GREEN BAY – A pre-draft visit in late March sold Tyler Lancaster on the Packers.
From then on he was just hoping the Packers were sold on him.
The 6-foot-3, 313-pound defensive tackle found out right after the draft, when Green Bay signed Lancaster as one of 14 rookie free agents, who are joining the Packers’ 11 draft picks and several tryout players for this weekend’s annual rookie orientation.
Lancaster’s pre-draft visit to Green Bay went so well that he brought a Packers hat to the home of a Northwestern teammate last Saturday to watch the final rounds of the draft.
“I was hoping to get drafted by Green Bay,” Lancaster told packers.com shortly after arriving with all the other rookies. “My agent knew that, and my family knew that. But I knew more than likely, as it did, it came down to free agency.”
This isn’t the story of an undrafted rookie out to prove everybody wrong, though. Lancaster knows exactly why he was bypassed by all 32 teams for seven rounds. Immensely strong and stout at the point of attack, the run-stuffer had just 3½ sacks and two forced fumbles over three seasons (40 games) as a Wildcats starter.
He gets it. He didn’t have the splash plays on film for teams to invest a draft pick. He could handle Big Ten double teams with the best of them, but that’s not enough. So what he’s out to prove is he can do more.
“The scouts did their jobs,” he said, a level-headed comment if there ever was one following a draft snub. “You see other guys making plays out there, and I’m like, ‘Man, I should be doing that,’ and unfortunately I hadn’t.
“That’s one part of my game I want to step up. I want to get in there on the pass rush. I want to start making plays. Even though before I was just doing my job, I have to go above and beyond doing my job. That’s how I’m going to make it.”
He has the tools to work with. After not getting invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, Lancaster turned heads at Northwestern’s pro day with an impressive 36 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press – which would have ranked fourth in Indianapolis – and a 4.96-second time in the 40-yard dash.
Former Northwestern teammate Dean Lowry, who played alongside Lancaster in 2015, said his fellow D-lineman’s strength was a calling card from the get-go, but his overall athletic ability can surprise people.
“He’s always been strong,” said Lowry, who for the record, did 30 bench reps at the combine before the Packers drafted him in the fourth round two years ago. “Since Day 1, he was putting up weight that nobody else was as a freshman.
“Just seeing a guy with his build, you wouldn’t expect him to move laterally and have the agility he has, but he’s explosive off the ball. He always played great against pro-style teams, against Wisconsin and Iowa, those big, downhill running teams.”
Lancaster’s inspiration has multiple sources as well.
Voted by his teammates last season to wear Northwestern’s prestigious No. 1 jersey, whose owner best represents the program’s values of attitude, character and commitment on and off the field, Lancaster has a legion of admirers who want him to see this through.
“It was incredible to wear it on the field, especially being the biggest No. 1 in America,” he said with a chuckle. “But the responsibility that came with that is huge, too. I didn’t, because it’s not in my personality to do so, but you can’t let up, ever, if you get No. 1.”
A group of Packers draft picks took their 2018 headshots at Lambeau Field. Photos by Ryan Hartwig, packers.com
Moreover, Lancaster lost his most devoted fan – his father – in January after an excruciating, yearlong battle with oral cancer.
Brad Lancaster got the diagnosis as Northwestern’s 2016 season concluded, but last fall he still was able to attend every Wildcat home game, plus the Music City Bowl in Nashville, to see his son finish his college career. Less than a month later, he was gone at an all-too-soon 55 years old.
“The most that came out of it was motivation,” Lancaster said of dealing with all the emotions through the pre-draft process. “The outpouring of support from friends and family and teammates was just incredible, but at the end of the day, this man fought through the craziest of things, the most painful of cancers, and what am I going to do? I’m going to fight.
“That’s all it came down to. When it happened, it was hard. I didn’t go to training that day, but the next day I was back, early as usual. I’m just trying to make him proud. That’s it.”
His dad most certainly is already, and his spirit was undeniable in the celebration with Tyler’s mom, girlfriend, teammates and other family and friends last Saturday when the Packers offered him a contract.
“He’s ecstatic. Ec-stat-ic,” Lancaster said, emphasizing every syllable with wide eyes and a huge smile. “Biggest fan of Tyler Lancaster that you’ve ever seen. I can picture in my head right now, he’s saying, ‘Fantastic job, but now you have to go do it.’
“But he’s doing backflips.”
So are Lancaster’s sister and grandmother, who are actually the Packers fans in the Chicago-area family. Lancaster said he’s never been a fan of the Bears, or any team really, which perhaps made it easier to get excited about the Packers after meeting the coaching staff and touring Lambeau Field and the team facilities back in late March.
He felt his chat with defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery was meaningful, because they talked about what he does well, and what he can do better. He’s not a finished product, but he’s confident in what he brings to the table.
“Right now, it’s my strength and motor,” he said. “Stopping the run has been my MO for quite a long time, and I’m interested to see how that changes with a new system and how they’re going to utilize me here.
“I know I’m much more athletic than I’ve shown, and that with a little bit of coaching and possibly a different system, I could blossom into something bigger.”
That process starts now, as tough a road as the undrafted one is to an NFL roster spot. But Lancaster has to start somewhere, and his journey just happened to start last Saturday with a Packers hat in one hand before the phone in his other hand ever rang.
“Through all the celebration and stuff, the whole time I was sitting there with a smile on my face, but deep down, I was like, ‘This is just the beginning. I haven’t made it yet,’” he said. “Everybody was saying, ‘Congratulations,’ and I’m sitting there saying, ‘Congratulations for what?’
“I have to go do it.”