GREEN BAY — Watching Colt Lyerla glide around the practice field, you can see why the Green Bay Packers took a chance on the troubled rookie from Oregon.
“He looks pretty fluid out there,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “He can move for a tight end.”
Indeed, he can. When the 2014 Packers practiced in public for the first time Thursday, Lyerla drew the loudest cheer at Ray Nitschke Field when he reached high to haul in an overthrown pass.
Then again, talent was never an issue for the 21-year-old Lyerla. Character was. And is.
Questions about a checkered past that includes a cocaine arrest, incomprehensible tweets about the horrific school shooting in Connecticut, and his abrupt, unexplained departure from Oregon in October led to Lyerla — widely considered a second- or third-round talent — to go undrafted by the 32 NFL teams earlier this month. Not only that, no team was willing to sign him in the ensuing free agent frenzy.
The Packers were one of the few that would even bring Lyerla in for a tryout, but they liked what they saw and signed him to a contract. Because coach Mike McCarthy takes great pride in developing a strong, stable locker room, that raised some major red flags. Some wondered if the Packers were so desperate at tight end that they were willing to turn their locker room into a halfway house.
This, however, is a gamble worth taking. Bringing in Lyerla is a low-risk venture that could pay off big — for the Packers on the field and for Lyerla personally.
On Thursday, McCarthy, the Packers veterans and Lyerla himself all seemed committed to making that happen.
“Personally, I’m excited about having Colt here,” McCarthy said. “You look at our history — this will be our ninth season as far as the program that we’ve established — everybody is excited about helping a young man that’s been through what he’s been through. Forget about the football part of it. We haven’t really participated in this type of situation in the past. Colt just needs to be like everyone else. But I know people like (director of security) Doug Collins, (director of player development) Rob Davis, we’re excited to impact this young man’s life. Everything else will take care of itself professionally.”
Some might consider that organizational arrogance, but the players are on board as well. They insist Green Bay will provide the type of family environment and support system that can help Lyerla overcome a difficult upbringing and the embarrassment of hitting what he called a “low point” in his life following his departure from Oregon.
“Obviously, we see that he has the ability,” Williams said. “He’s in Green Bay and I said to myself, ‘This is the perfect spot for him to be.’ Obviously, (general manager) Ted (Thompson) likes to give guys a second chance, and I always commend that. Sometimes it’s not just about the game of football. This opportunity can truly change this guy’s life. For the Packers to show that dedication and put that type of trust in a guy who’s had a bleak past, it says a lot about this organization.”
For his part, Lyerla sounded like he intends to make the most of that second chance. He was outwardly contrite when speaking with reporters, admitting it had crossed his mind he might never get a chance in the NFL due to the baggage — largely his own — he was lugging around. He said he couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity than this one given everything that has happened to him.
“I feel like I have a new home,” Lyerla said. “I was kind of lost for a little while, but being here and being accepted here is truly great.”
From the cheers he got on the practice field to the praise he got in the locker room, others feel the same way. The Ryan Braun episode has shown that Wisconsin can be a very forgiving place, and since most of Lyerla’s wounds have been self-inflicted, his fate in Green Bay will be determined by his future behavior, not his past actions.
“I’ve spent the last six, seven months doing hard thinking and making changes and doing the right things,” he said. “I think me being here today shows that I am moving in the right direction.”
That’s not just lip-service, either. On Wednesday, Lyerla asked quarterback Scott Tolzien to stick around after practice and throw to him, something any coach likes to see.
“The guy I have watched play football is a kid that’s explosive and can be a difference-maker when he gets his hands on the ball,” tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot said. “And in meeting him, he’s a very good kid. He’s not real outspoken. He seems to be a little on the quiet side, personality-wise. But in all of my dealings with him, obviously he knows that his past has brought him to where he is today. He’s very aware of the mistakes that he’s made, and hopefully he can stay on the right track and help us be a good football team.”
With little invested in Lyerla and the ability to dump him at any time, that’s a chance the Packers are — and should be — willing to take.