Every undrafted free agent who signs with a team knows they have to defy the odds. They don’t receive the same amount of opportunities as other players, and the margin for error is limited compared to other players. It’s all about capitalizing on every opportunity and making your presence felt. That’s what Sharrod Neasman has been doing since he was a college walk-on at Florida Atlantic.
In June 2017, I spoke to Neasman about his rise from being a college walk-on to playing in the Super Bowl. It’s been a remarkable journey for a player who wasn’t sure if he’d ever get an opportunity to play in college. Neasman managed to surpass all expectations to earn a roster spot with the Falcons in 2016. He currently finds himself with them coming off the best season of his career. Before discussing his memorable 2018 season, we briefly talked about what was a rollercoaster 2017 season for the Falcons.
“Many people expected us to go into a funk,” Neasman said. “With the way the Super Bowl went, they wondered if we could bounce back. I thought we played pretty well overall. We had another playoff run. Unfortunately, we fell short against the Eagles. There were a lot of new guys in the building, with a lot of pieces being moved around. I think that played a role in us being inconsistent at times. I still felt the season was pretty successful. I learned a whole lot from playing against different teams that we hadn’t played in a while. Whether it ended in a win or loss, there were many positives to take away from those battles.”
The Falcons opted not to re-sign Neasman after the 2017 season. After playing mostly on special teams, it seemed like a change of scenery could benefit him. The savvy strong safety admitted it did affect him. It’s not easy leaving a team built on brotherhood and unity like Atlanta, one where he hoped to stay for multiple years. Although it was difficult not being able to stay, Neasman knew another opportunity would arise.
“Being let go was obviously disappointing,” Neasman said. “I’m not sure what was the exact reason behind their decision, but it’s the decision they ultimately made. I quickly looked at the positives that could come out of it. How I can benefit getting with a team that had a role for a player like me. There are plenty of pros and cons. Atlanta is the only place I’ve ever known. That’s what made it a bit more difficult to digest. I just had to eventually shake it off, and look at the opportunities that were going to be in front of me.”
Neasman found that opportunity a few months later. The New Orleans Saints signed him on May 31st. Neasman became the third safety in recent memory to sign with the Saints after playing for the Falcons. To join Rafael Bush and Robenson Therezie on the list of defensive backs experiencing both ends of arguably the NFL’s most heated rivalry is fascinating to say the least. While Neasman was fully aware of the intense rivalry, he knew it was going to be business as usual on the field.
“It felt different at first,” Neasman stated. “Everyone knows about the rivalry between the Falcons and Saints. It’s one of the few true NFL rivalries. It’s still thriving to this day. Both teams, fan bases, and cities dislike each other. That’s what made it interesting being there. The players did embrace me coming in. At the end of the day, I was a player on their team. It wasn’t about how I was with the Falcons. They were excited to have me on their team.”
“The atmosphere was real similar to the Falcons. It was all about being positive and optimistic. They were about competing for everything. It wasn’t a big change of energy going from Atlanta to New Orleans. Both teams have a similar mindset in expecting to compete for a championship. It was a fun experience being with them.”
That experience ended on September 1st when the Saints waived Neasman. After suffering a serious hip injury, they made the decision to release him before the season began. It was an unforeseen ending for Neasman. The normally durable strong safety didn’t expect his time with them to end so abruptly.
“The way everything ended with the Saints came from getting injured,” Neasman said. “It was two days before the fourth preseason game. I was expecting to play quite a bit. I went to break up a pass at practice and landed wrongly. I ended up straining my hip flexor. I didn’t think it was a big deal at first, so I fought through it and finished practice. I had to get it checked out afterwards in the training room. They ran strength tests and recognized some problems. They went ahead and scheduled a MRI the next day.”
“After I get back from the MRI, they said I had a Grade 2 strain. The strains are broken down into Grade 1 being minor, Grade 2 being significant, and Grade 3 being completely torn. They gave me a shot in my hip to help mitigate the pain and get it back to full strength. The rehab for an injury like this is usually two to four weeks. I’ve only had two injuries in my entire career. I tore my ACL a few years ago and came back in five months. The other injury involved my back, which didn’t take too long to recover from. I was able to come back a lot quicker than expected. I ended up reaching an injury settlement with New Orleans. That allowed me to be a free agent again.”
A triumphant return
It didn’t take long for Neasman to get back on the field. On September 25th, the Falcons brought him back to help their safety crisis. Ricardo Allen and Keanu Neal were both on injury reserve, which forced the Falcons to sign reinforcements. It didn’t take long for the returning safety to get back into the groove. After taking the necessary steps to get physically right in September, he was ready to get back on the field and play his way into Dan Quinn’s plans at strong safety.
“During those three weeks, I was focused on strictly rehabbing,” Neasman stated. “I had to make sure I wasn’t going to be hindered by the injury. I had to make sure I could do all the movements that a defensive back has to do in order to play the game at a high level. That’s what I was doing during the first three weeks of the season. I had to be 100 percent ready for the next opportunity.”
“Once I got back with the Falcons, everything came back to me quickly. I’ve always considered myself to be a smart player. I am always watching film and seeing which things can be corrected on. With the team being down a couple of safeties, I knew this was my time to step up. By learning different packages and alignments quickly, I was ready to make an impact.”
“I made a good first impression, which led me to playing 60-70 snaps in some games going forward. To get into that total grind mode and earn an important role was great. It was what I had been working for throughout my entire career.”
Neasman played his way onto the field and enjoyed the best stretch of his career. Although the Falcons endured a disappointing season, Neasman capitalized on his first real opportunity to play strong safety at the NFL level. He shined in games against the Giants, Redskins, and Panthers. From being a reliable tackler to rarely being caught out of position despite the troubles around him, the former undrafted free agent became one of the more consistent defensive players on the roster.
There were also memorable moments such as his impressive pass breakup to prevent Drew Brees from connecting with Dan Arnold for a touchdown on Thanksgiving night. Despite his past ties with the Saints, Neasman didn’t make a big deal out of it. It was just another play that showed why he belongs in the NFL.
“It was about making a goal-line stand,” Neasman said laughing. “That’s what I was excited about. It was third and goal at the two-yard line. In that situation, you want to make a play. I wasn’t trying to make a statement towards them. I was just excited to make a big play. There’s no need to be boasting. I didn’t feel any type of way towards the Saints. The situation was everything to me. It was a huge game on primetime. I used my instincts and ended up making a big play. I was hyped that I delivered in a big moment.”
“Everything about this season as a whole was so valuable. To get that in-game experience was huge because it was so hard to come by throughout my NFL career. Everyone knows the starters in the secondary play for most of the game. I finally earned my spot and put myself in a position to play in all situations. That was a huge plus in my development as a player. You want to play in every situation. That’s why I play football. Even though it was tough how the season went for us as a team, I loved the opportunity that was given to me as a player. I was extremely grateful for that.”