MANNINGS & CO.
Two weeks remain until the NFL Draft, when decorated former Duke receiver Conner Vernon will learn where his professional football career will begin.
On Thursday, Vernon completed a four-day crash course on what the practice experience will be like.
NFL quarterbacking brothers Peyton and Eli Manning came to Duke this week to get some extra off-season work in with a few of their receivers.
That gave Vernon, who completed his Duke career as the ACC’s all-time leader in receptions and yardage, a chance to some work in with the Mannings as well as Denver receiver Wes Welker and Victor Cruz of the New York Giants.
He did his best to learn while not getting in their way.
“I didn’t want to ask them too many questions because they were here to work,” Vernon said Thursday. “I didn’t want to be that guy who is asking too many questions, getting them off their game and being that nagging guy. I asked a few things here and there. But I really just watched them work.”
The Mannings organized the workouts at Duke because, under the Collective Bargaining Agreement the NFL and its players signed last year, players aren’t allowed to work at team facilities with their coaches until April 15.
Peyton and Eli Manning both played for Duke coach David Cutcliffe in college. Cutcliffe was Tennessee’s offensive coordinator during Peyton Manning’s time with the Volunteers while Cutcliffe was the head coach at Mississippi for Eli Mannings’ career with the Rebels.
Peyton Manning, preparing for his second season with the Denver Broncos, was the first to arrive at Duke, coming in on Monday. That gave Vernon the chance to work solely with Peyton Manning and Cutcliffe for about 75 minutes.
“It was definitely a lot of work,” Vernon said. “Peyton is that guy who is fun and games. But when it’s time to work, it’s time to work. That’s what we took to heart. It was great. I ran a couple of routes for him.”
Last year, Manning came to Duke while recovering from a career-threatening neck injury that caused him to sit out the 2011 season with Indianapolis. He worked with Cutcliffe to regain his throwing form and get into playing shape.
At that time, Vernon was recovering from an ankle injury that nagged him in the final games of his 2011 junior season. Still, he was able to get some work in with Manning.
With the draft approaching, Manning is confident that Vernon can play in the NFL and help make some team’s offense better.
“What an unbelievable career he’s had here,” Peyton Manning said. “It can be an anxious time for a player getting ready for pro football and the draft. You don’t know when it’s going to happen. Different people say different things. But the hay is in the barn for him. He’s done everything that you can possibly do. NFL teams are funny. You could have 30 teams not really like you, but one team likes you, and that’s all you need to know.”
The 6-foot, 196-pound Vernon has been compared to Welker, who stands 5-9. Vernon only hopes he can produce in the NFL like Welker.
Playing with the New England Patriots from 2007-12, Welker made five AFC Pro Bowl teams and led the NFL in receptions three times.
Last season, Welker had 118 catches for 1,354 yards and six touchdowns. He signed a two-year, $12 million contract with Denver as a free agent last month.
Vernon studied Welker closely over the last three days.
“He’s a great receiver. You know why he’s been the most productive player in the NFL the last four years. He’s a great receiver. It was one of those things where I took mental notes from him and went from there.”
The NFL Draft begins on April 25 and runs through April 27. Vernon is projected as anywhere from a fifth- to seventh-round selection.
His work this week at Duke only stands to help him with whatever team claims him.