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Rams 2020 UDFA Profile: WR Earnest Edwards

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He played at an elite high school with a top-ranked QB, but Edwards really began to excel as the biggest fish in a tiny pond

First day of spring practice for University of Maine football team Staff photo by Gregory Rec/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Al Harris, defensive end, 1979-1990, Bangor.

John Bunting, linebacker, 1972-1982, Portland.

Will Montgomery, guard, 2006-2015, Brunswick.

These are the three players who according to Pro-Football-Reference were born in the state of Maine and played in at least 100 career NFL games. The total number of players from Maine: 26. That is the same number as the number of players who went from the University of Maine into the NFL. 26.

Out of those 26 players, 12 were drafted. None were drafted before the fourth round. Four were drafted after the seventh round. And one, Jamil Demby, was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 2019 and is seeking an NFL opportunity next season against even greater odds than a year ago when he was coming out of Maine.

(Demby was born in Vineland, New Jersey.)

Earnest Edwards was also not born in Maine, being a native of Rochester, New York. He wasn’t drafted though. He is a member of the LA Rams however.

And he sure as hell hopes to play in at least 100 games. Let the odds begin.

Coming out of Rochester, the same city as eight previous NFL players including one Pro Bowler (Branden Albert), Edwards played at the rather dominant Aquinas Institute. The state of New York does not regularly pour athletes into the league in spite of its size, so it is not as though there are a ton of notable alumni, and Edwards was not quite the standout you might expect him to be now that you know I’m writing about him as an LA Ram.

Because although Rochester and New York are not known for great NFL players, AQ was a strong school (for New York) in high school and college talent.

As is often the case, the biggest star at AQ was the quarterback, Jake Zembiec (you can’t have a hot shot young QB if his name isn’t “Jake” I don’t think) and he was the 2013 Class AA state player of the year in 2013 as a sophomore. Zembiec had suffered a broken wrist as a junior and was controversially ruled ineligible for that season’s playoffs, but returned to hopefully have a strong season as the 10th-best pro style QB in the country for the class of 2015 and a prized recruit for Penn State.

His number one target: Earnest Edwards. But he was an afterthought headed into his senior season.

“I just want to make it the best year possible in all phases and to go out with a bang,” Zembiec said. “Just have a great year with all of us.”

Zembiec, who has a verbal commitment to play at Penn State, is one of four Aquinas players headed to NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision or Division I teams: Linebacker/defensive end Jamir Jones to Notre Dame University and linebacker/defensive end Taylor Riggins to Syracuse on scholarships.

I just want to make it the best year possible in all phases and to go out with a bang.

Jake Zembiec, Aquinas quarterback

Long-snapper/offensive lineman Conrad Brake will arrive at Pittsburgh as a walk-on with the promise of a scholarship in 2016. Senior receiver/defensive back Earnest Edwards has an offer of a scholarship from State University of New York at Buffalo, and said he will make a decision after the upcoming season.

Penn State and Notre Dame.

Syracuse and Pittsburgh.

No one:

Really truly not a soul:

...

State University of New York at Buffalo.

This was the sentiment at the beginning of the 2014 high school season. Edwards was one of the top five or six players on the team, but he was not one of the top three or four players on the team. He ended the season as the co-player of the year with Zembiec.

As a 5’10, 175 pound senior receiver, Edwards caught 56 passes for 1,184 yards and 19 touchdowns. He also carried the ball 30 times for 247 yards and four touchdowns. He had 25 tackles and seven interception on defense. He returned three picks for touchdowns. He returned one fumble for a touchdown. He returned one kickoff for a touchdown. In the semifinals, he blocked an extra point to secure a 17-16 win over Liverpool, one of the highest scoring soccer games ever. In the championship, he caught a 75-yard touchdown pass. All told, Edwards scored 28 times as a senior and AQ easily rolled to the state championship.

Zembiec and Edwards then split New York honors.

While Buffalo stopped becoming his only option, the dominant campaign for Edwards didn’t put him anywhere near the camp of his quarterback or any Division-I program with the exception of UMass, a school that hasn’t posted a winning season at that level since 1904. (Didn’t play Division-I from 1907-2011.) Instead, he chose between five schools who were offering him a scholarship:

UMass, Buffalo, Delaware, Wagner, and Maine.

You know where he went. Edwards announced his decision to go to Maine in January of 2016. He noted that offers really didn’t even happen until after they won the state title. I guess the 28 touchdowns weren’t enough.

“The way the football coaches and players treated me, I felt like I belonged, I felt like family to them already,’’ Edwards said. “It has one of the best business programs in the nation, and that’s what I want to major in college.”

Edwards loved that Maine was so obscure that there wouldn’t be distractions and he could concentrate on becoming a better football player.

Zembiec, one of the top high school players in state history, got the Penn State recruiting glory. Two years later, he retired from football because of injuries. He’s been sticky to head coach James Franklin but says he wants to pursue a career as a physical therapist, understandable given his experience with college sports.

Meanwhile, Edwards found comfort in once again being a fairly big fish in a small pond.

As a freshman, Edwards caught 20 passes for 334 yards and three touchdowns, then he followed that up with a remarkably similar campaign at 21/371/4. He also returned kicks both years and he would continue in that role through 2019; as a senior, Edwards returned 20 kickoffs for 570 yards and two touchdowns, it was an area he definitely excelled at in college.

The Maine Black Bears had gone 3-8 in 2015 under Jack Cosgrove, who resigned at the end of the season after 23 years in the position. Edwards played under first-year coach Joe Harasymiak in 2016 and they improved to 6-5 in the difficult CAA division, where top-ranked James Madison would go on to win the national championship. The team took a step back in 2017, going 4-6, but Harasymiak rebounded in a major way in year three.

Edwards was also finding his footing that year.

Predicted to finish in eighth in the CAA in 2018, Maine upset seventh-ranked New Hampshire in the opener and were ranked 22nd. They next beat Western Kentucky before road losses to Central Michigan and Yale. After back-to-back wins over ranked opponents and a road loss to William & Mary, Maine would go on to win their next six games, four of which came over ranked opponents.

Maine won the CAA. James Madison, national champions in 2016 and runners up in 2017, finished in second.

Reaching the semifinals that year, Maine lost 50-19 to Eastern Washington. But Edwards excelled over the course of those 14 games, including playoffs, catching 53 passes for 839 yards and 10 touchdowns. He had 196 yards against William & Mary. He had two kickoff return touchdowns vs ELON. He wasn’t exactly working with Jake Zembiec.

Harasymiak, now far too successful to be a 32-year-old head coach at Maine (yeah, Harasymiak was 29 when he was hired), left to become an assistant at Minnesota. He’s now the co-defensive coordinator. He was replaced by Nick Charlton in 2019, Edwards’ second head coach at Maine (third if you include the coach he committed to), and another young buck: Charlton was 30 during the season last year.

The team and Edwards were riding that high into the 2019 campaign, but only Edwards built upon what he had started the year before. The Black Bears were ranked seventh in the nation headed into the season but started 2-5 thanks to an inconsistent offense: There were five occasions in which Maine failed to score more than 23 points and they went 0-5 in those contests.

They ended up finishing 6-6, but Edwards got his due.

The senior receiver caught 49 passes for 1,097 yards and 11 touchdowns. He went over 100 yards five times and only once all season did he failed to score a touchdown. Only once! For the second year in a row he also got both of his kickoff return touchdowns in a single game. He cites his two return touchdown game against Colgate as his career highlight.

The most memorable play of my career has to be my kick return touchdown against Colgate to tie the FCS KR record. That touchdown put me in the books forever, and that’s something no one could ever take away from me.

Maine had itself another NFL prospect, like Demby, but the tumultuous 2020 offseason would create further complications for Edwards proving his success could be replicated against competition that is incalculably better than the CAA. He did everything he could.

With no invite to the combine and no “normal” pro day event, Edwards made it to the Rochester Pro Day for seven prospects looking to prove themselves as both professional football players and expert social distancers. Edwards must have been within six feet of someone when he started to run his 40-yard dash that day because he was 120-feet from that person in a hurry.

Edwards ran a 4.44 and 4.41 in his two dashes. He didn’t like how his hamstring felt at the end of the second run and that was the end of his workouts. Prior to that, he did 14 reps on the bench, posted a 35.5” vertical, and a 9’9 broad jump. He claimed to have added 20 “healthy” pounds in the last two months and that he was now 190.

Running a 4.41 at 190 pounds is not a legendary time, but it is very good. In fact, it would make for one very interesting comp given that Edwards was perhaps even more of a special teams star at Maine than he was a receiving star:

Devin Hester was 5’11, 190 pounds, and ran a 4.41 at the combine in 2006.

Other players in this range include Percy Harvin, Darius Slayton, Emmanuel Sanders, Kyle Williams, Armanti Edwards, Mark Clayton, Laveranues Coles, and Keshawn Martin. There’s also Corey Coleman, Andre’ Davis, and Donnie Avery. In fact, would you have expected Calvin Ridley to be 6’, 189 pounds, and run a 4.43?

Almost every receiver who has a height/weight/speed comp to Edwards was drafted. Almost every single one. The exceptions would be Dave Klemic, another small school prospect in 2001, Joseph Morgan in 2011, Mike Mason in 2007 out of Tennessee State, and Michael Rector in 2017. A lot of these guys are day one and day two picks.

If Edwards is really running a 4.41 at 190 pounds, it is significant.

If he is 175 pounds, it is less so. That speed at that weight is less rare and maybe the best possible comp is Paul Richardson. Consider that Tavon Austin ran a 4.34 at 174 pounds. If Edwards is .1 seconds slower than that, it’s not a small difference.

What were scouts, writers, and analysts saying about Edwards?

Ian Higgins at NFLMocks.com.

I received this recommendation from a former high school teammate of Edwards, who said the wide receiver is “the hardest worker and very intelligent.” Paired with videos found on Youtube of post-practice interviews, it is apparent that Edwards is just as Carson said, and has the intangibles to find his way into an NFL locker room.

Pre-Catch

Edwards’ route-running is just the pre-catch sibling to his post-catch elusiveness and ability to make defenders miss. Shifty hips, quick feet, and deceptive eyes. His jukes and jump cuts make him one of the most difficult open-field tackles of the 2020 NFL Draft class and give him a special skill set that has become attractive to the NFL.

Even at 5-foot 10, Edwards is able to get up over the top of defenders and reel in passes assumed too high for the low-lying threat. Tyreek Hill made a play against the Texans that demonstrated why small receivers who can make plays with their verticals are still valuable. Physicality will always be a part of football, even in the process of the catch.

Catch

The NFL has become increasingly physical in the secondary. This is an aspect of the next level that Edwards will have had no experience within his college career. Never facing big-name schools with robust football programs, Edwards will experience a drastic change in the speed and physicality of opposing players.

Post-Catch

Possibly the most impressive part of Edwards’ game, he is a through-and-through playmaker with the ball in his hands and is a threat to break off a chunk gain or more on any handle. Put out wide, in the slot at running back, the goal of Maine’s offense was to put Edwards into a variety of situations to make plays with his elusiveness.

Even downfield, Edwards is able to put on the brakes and make chasing defenders miss. Not only having the speed to outrun defenders, even when an imperfect pass comes his way he can create yardage by outmaneuvering defenders. This is another skill of Tyreek Hill that can draw comparisons between the two, always looking to make a man miss on any given snap.

And ...

Edwards also showed out to be a strong run blocker with high-effort on the edge and has the athletic traits to be a special teams gunner for many teams.

It’s hard to not imagine Edwards as an NFL draftee if you read that. Demby was among those pumping him up. Not that Edwards wasn’t doing a good job of that himself.

“I just make people miss, honestly,” says Edwards, who just finished his senior season at the University of Maine. “I do all the little things, even blocking. I take pride in blocking and special teams. NFL teams, they want to see what you can do, not just on the offensive side of the ball, on special teams [too]. They want a versatile player.”

But with more working against him than for him, Edwards went undrafted. He said before the draft that he wouldn’t be deterred if that happens, that he just wants any opportunity so that he can prove himself to coaches in practice. Edwards sounded like a determined small school player who saw his special teams abilities, blocking, and effort as ways to become the 55th man on a roster. Which meant that he’d still have the opportunity to showcase himself as maybe even being a legitimate receiver one day if he had time to work on his game and he sees film study as his favorite part about becoming a great player.

The LA Rams gave him that opportunity by signing him as an undrafted free agent and reunited him with Demby.

Edwards goes to a Rams team that seems to have four receivers fairly locked into roster spots: Cooper Kupp (who had left Eastern Washington prior to that game against Maine, but is also a small school receiver of note), Robert Woods, fellow rookie Van Jefferson, and Josh Reynolds. If LA keeps five receivers, I would think Edwards has a shot over the competition, all of whom are undrafted free agents.

Nsimba Webster and Greg Dortch just have the luxury of not being rookie undrafted free agents. Edwards’ best shot would be to display exceptional abilities as a returner, though Webster and Dortch — an All-American return specialist at Wake Forest — do have something to say about that also. In fact, Webster was on EWU’s roster for that blowout win over Maine:

He had nine catches for 188 yards and FOUR touchdowns that day.

So it’s hard to say why this small school player is better than that small school player. Or why any prospect is better than any other prospect when we’re talking about them all coming from the gigantic pool of prospects who don’t go in the first few rounds of the draft. There are thousands of special and unique stories in high school and college football and almost all of them won’t end in NFL careers.

It’s hard to come out of Rochester and make the league.

It’s hard to come out of New York and make the league.

It’s hard to come out of Maine and make the league.

It’s hard to make the league.

But Edwards wasn’t expected to make it out of Rochester, New York, or Maine and then have an NFL contract and an opportunity. If you want to talk about bright futures, talk to Jake Zembiec. But if you want to talk about overcoming the odds rather than living up to the hype, then Earnest Edwards is as good of a case to talk about as any.

But perhaps more so if he’s actually 190 pounds.