Gathered in Denton last spring with 20 family members, LaAdrian Waddle saw seven rounds come and go without his being selected.
The former Texas Tech offensive tackle NFL draft weekend didn’t go as he had hoped.
Now, that day is an afterthought.
In a matter of 15 or 20 minutes after the draft, he committed to the Detroit Lions and ran with it.
Waddle fared better as an NFL rookie than most of the players who were drafted last year, starting eight games as a rookie free agent and now looks like the Lions’ right tackle of the future.
“There was a level of disappointment,” Waddle said Monday, “but toward the end of the draft, I got some calls from some teams who said, ‘If it happens you don’t get drafted, we’d like to bring you in as a free agent or whatnot.’ There was definitely some disappointment. The goal was to get drafted, but things worked themselves out and I am where I am now.”
As the 2014 draft gets underway Thursday, tackle appears to be a low-priority position for the Lions.
Waddle and 2012 first-round draft choice Riley Reiff are Detroit’s projected offensive tackle starters. Waddle joined the starting lineup after two more experienced tackles went down with injuries. According to Pro Football Focus, he was the 13th best right tackle in the league last year, being charged with 17 quarterback hurries, but no sacks.
So what’s the secret to go from undrafted free agent to that level of performance?
“The main thing is just having as a smooth a transition as possible,” Waddle said. “For the most part, it’s going to be new concepts and new schemes and new terminology. The main thing is get in the books, learn your stuff and then when it’s time to get on the field, go out there and play.”
One other key: Soak up all the knowledge possible in a hurry and squeeze out any mistakes from the memory bank.
“Whatever coaching points you get, you have to take them and go with them fast,” Waddle said. “If you mess up, you have to learn from it right then and there. You can’t dwell on your mistakes. You have to keep pushing forward, knowing that you have to keep improving every day.”
The 6-foot-6, 321-pound Waddle was a first-team all-Big 12 honoree for Tech and had an array of suitors as the draft ticked down. Miami, Baltimore, San Francisco and others also called, trying to land him as a free agent.
Waddle surmised that the Lions had the bigger need, which made for the better opportunity.
“At the time, they only had three tackles on the roster and they didn’t draft a tackle,” he said. “My main thing was I could come in and make the team as a fourth tackle and get my foot in the door and then go from there.”
The situation at tackle for the Lions rapidly evolved.
Waddle cracked the starting lineup in Week 8 after injuries sidelined veteran tackles Jason Fox and Corey Hilliard, then played well enough to keep the job. Fox left as a free agent after the season, signing with Miami. Hilliard is now listed as a backup.
And Waddle has some self-assurance from having held his own the first time around.
“That’s the main thing: It gave me an initial confidence, saying, ‘I can play. I do belong here,’” Waddle said. “But I haven’t arrived. I still have stuff to work on. I still can get lot better than how I did play last year.”
For one thing, Waddle got switched from left tackle, the position he played at Tech, to right tackle.
The transition’s not as simple as it might sound, calling for an adjustment in stance and doing footwork just the opposite of what’s required on the other side.
Waddle says it takes time, and he’s getting better at it.
Lions offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn had his hands full, breaking in two side-by-side rookie starters: Waddle and Larry Warford, a third-round draft choice from Kentucky who started all 16 games at right guard.
But Waddle said Washburn was another reason for his quick rise.
“We have a great relationship,” Waddle said. “I took a pre-draft meeting here. That was another factor (in signing with the Lions). He’s really up front. He tells you where you stand, but he doesn’t try to embarrass you.
“Especially with me and Larry being rookies, he did a lot of stuff to ease that transition and bring us up to speed. He really played a big part in how I transitioned into playing as well as I did.”
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