Most undrafted free agent rookies toil through the dog days of August in training camp with little more than a slim hope that they can land a practice squad spot on an NFL club. But a few actually make the 53-man roster and eventually become starters.
One of the undrafted rookies who has a truly legitimate shot at making the leap to his team's 53-man roster is defensive end Curtis Johnson, who opted to sign with the Indianapolis Colts despite receiving calls from numerous teams following the close of the 2008 NFL Draft.
Johnson, out of Clark Atlanta University, caught the attention of pro scouts with his 13.5 sacks during his senior year and a 4.6 forty-time at his pro day. Projected as a possible linebacker at the NFL level due to his speed, quickness and 6-foot-3, 237-pound frame, Johnson saw an opportunity in Indianapolis to continue his career as a defensive end. After the Colts lost Dwight Freeney for the season last year, the team's pass rush suffered as opposing offenses were able to shift their focus to minimizing the impact of the Colts' other quarterback-terrorizing defensive end, Robert Mathis. Johnson, who was a priority for Indianapolis to sign immediately following the draft, should provide the speed and quickness that was lacking on the depth chart behind Indy's star pass rushers.
I recently spoke with the good-natured and hard-working lineman about his college career, why he decided to sign with the Colts, and his goals for his rookie campaign in the NFL.
Ed Thompson: Talk a bit about your skill at putting pressure on the passer at the collegiate level and how you think that will translate to the pro game.
Curtis Johnson: At the collegiate level, you rely on your speed a lot to rush the passer, and that's where most of my sacks came from. But at the next level, it's going to be a lot of handwork to get to the quarterback. You use your hands and you have to be more violent with some of your pass rushing moves. Speed alone is not going to make it.
Thompson: At the East-West Shrine Game there were plenty of scouts looking at you as a linebacker in a 3-4 defensive scheme. Were you a little relieved to have the opportunity to continue to play defensive end when the Colts called you with this opportunity?
Johnson: Yeah, I was. I came out of college training for that linebacker position in case that's where I was needed, but playing defensive end is what I've been used to doing over the past four years during my college career. And I like the way the Colts run their scheme with their defensive ends and the way they get after the quarterback.
Thompson: Is there a better situation for an NFL rookie than to have the opportunity to learn from a pair of guys like Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, even though Freeney isn't able to get out there on the field with you yet?
Johnson: No, not at all. I've talked with Dwight a few times, and Robert, he's a really good guy. He accepted me in, he really opened up to me just to let me know that everything was going to be all right. I watch him out there and his pass rushing moves are great. He practiced with us during all the camps, and I think he's one of the greatest players in the NFL.
Thompson: What do you think you'll be able to incorporate into the way you play the game by working with them?
Johnson: One thing they've helped me with is my spin move. I never used spin moves in college, and that's something they've perfected. They've showed me how to use outside speed to my advantage, and then making the spin to the inside to make the kind of plays that they make.
Thompson: You were a prominent player on kickoffs and punts during your college career. Are you excited about being able to see how you can do in that area at the pro level?
Johnson: Oh yes, of course. Special teams is how you make the squad as a rookie, and then hopefully I'll be able to contribute at the defensive end position. During my rookie year I'm hoping to contribute on kickoff, punt, and punt return -- and hopefully get in there and block a few kicks.
Thompson: Let's rewind to draft weekend. Immediately following the draft, how quickly did your phone start ringing and how did you decide to take the offer from the Colts?
Johnson: I heard from a couple of teams, but I liked the way the Colts presented themselves and talked to me. I felt like I had a good chance there.
Thompson: I think you do, too. If you look at the difficulty they had getting pressure on the passer once they lost Dwight Freeney last season, it's obvious they need someone like you who could step in and provide that speed off the corner. Who were some of the other teams you heard from while the Colts were trying to reel you in?
Johnson: I heard from a number of teams, but I remember hearing from the Redskins, the Steelers, the Texans and the Dolphins. But when I talked to the Colts they told me that if I worked hard, I'd have an opportunity to play. I know Coach Dungy is a great guy, so I know he was telling me right.
Thompson: Making the 53-man roster as a rookie is a big goal, but have you set any others?
Johnson: Yes, to play in some games and have an impact by making some plays for the team, taking the ball back for the offense.
Thompson: Is there anything you'd like to pass on to the Colts fans who are going to get their first look at you this summer during training camp?
Johnson: Just that I'm ready to get going and I appreciate all that they've been doing to support the Indianapolis Colts organization.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the Scout.com network and at FOXSports.com. You can contact him by email through this link.