Six years ago, Ben Skowronek was a three-star receiver recruit out of Indiana who didn’t rank in the top 100 wideouts of his class in the nation. He went to Northwestern, a college that hadn’t produced a drafted receiver since Jeremy Ebert, a seventh round pick in 2012. Through three seasons at Northwestern, Skowronek had less than 1,300 yards and as a senior, he suffered an ankle injury after only three games that required infamous TightRope surgery.
Three years ago, Skowronek may not have even gotten an NFL tryout. He hadn’t been especially productive, he wasn’t a star recruit, and then came the injury.
On Sunday, Skowronek caught four of four targets from Matthew Stafford and gained a team-leading 66 yards in the Rams’ 20-12 win over the Cardinals. I know what you’re thinking.
“How did I get here?”
For Skowronek, “old school football” has been more than a way of life. It’s what he was born into.
Though the two have never met, Ben Skowronek is distant relatives with Johnny Lujack—the oldest living Heisman winner at 97. By coincidence, or fate, Lujack won that award as the top player in the country in 1947 when playing for Notre Dame. And when Skowronek decided to shutdown his 2019 season to have TightRope surgery so that he could have one more year of eligibility, he decided to transfer to Notre Dame.
Which means that he was probably one of Lujack’s favorite players in 2020. After his career at Notre Dame, Lujack was drafted by the Chicago Bears to play for George Halas, to backup Sid Luckman, and as a precursor to the George Blanda era...so you could say he’s seen a lot of football history.
In his one and only season with the Fighting Irish, Skowronek caught 29 passes for 439 yards and five touchdowns, but also earned the respect and trust of his teammates over the course of the year despite coming in as “the new guy.” He earned the game ball in a 45-3 win over Pitt after catching two touchdowns from Ian Book.
But even after one season at Notre Dame, Skowronek was a long ways away from expecting the types of days that he had in Week 3 against the Cardinals. He had less than 500 yards over nine games and the NFL draft has been utterly drowned in exciting wide receiver prospects over the last five years.
It’s kind of hard to stand out and Skowronek was extremely fortunate to be the 11th-from-last player to be drafted in 2021. He was also the third receiver drafted by the Los Angeles Rams after Tutu Atwell and Jacob Harris.
Atwell has 0 catches over 13 games. Harris is on the practice squad and doesn’t play offense even when he’s called up to the roster for these last two game days. This is not to put down those players but to give context to how many rungs that Skowronek had to climb just to get here. He may have gotten that not from his distant great-grand-something Lujack, but also some of that same drive from his uncle-by-marriage, former Rams quarterback Trent Green. Himself a former eighth round pick.
I know that players like Amon-Ra St. Brown like to count and track the receivers drafted ahead of them. Good luck to Ben Skowronek: 32 receivers were drafted ahead of him in 2021. Including St. Brown. By a lot.
In fact, 15 receivers were drafted between St. Brown and Skowronek and Skowronek has more career receiving yards than all of them.
But that still doesn’t tell us how he got here.
Skowronek went to a Rams team that had Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods, Van Jefferson, Desean Jackson, Atwell, Harris. He had to beat out Trishton Jackson, JJ Koski, and Landen Akers just to be considered as the last man on the roster. Through hard work on special teams, he did it.
Then the team also added Odell Beckham, Jr.
Skowronek made his first NFL catch last Halloween. He would appear sporadically over the rest of the season, not getting major playing time until injuries demanded it during a Super Bowl win over the Bengals. Skowronek only caught two of five targets but—HE WAS PLAYING IN THE SUPER BOWL. Over 46 snaps.
Throughout this training camp and preseason, we heard a lot about Allen Robinson, the latest receiver to be added ahead of Skowronek on the depth chart. There was talk of an Atwell breakout. And many figured even Lance McCutcheon would be moved ahead. And Skowronek, often forgotten but never seemingly out of it, keeps finding ways to be useful.
He was a shoo-in on the roster despite being a seventh round pick; 21 of the other players picked in the 2021 seventh round have played in nine games or less and Skowronek is practically a starter on the defending Super Bowl champions. When Allen Robinson and Cooper Kupp are both healthy.
Whether thriving as a fullback, proving valuable on special teams, or working at a newly-designed position altogether as the ultimate decoy, Skowronek has shown incredible drive to become and stay a professional football player. He’s not the most talented player on the field and that might be what drives him to be more valuable to McVay than Atwell, Harris, McCutcheon, and all the wideouts who L.A. didn’t go get as insurance. The fact that he wasn’t supposed to be here.
A recruit with no hype. A college player without a lot of production. A transfer coming off of ankle surgery. A tweener who embraces being a tweener.
I’m not saying that Ben Skowronek can relax after one 66-yard game. Only that he wasn’t even supposed to get this far. With Jefferson out for at least another month, the Rams will be relying on him to keep proving himself worthy of more than what others expect.