Carl Bradford tried to stay positive. It wasn't always easy last fall. Week by week, the Green Bay Packers rookie sat, watched and waited. All he wanted was a chance. One crack at the field.
It never happened.
A "redshirt" year was not how Bradford envisioned starting his NFL career. When he arrived in Green Bay, he hoped to showcase the pass-rush skills that helped him to 20 sacks and 391/2 tackles for loss in his final two seasons at Arizona State.
Instead, he couldn't get to the end of his first training camp before Packers coaches moved him off the edge to inside linebacker.
"Mentally," Bradford said, "I definitely took a step back."
Inside linebacker was like being dropped into a foreign country. Bradford had to learn the language, a new way to play the game. In the middle of the defense, he was responsible for communicating calls and checks before the snap.
It's an impossible task for a rookie who hasn't memorized the playbook.
A more basic hurdle was learning how to stand on a football field. Bradford grew up playing defensive end, crouching in a three-point stance. Even after moving to outside linebacker in college, he merely dug in his heels and rushed the quarterback.
Before last summer, Bradford never had to be a complete linebacker. He never covered receivers, scraped off blocks against the run, reacted to a play unfolding in the middle of the field.
"Just standing up," Bradford said, "and just looking at the defense from that view. That was a difference in itself."
This transition to a position he'd never played was never going to be easy, or quick. It took time. Bradford needed patience.
In his toughest moments, Bradford said, he thought back to his first fall at Arizona State. Before he became All-Pac 12 as a junior, he redshirted his freshman year. Back then, he needed to adjust to the speed of college football before he could compete in it.
Bradford said his first season with the Packers was similar.
"I kind of had that same mentality," he said. "So I kind of knew how to deal with it better than I expected. I mean, definitely, who doesn't want to play their first year in the NFL? But I understand my role, and I adapted to it well."
The training wheels are off now.
Bradford, along with fourth-round draft pick Jake Ryan, got second-team reps at inside linebacker Thursday during the Packers' first open practice of organized team activities. With a thin depth chart forcing Clay Matthews to slide over to inside linebacker, Bradford knows he'll have the chance to play meaningful snaps this fall.
He's also aware meaningful snaps aren't just handed out. He'll have to earn them. This spring, he's trying to show coaches he's ready for a role.
"He's had a good offseason," linebackers coach Winston Moss said. "He's worked hard, and the expectation is for him to come in and compete hard. We'll go from there."
Bradford said he's still learning the defense. He wants to recite the playbook instinctively, without having to think.
On the field, his biggest hurdle is mastering pass coverage. When Bradford moved to inside linebacker, that part of the game was a mystery. Slowly, Bradford said, he's learning how to defend pass-catchers as naturally as he rushes the quarterback.
"Just getting used to it," Bradford said, "and learning how to take the right drops, and the right technique. It's a little different for me."
Bradford's psyche might be the most important piece of his offseason preparation. Confidence isn't usually a concern for NFL players. Last year, Bradford admitted, his was lacking.
He tried to stay positive, but insecurity followed his position change.
"I could've came in this last year more confident in myself," Bradford said. "This year definitely is different, a 360 (degree turnaround). I'm definitely full confident in my game and my play now."
He's confident enough to set high goals. Asked what he expects this season, Bradford said he wants to be a starter, quite a leap from a redshirt rookie season.
There's no guarantee Bradford's transition will lead to the top spot on the depth chart, but he's made the jump from obscurity to success before.
"Obviously, everybody wants to start," Bradford said. "That's definitely my expectation, my goal, where I want to be. But I just want to play my role. Wherever I have to place, I want to succeed in that level where I'm at. If it's a starting job, I'm going to work my tail off to keep it a starting job.
"I definitely still have a mountain to climb. I'm nowhere near where I want to be, but I'm taking steps in the right path."
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