In two weeks, Conner Vernon hopes to hear his name called at the NFL Draft and take the first steps of his professional football career. But Vernon’s first taste of the NFL came this week, when he had the opportunity to work out with two of the league’s top quarterbacks: Eli and Peyton Manning.
Blue Devil head coach David Cutcliffe ran a three-day mini camp with the Manning brothers at Duke’s football practice facility this week in preparation for the start of organized team activities next week. The duo brought with them a group of the NFL’s top receivers, including Wes Welker, Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks.
For Vernon, it was much more than a chance to catch passes from two of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks and run alongside some of the game’s top receivers. It was an opportunity to see what the professional future may hold.
“It’s kind of surreal to be working out with the Mannings, let alone the group of receivers they brought,” Vernon said. “You have Pro Bowl receivers here and NFL veterans who have done it for a long time—Super Bowl champions. I’ve definitely gained a lot out of this and it’s definitely going to give me a taste of what it’s going to be like at the next level.”
Vernon’s performance alongside a group of NFL veterans drew handfuls of praise from the professionals. Eli seemed particularly unsurprised, noting that he saw Vernon’s NFL potential long before his senior season.
“Over the years I’ve worked out with Conner a little bit and run routes with him,” he said. “I was throwing with him in 7-on-7 a few years ago, and he just kept getting open. I kept noticing that I kept going his way.”
The week’s workouts also gave Vernon the opportunity to study some of the NFL’s top receiving talent. This provided the former Blue Devil receiver with an interesting juxtaposition, lining up alongside Broncos wideout Wes Welker—a player to whom Vernon has drawn many comparisons.
Despite the constant comparisons to Welker, Cutcliffe said that he sees Vernon’s game align more with another wide receiver at the camp.
“I think Conner can play inside or outside and I think [he and Welker] a little different in their approach,” Cutcliffe said. “Eric Decker came in here and worked, and worked and worked. He was great with Conner, and I’d say they are somewhat similar.”
Throughout the week, Vernon was expected to keep up with the professionals in all of the timing and agility drills that Cutcliffe and the Duke coaching staff laid out for them. He looked poised and confident running routes Thursday morning, reeling in darts from two of the NFL’s top quarterbacks.
Peyton Manning offered his perspective on what Vernon’s journey will be like in the coming weeks, adding that he thought the ACC’s all-time leading receiver would be a good addition to an NFL roster—high words of praise coming from a signal-caller that has set the bar for quarterback play for the past 15 years.
“It can be an anxious time for a player getting ready for pro football. You don’t know what is going to happen,” Manning said. “But the hay is kind of in the barn for him—he has done everything that he can do. NFL teams can be kind of funny. You can have 30 teams not really like you but one team really likes you and that’s all you need to know.”
Cutcliffe added that regardless of whether Vernon is selected in next month’s NFL Draft, the receivers that surrounded Vernon at this week’s camp were prime examples of how trivial draft position can sometimes be in the long run.
Welker and Cruz are among the league’s best receivers but both went undrafted.
“That tells you something,” Cutcliffe said. “I think Conner is going to be drafted, but you don’t know when and you don’t know where. I think the beauty of that is every player on our team sees and watches these guys and knows that it is a process if you’re willing to come in and work.”