June 19, 2014 at 8:37 pm

John Niyo

Undrafted rookie Chad Abram counts on making Lions notice him

Chad Abram (44) switched from safety to fullback during his time at Florida State. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)

Allen Park — First impressions are one thing. But lasting impressions mean roster spots and signed contracts and, just maybe, a lasting career

Chad Abram, one of many new faces with the Lions, understands all that. Problem is, for players like him, in the position he’s in, it’s harder to make an impression than it used to be.

Abram is an undrafted rookie with precious little time to prove himself, thanks in part to the NFL’s decision to hold its annual draft two weeks later this year. What’s more, in today’s NFL, with offseason restrictions in place to protect the players’ health, Abram was also a fullback with no one to hit, and a runner with no one to tackle him once he arrived.

There is no “live” blocking allowed during offseason workouts. There is no tackling, no pass rushing, no bump-and-run coverage. No pads, either. So Abram couldn’t even differentiate himself by wearing that old-school neck roll he used during last season’s national championship run at Florida State. (”Big Pad Chad,” they called him.)

Veteran players appreciate all that, the same way they’ll appreciate the next six weeks away from the team facility. (The Lions will report for the start of training camp July 25.)

But it does make it a bit harder for coaches to evaluate players, and for rookies — especially undrafted ones — to elevate themselves.

“I can’t tell a whole lot about everybody until we get the pads on, OK?” coach Jim Caldwell said last week as he wrapped up his first offseason in Detroit. “This game’s not played in shorts. So there’s a lot of guys that look really good right now. …

“But the fact of the matter is, there’s still another phase coming. And until we get into training camp where we get a chance to bang around with one another, (that’s when) we’ll really get a good sense of it.”

Patience pays

For Abram, this waiting game is nothing new. He began his career at Florida State as a hard-hitting safety, reluctantly switched to fullback as a sophomore, became a special-teams stalwart and then finally got his chance to start on offense as a senior.

“I learned to be extremely patient,” said Abram, 23, who grew up in Lakeland, Fla. “You just have to keep your head down and keep coming to work and hopefully things will go your way.”

Last fall, they did. Abram helped protect Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston and pave the way for a Florida State offense that rushed for more than 2,800 yards and a school record 42 touchdowns. He rarely was handed the ball (seven carries) and had nine receptions, but three of those went for touchdowns, including an 11-yarder to start the wild fourth-quarter rally in the BCS title game against Auburn.

And it was that pass-catching ability — Winston said Abram had the best hands on the team — that turned heads at Florida State’s pro day in March. Among those in attendance were Caldwell and Lions general manager Martin Mayhew, an alum who jokingly referred to Abram as “my Florida State guy” during a radio interview last month.

Abram wasn’t invited to the scouting combine, so he wasn’t surprised he went undrafted. But he knew he’d get a shot, especially after the 6-foot, 236-pounder posted some impressive pro-day numbers: 4.58 seconds in the 40-yard dash, 36-inch vertical leap, 10-7 broad jump.

On the final day of the draft, he was in contact with a couple other teams — the Ravens and Jets. Yet after hearing running backs coach Curtis Modkins talk about the role the Lions envisioned for him, and seeing just one true fullback (Jed Collins) on the roster, Abram opted to sign with Detroit.

Versatility

Fullbacks are a dying breed in today’s pass-happy NFL, and the Lions didn’t have much use for one the past few seasons. But Collins, who signed here as a free agent in March, played nearly 25 snaps per game for the Saints last season. And the expectation is for something similar here with the Lions, with new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who spent the last seven years with the Saints, working from the same playbook.

“The problem has been, if the guy is just going to be an I-back, and that’s all he’s going to do — play 10 snaps — then how do you keep him active (for games)?” Mayhew said this offseason. “So you’ve got to have a fullback who can do multiple things.”

Abram appears to fit that description. Modkins called him a “really good athlete” who “has all the tools.” He also praised his ability to pick things up, whether it’s his blocking assignment, or his routes.

“I just do exactly what coach tells me to do,” Abram said. “I try not to mess up. And I try to fly around. Even if I’m not getting the ball, or the play has nothing to do with me, I try to fly around.”

But can he beat out Collins, or perhaps Montell Owens, for a spot on the 53-man roster in September? That’s the uphill battle he’ll face beginning in late July, when the real football begins. Abram’s work on special teams figures to play a critical role in deciding his fate — the eight-man practice squad is an option, too — but so will his eagerness to hit, and be hit, no doubt.

“It’s been a long time — a real long time,” Abram said, laughing. “I’m looking forward to it.”

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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