Kentucky tight end went undrafted after heart ailment scare
The future Hall of Fame tight end terrorized the New York Giants for 15 seasons as a member of the Dallas Cowboys, until retiring before the 2018 season. He is returning after a year away and even at the age of 37 we will probably learn that the Giants still can’t cover him.
Why am I resurrecting the Witten nightmare?
Because University of Kentucky tight ends coach Vince Marrow believes the Giants might have stumbled upon a way to turn the tables when they signed ex-Wildcats tight end C.J. Conrad as an undrafted free agent.
“I always say C.J. reminds of Jason Witten,” Marrow said when I asked him for a comparison during a recent phone conversation. “You got one of the best players I think at that position coming out of college, but you got an even better person.”
Let’s learn more about Conrad as we continue profiling the 90 players the Giants will bring to training camp this summer.
Position: Tight end
How he got here
Marrow said that “for sure” Conrad should have heard his name called somewhere in the first five rounds of the 2019 NFL Draft. There were eight tight ends taken in the first three rounds, and Marrow said he believes Conrad was one of the seven best tight ends in the draft class.
“I think the Giants got a steal in getting this kid as a free agent, I really do. I think he’s a guy who’s going to play 8-10 years in the league. He’s exactly what you want in a tight end. He’s a good inline blocker, very good athlete,” Marrow said. “I look at some of the guys that got drafted and you look at his film and watch where he played and look at some of the guys that he blocked in this league and you tell me he wasn’t better than half of those guys that got drafted? You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
So, what happened? In Marrow’s words, it was “that crap” about his heart that came up at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Conrad was diagnosed with a heart ailment during his pre-Combine physical in Indianapolis. He was sent home and told to stop working out. Weeks later, a second opinion from doctors in Boston gave him the green light to return, saying the issue was only an enlarged pulmonary artery that required annual observation.
That was good news, but the setback was enough to keep him from hearing his name called during the draft.
“This heart thing, it kinda scared people off which was kinda messed up,” Marrow said. “I just think that information that came out I think it hurt him. I know it hurt him.”
Conrad played in 35 games with a modest 80 catches at Kentucky. As a junior, he averaged 17.9 yards on 16 receptions. As a senior, he caught 30 passes, three for touchdowns, and averaged 10.6 yards per catch.
Marrow said that Conrad “sacrificed a lot” in terms of personal statistics to help the Wildcats’ young offensive line.
“He was very productive for us. He could have caught 50-60 balls a year if that’s what we wanted him to do. We had a young line and C.J. was such a good blocker and a good pass pro blocker that he sacrificed his own personal gain for the team.
“But I know what a tight end looks like and I know what the NFL looks for and he is every bit of what the NFL looks for in a tight end. A guy that can play the Y. He can play the F. He’s a good inline blocker, he can block the 6 technique, the 7. He can trade down on the 5, the 4, you know, the big guys, and get to that second level to the ‘backer.
“I played in the league myself [from 1992-95] and I watch tight ends. The hardest part is finding that complete tight end. I believe C.J. was one of the top five, six tight ends in the country that was complete.”
‘An even better person’
Let’s take a minute to highlight a couple of the things Marrow told me about Conrad.
Marrow gave me all the standard “very smart player,” and “student of the game” and “comes in early during the week with a full school load and will put in extra time watching film” quotes that are typical of coaches promoting their players.
There is, however, more.
“Great kid,” Marrow said. “Will be a great person off the field for the Giants.”
He pointed out that Conrad would spend part of his Tuesday off days during football season visiting children with cancer at a local hospital, that he compiled a 3.4 GPA in communications and that he, along with Giants’ sixth-round pick George Asafo-Adjei, were two of the players who “changed the culture” at Kentucky.
“You aren’t going to get a better person,” Marrow said. “Most coaches don’t want their daughters to be around the facility or be around players. If any of my daughters came home and said they wanted to marry C.J. I’d be doing backflips. I’d know she was going to have a good husband.”
Perhaps Conrad was supposed to be a Giant all along.
Conrad was part of an East-West Shrine Game team where Giants tight ends coach Lunda Wells was working with offensive linemen. He and Conrad got to know each other there.
“I like Conrad,” Wells said during a spring media availability. “He’s tough. He’s smart. He can learn. He’s not a blazer, but he’s instinctive in the pass game.
“It didn’t take a long time to figure out that this guy is very determined about being a really good player and I like that about him. He takes coaching very well. I really like that kid from what we saw over the three-day rookie minicamp.”
The Giants have Evan Engram as their primary tight end. While the Giants used him inline on 243 of 475 offensive snaps (51.2 percent) in 2018 we know that Engram is not a blocker, that he has a skill set and body type that screams to be used detached from the line of scrimmage.
Filling the traditional tight end roles for the Giants last season were veterans Rhett Ellison and Scott Simonson. Competing for jobs are second-year man Garrett Dickerson and undrafted free agent Eric Dungey, a hybrid tight end/quarterback.
Maybe Conrad doesn’t make it at all. Maybe he just proves to be Simonson, or an upgrade from Simonson, who had nine catches for the Giants last season and now has 10 in 34 NFL games.
Maybe Conrad turns out to be Ellison, a 30-year-old seven-year veteran who had career-best years of 24 and 25 receptions for the Giants in 2017 and 2018. The thing about Ellison is while he’s a nice player that’s not a lot of production for a guy carrying a $5.75 million cap hit this year and a $6.25 million cap hit for 2020.
Maybe, though, just maybe Marrow is right. Maybe, and this is jumping way ahead, Conrad turns out to be Witten. Or a reasonable facsimile.
The Giants gave Conrad a $10K signing bonus and $40K guaranteed to sign as a priority free agent, and to Marrow that indicates “they saw something” in his play at Kentucky.
“Here’s what I know. You can’t hide talent. I’m hearing out of that camp already that they’ve been very pleased with C.J. just from the people we know there,” Marrow said. “I really believe the Giants are going to see what they’ve got in the kid. The kid is real tough. C.J.’s going to play hurt. He just, to me, is everything that you want.
“I know this. That tight end coach is going to come to like him. That o-line coach is going to like him and the coordinator’s going to like him because when you really see what he can do, and I think he’s just showing a little glimpse of it right now. I’m telling you this is no talk, I think the Giants really got a bargain in getting this kid as a free agent.”