Rysen John is having to adapt to a new position, a new country and a new culture as he tries to do the improbable and break into the NFL as an undrafted rookie free agent.
Imagine being the new kid at school, where everyone is older, bigger, stronger, faster.
And while they might not be smarter, they already know the textbooks back-to-front. The only way you can compete is to outwork, out-will and outlast them.
Welcome to the world of an undrafted NFL rookie free agent.
Vancouver native Rysen John packed his bags three weeks ago, boarded a jet for East Rutherford, N.J., and flew to the opposite coast to begin his pro football career with the organization that signed him to a free-agent deal mere minutes after the NFL draft concluded in April — the New York Giants.
Since then, it’s been a dizzying array of details, intricacies, culture adjustment and COVID-19 testing cotton swabs up the nose.
“I walked around the neighbourhood before training camp started, but I haven’t driven or Ubered anywhere, so I haven’t hit up the city,” said the 22-year-old. “My main focus has been training camp, ever since I’ve been here, ever since I flew into New Jersey. My experience out here has been pretty surreal, honestly.
“Playing Division 2 football, and now jumping up to the NFL level … like I said, it’s the dream. You dream of this as a kid, and now it’s right here in front of your hands,” he added.
“You have to take advantage of the opportunities that you have right now. So far it’s been a blessing, pretty surreal, but at the same time though just trying to stay focused on what I need to do and just do my part.”
Making the jump from college to the pro ranks is always an obscenely difficult transition. Doing it from Division 2 instead of Division 1 NCAA makes it harder. Coming from the only Canadian school competing in NCAA makes it exponentially more so.
And throw in the fact you’re making the attempt while playing an entirely new position, well, that pushes it from implausible into impossible territory.
But the Giants saw something in John’s film from his four years with the Simon Fraser University football team. His 6-7 frame, 4.6 speed, basketball wingspan and vertical saw him lead the Great Northwest Athletic Conference in receiving.
SFU lost a lot during his time there, going 1-29, with two losses in his final year coming by more than 60 points. But in that dumpster of a season, John blossomed. He had 141 yards and a touchdown in a 70-7 loss to Portland State and 149 yards and major in their 55-21 loss to Dixie State.
In the only win over his collegiate career, he had three scores and 107 receiving yards on eight catches.
It was enough to have John’s cellphone buzzing, with Giants tight end coach Freddie Kitchen on the other end, five minutes after the draft concluded. John’s stats, his height and testing were too intriguing a combination to pass up.
The position is stacked with a deep pool of veterans or players with NFL experience in front of John. Evan Engram looks to be the No. 1, but he’s not John’s competitors — that’s the likes of Kyle Markway, another undrafted rookie out of the University of South Carolina, or the recently signed Eric Tomlinson, who has spent time with the Jets, Patriots, Eagles, Texans and Raiders — who just cut him — and returns for his second stint with the Giants.
The No. 4 spot or practice roster is where John most likely will end up, a position where he can take his time to develop into an NFL player. It’s not a knock on John’s upside or ability; the arc of San Francisco’s George Kittle can serve as inspiration.
The Wisconsin-born tight end got little attention in high school — he wore a sweater under a jacket to make his 195-pound body appear bigger in his lone school visit — before eventually playing four years with the Iowa Buckeyes. But it took him years to get to where he is now: on the cusp of being the league’s highest-paid player at his position.
John’s athletic attributes are inarguable. How he handles the fire hose of information thrown at him by the Giants coaches will be the decider.
Can he describe the difference between a Burst 4, Boot 4 or a regular crossing route? The blocking assignments close to the line of scrimmage and the tackles are much different than those you see as a wideout — and John knows that’s the area he has to master first.
“I’ve talked to Evan Engram quite often. Obviously, this is the first time have my hand on the ground. So I’ve been asking him (questions), picking his brain a little bit,” said John, who has added muscle to his already solid 237-pound frame.
“I’m dealing with defensive ends now, and SAM linebackers. That’s the main difference, instead of going against a 5-9 corner and being able to pick them up easily on the outside.”
The Giants veterans reported to camp Monday, but work has been limited to weightlifting, running, walk-throughs and film sessions. This will continue until Aug. 12, the first day they’re allowed to practise in helmets, and Aug. 17 the first of 14 practices they’re permitted to run in pads.
Despite already cutting eight players on Sunday to get to the new 80-man limit, Giants head coach Joe Judge appreciates the lead-up time they have to ease players into their system.
“Really, the biggest emphasis on that is communication,” he told reporters this week. “We can’t go at full-tempo. We don’t want to expose our players to injury or something they are not ready for. It’s a teaching phase that we’re in right now.
“Building the communication and the identification of being on the field and working with your teammates. … It doesn’t look, tempo-wise, like anything you would expect practice to look like. It really is a controlled walk-through tempo to get guys moving and familiar with our schemes and systems and how practice will flow once we go full speed.”
John survived that first round of cuts, and even if he is deemed expendable later, an expanded practice squad of 14 and players who might need replacing because of a positive novel coronavirus test could open a roster spot.
But until then, John will be working hard at his summer school.
“So far it’s a lot of detail, a lot of nuances,” he said. “It’s been a process for me, obviously, as a tight end, there’s been a lot of stuff going on like in terms of just blocking techniques our we’ll play out wide at receiver and then really go into detail where to line up specifically, just for another guy to line up correct as well.
“As a player, what the coaches are giving us, they’re giving you the material, they’re expecting you to learn it, they’re expecting you to listen in the meetings and be able to ask questions if questions are needed.
“And then if you understand and you’re able to process information quickly enough, they throw more stuff at you,” John added, giving the example that he not only has to know where he is on his field, he has to know what his body position and eyes should be.
“Really, for me, it’s just constant review. It’s really on us as players, it is our responsibility to go through our material and our stuff … so we don’t have to think too much on the field. It’s focusing on the details so when we hop on the field, and we’re in the huddle, I can apply that information, so I can go out there and just play fast.”
His day starts when his alarm goes off at 5:15 a.m., enough time to get to the bus for 5:35 a.m. for the 10-minute drive to MetLife Stadium. Then it’s a round of cotton swaps up the nostrils before the strength and conditioning sessions held before the morning meetings.
A two-hour break before lunch is spent reviewing plays and previous practices, and getting treatment to keep his body in peak shape. The afternoon is similar, with John getting back to his hotel around 6 p.m. for dinner before hitting the sack early in preparation for another Groundhog Day experience.
“It’s a pretty long day, man. I’m talking like 12-hour days since I started. It’s crazy stuff. This is a pretty rigorous schedule,” said John, who was also selected by the Calgary Stampeders in the CFL draft.
“It’s training camp, man. What day is it? Sometimes I actually forget. It’s literally Day 1, Day 2 … it’s training camp day. That’s it, man.”