A former top-15 draft pick ran underneath a beautifully thrown Eli Manning pass for a 30-yard gain last Sunday at Washington. And it wasn’t Odell Beckham Jr.
Corey Coleman, 24, a Cleveland Browns first-round choice in 2016 whose career nearly spun out completely this offseason, was the wide receiver grabbing on to his opportunity with Beckham sidelined and holding on in his quest for redemption.
“It feels good to be out there contributing and really just playing my game, with the coaches believing in me, Eli believing in me like that, and the guys in the receiving corps helping me out,” Coleman, who played a season-high 42 snaps in Week 14, told the Daily News Wednesday.
“I’m a fighter,” Coleman added. “I’m gonna keep on fighting. (This offseason) was humbling, but it’s good. God puts you through tests in your life, and it’s really how you respond. I love this game, so I’m gonna keep on working, staying humble and everything else will work out.”
Sunday’s catch may have looked like just another completion. But for the speedy Coleman, it was a sliver of validation after a tortuous summer that the hard work he’s putting in can pay off.
Coleman, the Browns’ 15th overall pick out of Baylor less than three years ago, had his lowest moments of his young career play out publicly on HBO’s Hard Knocks this August.
He caught 56 passes for 718 yards and five TDs in 19 games his first two seasons. But he started low on the Browns’ depth chart this training camp and then had his practice effort questioned on camera by since-fired offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
Coleman then walked into since-fired head coach Hue Jackson’s office and asked: “Why am I running second-team? This (inaudible) is crazy to me. If you don’t want me to play, why won’t ya’ll just trade me?” And GM John Dorsey did just that on Aug. 5, trading Coleman to the Buffalo Bills for a 2020 seventh-round pick.
But Buffalo cut Coleman on Sept. 2. The New England Patriots signed Coleman and employed him briefly before releasing him for good on Sept. 18.
And then Coleman didn’t have a home until he tried out for the Giants on Oct. 16. And even then, when he signed with the Giants on Oct. 17, he only signed a practice squad contract. Going from being a first-round pick to a practice squad afterthought is no easy trial. Those are the types of mental challenges, veteran receiver Russell Shepard said, that often end careers.
“A lot of guys in (Coleman’s) position, when you go through those things, those guys have to kind of learn backwards,” said Shepard, a former undrafted free agent out of LSU.
“Being a top-15 pick, a first-round pick, there’s a lot of things you don’t have to learn typically that most guys have to learn. Because you have leverage, you’re a first-round pick, they invested in you, you have money, all that stuff.
“Being an undrafted guy, being a guy that’s drafted late, there are certain things you have to learn in order to survive in this league,” Shepard continued. “And a lot of times being a first-round pick and going through what he went through, those guys usually don’t bounce back. But for him to come in, be quiet, work, taking his plays and making the most of it, he’s doing a great job. He’s a mentally tough cat. Most cats can’t go through that and shake back like that.”
Coleman nods his head as he recalls staying confident in himself through the toughest times.
“I know my ability,” he said. “It’s really just a lot of stuff went on this year, (so it was about) clearing my head, forgetting about the past and going back and having fun. That was the biggest thing for me. Just staying focused, clearing my head (of) all … the crazy stuff that went on.”
He didn’t factor heavily into the Giants’ receiver rotation right away. But he made a nearly immediate impact on special teams in Week 10 at San Francisco, returning a third-quarter kickoff 51 yards to jumpstart the visitors’ comeback, and made his first Giant catch for 11 yards.
He did have a key third-quarter drop in Week 12’s loss in Philadelphia, but Coleman recalled he was “really excited to be in” the game and, despite the mistake, “you can’t be stuck in the past.”
That’s how he was able to push ahead to Sunday’s opportunity in Washington, where coach Pat Shurmur thought Coleman “did a good job,” finishing with two catches for 43 yards and also drawing a 25-yard pass interference penalty on another deep ball.
Even Beckham, injured and watching from home, marveled as a fellow former first-round pick (12th in 2014) at how resilient Coleman has been — and how motivated he is to take another step next offseason.
“I think that speaks about his character more than anything,” Beckham told the News Wednesday. “This is a crazy business that we’re in, and to be able to handle some of these things is not easy. It’s not easy to go through what we go through. But (Coleman) is still working on everything, and he’s saying how much he wants to train this offseason. Just his mindset is he wants to get better. This coming offseason he wants to do more and more.”
Coleman is a restricted free agent after this season with nothing guaranteed to him. So his road back to delivering on his potential only has just begun, and he knows that. But he does feel a sense of accomplishment, too, in earning his way out of such a frustrating offseason back into a situation that now gives him hope.