Between a parabolic curve in the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain lies Metairie, Louisiana, a bustling suburb of New Orleans. It is centrally located in the metropolitan area, slightly more than six miles from the French Quarter.
Not that Chidera Uzo-Diribe, the former Colorado defensive end, spends much time on Bourbon Street.
Metairie is also the home of the New Orleans Saints, the team Uzo-Diribe is trying to make as an undrafted free agent. Spending time exploring the city would mean he was getting comfortable, and comfort is an undrafted rookie’s worst enemy. Comfort breeds complacency. Complacency breeds unemployment.
So Uzo-Diribe lives in a hotel near the Saints’ practice facility. The hotel has been his home since he flew to New Orleans the Sunday after the NFL Draft, May 11. He brought with him only bare essentials: clothes and shoes.
“And toothpaste,” he adds with a laugh.
This was understandable; he didn’t have much time to pack. After the draft’s final selection, teams scramble for undrafted players like carpetbaggers to the South. As the draft draws on, teams identify players unlikely to be selected and try to sign them as soon as possible. Uzo-Diribe was a Saint within 45 minutes of the final pick.
Going undrafted is a double-edged sword for rookies. They all want the call. But when it did not come, it gave Uzo-Diribe the opportunity to sign with the team he felt fit him best. The Houston Texans, Arizona Cardinals and Washington Redskins all offered him contracts, but he jumped at the chance to sign with New Orleans.
“I really felt wanted there,” he said. “Talking to [head coach Sean] Payton, [defensive coordinator Rob] Ryan and [linebackers coach Joe] Vitt, I felt the love.”
So clothes and shoes and toothpaste went into his suitcase, and Uzo-Diribe was off for the Big East. He spent the last two weeks at the Saints’ rookie minicamp nose-deep in his playbook, trying to learn the complexities of an NFL defense. The speed and intensity of the practices have been unlike anything he’s ever seen. In his four years as a defensive end at Colorado, coaches still taught the game. In New Orleans, expectations are high, even for undrafted free agents, and the margin for error is nonexistent.
Making the Saints’ roster would be hard enough at his old position. At 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, Uzo-Diribe is too small to play defensive end in the NFL. He is now learning how to play outside linebacker, a position with responsibilities he never faced during his college career.
It’s not that Uzo-Diribe is too accustomed to playing with his hand in the dirt; he rushed standing up at times for the Buffs. But doing it all the time is a different animal. There are questions. A lot of them. Who is blocking me? Is it the tackle or the tight end? Will the tight end chip me and pass me off to the running back? Do I drop into coverage? Who’s my man? Where’s my zone? Did the quarterback just hot route the slot receiver to a slant? Am I covering that?
NFL linebackers must have a Swiss army knife of skills including coverage, pass-rushing and run-stopping. Learning NFL coverages is hard when you’ve never played coverage in your life, and doubly so when you’re playing in Rob Ryan’s insanely complicated defense. Uzo-Diribe also has to learn how to play special teams, which is likely his best shot at making the Saints’ final roster.
Still, Uzo-Diribe has one advantage that no other undrafted rookie does. His cousin is Atlanta Falcons defensive end Osi Umenyiora, a two-time All-Pro who won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants. Uzo-Diribe talked to Umenyiora, now his NFC South division rival, after the draft and the veteran gave him some sound advice: keep your head down, keep your mouth shut and work hard.
Despite the difficulties undrafted players face (according to NBC Sports’ Pro Football Talk, only 37 percent of last year’s undrafted rookies made a team), Uzo-Diribe is confident he can make the Saints’ roster. He is neither comfortable nor complacent.
He is staying in New Orleans, in his hotel, throughout the summer. He will participate in organized team activities through June and training camp in August. Then, his NFL fate will be decided.
In the meantime, maybe he can check out that French Quarter.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Tommy Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.