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey, who later made comments nearly in lockstep with what’s now said about Maulet:
“He’s grown so much, he’s learned so much. I mean he’s had the luxury of playing opposite of me and now [Aqib Talib] comes in, another guy he can learn from. He’s just a student of the game, he’s tough, he tackles, he covers. There’s no part of the game that you ask your corner to do that he can’t do well. I’m proud of him, man. I watch from afar and it makes me smile when I see him do great things.”
Harris kept at it, working hard and competing, though he saw just four starts in his rookie year. In his sophomore season he cemented himself as the team’s nickel corner, playing two-thirds of snaps the first four weeks before logging 97-percent or more every game after. He’s been on the field for fewer than 72-percent of snaps played just three times since 2012, and led the defense in snaps played three of the last four years.
Numbers aren't everything, but given athletic profiles & college backgrounds (Memphis & Kansas) it's not hard to see appeal of this comp pic.twitter.com/1OdonIcpCD— John Sigler (@john_siglerrr) June 19, 2017
Now Harris is a darling of Pro Football Focus and other analysts focused on defensive back play, has made three consecutive Pro Bowls, and was a 2016 First Team All-Pro. Those are the loftiest possible expectations for someone like Arthur Maulet, but it goes to show that NFL stars come from all walks of life. It’s only June and training camp is still a month away. I don’t know about you, but Maulet is someone I’ll be eager to watch.