Darrion Daniels only watched a few picks of the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft last Thursday. Took too long to get through the selections and there were only a few people he knew getting taken on the opening night. He watched a little more of the second round, a few people he trained with were slotted to be taken on the second day.
He wasn’t even planning on watching rounds four through seven on Saturday.
“It’s never been something I’ve done. I don’t really watch the draft, I follow it, I just track it,” he told Hail Varsity this past weekend. “I really didn’t want the day to be one of those days where everyone’s just sitting around waiting for me to possibly get a call, and it turned out to be that way, but it’s just something I’ve never really been a fan of, sitting down to watch the draft. I didn’t want it to be all about me.
“I just really wanted this day to be a day for my family to just be together and enjoy each other’s company. The draft was just a reason for us all to get together. That’s what I wanted, something to celebrate and have it not really be about the draft but about us really.”
But he ended up watching anyway. In this time of social distancing, his family had a virtual draft party for him back home in Texas, and they surprised the former Husker defensive lineman with a little extra something outside the house.
“My family, we’re really big on celebrations for things like this, so it’s very unusual for us to not all be together right now,” he started. “So a lot of extended family and my family members, they had a parade in my driveway. Everybody had big signs and drove one by one past our driveway just wishing me good luck and everything. My parents made party bags and we handed those out as a thank you for coming through.”
Daniels’ girlfriend was in on the surprise, and got him outside by asking to take a few pictures to document the day. When he resisted, his dad, Tony, gave him guff until he agreed.
“It just made my day,” he said. “It caught me completely by surprise.”
Sitting and waiting when you’re not sure what your future holds can be taxing. Every year guys slip from Day 2 projections into a freefall on Day 3. For someone like Georgia’s Jake Fromm, with a camera on him throughout the entire process, it can be hard.
Daniels approached this process with a commitment to staying in the positive. He says he made a point early on to wrap his brain around the possibility he wouldn’t be hearing his name called so as to not get discouraged with each passing round.
On Saturday, he said there were three teams in particular who gave him assurances they’d draft him. They’d get on the clock, they’d select someone else, and the angst would rise at home. “It was harder on my family than it was for me,” he said. “I could see they were all getting antsy.”
Around the start of the fifth round, teams started calling about the possibility of undrafted free agency. Daniels’ message was constant: when the draft is over, he would assess his options with his agent and go from there.
In the end, Daniels was left as an undrafted free agent, free to sign with whomever he chose. It didn’t take long for him to pick, and shortly after the draft he agreed to terms with the San Francisco 49ers.
“There’s 32 teams. All you need is one to fall in love with you,” he said. “There’s a lot of people in the NFL right now who were undrafted free agents. I’m not tripping. I knew that had I gotten drafted or not I was going to get my opportunity and that’s all I cared about, just getting my shot.”
The 49ers had been high on his list for weeks. The Niners’ defensive line coach, Kris Kocurek, checked in with Daniels a week before the draft, the week of the draft, and then during the draft, gauging where his head was at and making sure his spirits were up.
“He told me he was going to take two d-linemen in the draft, and he had all intentions to draft me and take me late, but he didn’t make any promises,” Daniels said. “He told me the team had other needs. It was completely understandable.”
San Francisco, fresh off a Super Bowl appearance, weren’t without major needs in the draft, but it had just two picks in the first four rounds, both of them on Thursday. With the top pick, San Francisco took South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw. With the other, Arizona State receiver Brandon Aiyuk.
In the fifth they took an offensive tackle, in the sixth they took a tight end, and with their seventh round pick they selected another wide receiver.
“(Kocurek) said that me not getting drafted by them wasn’t a personal thing, they had other needs,” Daniels said.
And that was fine, because even after getting passed on, he still felt wanted.
“The biggest thing he said to me that really got me was he told me they needed weight in the interior d-line,” Daniels said. “He wants me at 310. He was saying that he really needs athletic big guys in the middle, and he told me the guy that’s in front of me (DJ Jones), he’s on his last year in his contract so he said my rookie year I’ll be able to learn under (Jones) and kind of learn the ropes of everything and then that following year I’m in a position to fight for a starting spot.”
The other primary backup at nose is coming off late-December ACL surgery.
With a guaranteed contract on the table, Daniels has his shot.
“That’s all I’ve ever wanted, an opportunity to fight and compete for a position,” he said. “I feel as though whenever I’m in that position I’m going to be victorious because that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life.
“I’ve always been in this position. I’ve never been a first-round guy. Since high school, I’ve never been one of those guys that’s been a front-runner. Everything for me has always worked out on the backend. … I’m used to getting stuff out of the mud and working to where I need to be. I feel like this process is going to be easy for me because I’ve been through a lot as far as having to gain respect and having to earn things.
“(Kocurek) being able to trust me and believe in me is pretty much all I need going forward. I just feel as if I’m going into it and I’m going to continue to do what I’ve been doing, showing up everyday, working extremely hard, keeping my head down and staying out of trouble, and I just feel as though four years down the line I’ll be a Pro Bowler on my second contract with some Super Bowl rings on my finger.”
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.