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Jared Bernhardt’s journey from collegiate lacrosse legend to NFL wide receiver

Bernhardt has made the Falcons’ 53-man roster in a journey more unlikely than you’d imagine.

NFL: AUG 22 Preseason - Falcons at Jets Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons released their initial 53-man roster on Tuesday, and listed on it was one of the unlikeliest names you could have imagined. Jared Bernhardt found himself with five other wide receivers making the final roster, having beaten out nearly a dozen competitors this offseason in one of Atlanta’s biggest and most interesting roster battles.

Bernhardt already had an uphill climb on the journey to an NFL roster spot as an undrafted free agent signing back in late April. That climb was exponentially more difficult for him when considering the fact that he was playing the wide receiver position in an organized setting for the first time ever.

Bernhardt was a triple option quarterback in his final year of college. He led the Ferris State Bulldogs to their first ever Division II championship and a 14-0 record in a season where he was also the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Year, after leading the NCAA with 26 rushing touchdowns.

What makes this roster triumph even more impressive is the fact that this was Bernhardt’s only year of football experience past the high school level. He had spent the previous four years becoming a lacrosse legend at the collegiate level.

A dual sport athlete in high school, Bernhardt opted for the lacrosse stick in place of the pigskin when deciding what his next step would be, and it wasn’t due to a lack of options. Bernhardt had an offer on the table to play quarterback at Navy (while also being allowed to play lacrosse) but opted instead to join lacrosse juggernaut Maryland University. While he was a good quarterback in high school, he was a phenom with the stick in his hands, being named an All-American in the sport while also being ranked as the third best player in the country while at Lake Brantley high school.

At Maryland, he was a starting midfielder as a freshman in a national championship season. By his junior year in 2019, he had already become Maryland’s second-leading all time goal scorer. At this point, with nothing left to prove in the sport, Bernhardt planned to reignite his football career in 2020, committing to Ferris State. However, with COVID canceling the DII football season, he opted to return to Maryland for one final year of lacrosse.

In that final year, Bernhardt had the most prolific offensive year in Maryland history, totaling 99 points, 78 goals and 21 assists. The points and goals were single season university records, and they catapulted him into first place in career points (290) and career goals (202) among all Terrapins.

He was named the 2021 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and the 2021 Tewaaraton winner, given to the nation’s best lacrosse player, it was also his second time he was a finalist. This award is essentially lacrosse’s version of the Heisman. He was named as an All-American in all four of his years. Simply put, Jared Bernhardt was the greatest collegiate lacrosse player Maryland had ever seen, and one of the best players in college lacrosse history.

He followed a 2021 spring where he shattered school lacrosse records with an undefeated season and DII football championship with Ferris State in the fall.

However, he wasn’t going to make it in the NFL as a quarterback, so after going undrafted in the 2022 NFL Draft, he agreed to sign with the Atlanta Falcons as a wide receiver. He had one offseason to learn how to play the new position, and at the professional level at that.

It was a nice story that got some positive media attention, but very few people felt that Bernhardt could actually compete for a spot on the 53-man roster against the likes of veterans with legitimate regular season experience in Auden Tate, Geronimo Allison, Khadarel Hodge, Damiere Byrd and Cameron Batson. That’s not even mentioning fellow undrafted rookies, less experienced roster hopefuls, and 2021 practice squad players who had spent their entire lives playing the position in KeeSean Johnson, Stanley Berryhill, Tyshaun James and Frank Darby.

The Falcons had drafted Drake London with the eighth overall pick in 2022 and had just traded for Bryan Edwards in the offseason. Those two along, with standout holdover Olamide Zaccheaus, were the penciled in receivers on this team already. That left two, possibly three, roster spots for Bernhardt to compete for against those nine players who were also brought in. Not many would have given Bernhardt much of a chance given the circumstances.

However, none of our predictions in May and June mean anything. And when training camp arrived, Jared Bernhardt showcased himself as a man on a mission, as he often was with whatever athletic endeavor he had ever taken up previously.

And then he did it again the next day. And then again the day after that. And then it got to the point where we looked at him and saw someone who was a legitimate contender to stick around.

Then off the momentum of a successful opening period of training camp, we arrived to the next major step in deciding this wide receiver battle — the preseason.

The preseason format has changed as of last year. With the NFL’s shift to a 17-game regular season, the preseason was as a result contracted to three games. That serves as more of a disadvantage to undrafted players fighting for their roster spots as veterans competing against them already at the very least have some previous game film to showcase. Another obstacle for Bernhardt to overcome, just add it to the laundry list.

The targets were distributed pretty evenly throughout the first preseason matchup against the Detroit Lions on August 12. Going into the final seconds of the game, 10 different players had all caught at least one pass for the Falcons (Frank Darby caught two). Jared Bernhardt did not find himself on that list with a little over two minutes remaining in the game and Detroit looking poised to run the clock out and win the game, 23-20.

When Timmy Horne recovered a botched snap fumble to give Desmond Ridder and company one final chance, it was a final chance for Bernhard to also make an impact in a game where he looked like he may have been losing some ground in the receiver battle.

4th & 9 from the 21-yard-line, 1:30 remaining in the game. Ridder rolled to the right out of a collapsing pocket and threw up a prayer while getting leveled by Eric Banks. He gave Jared Bernhardt a chance to make a play on it, a chance to swing the WR battle back into his favor. The lacrosse player turned quarterback turned receiver fought with cornerback Cedric Boswell for positioning and was quicker in locating the football, thus securing one of the most important catches of his life. Touchdown. Ballgame.

Ridder was the one who got the headlines. After all, he’s the up and coming potential franchise quarterback, but it was a play which meant so much more to Bernhardt. Looking back, I would say that was the singular moment that helped the former lacrosse star make the roster more than any other one.

The trust between Ridder and Bernhardt went to a new level following this moment. In the second preseason game against the Jets, on 8/22, the two linked up repeatedly and exuded a special type of confidence.

In the lead up to that game, Bernhardt once again claimed some headlines, this time in Atlanta’s joint practice with the Jets, when he beat the No. 4 overall pick from the 2022 draft and Desmond Ridder’s collegiate teammate, Sauce Gardner, one on one for a touchdown reception. Gardner was considered arguably the best cover corner prospect in the draft.

Following his play of the game against Detroit, Bernhardt saw time in the first half as soon as Ridder and the initial second team were put in the game. He went from playing just seven snaps against the Lions to getting 19 snaps against New York. On his first drive of action, Bernhardt caught a pass on 2nd & 9 which went for 12 yards and got the Falcons into the red zone.

On his second drive, the former lacrosse star converted a 2nd & 20 with a 34-yard catch and run, and then moved the chains once again on a 2nd & 15 catch which went for 21 yards and turned into a net 36-yard gain when you count the tacked on face mask penalty which he drew at the end of the run. He once again got the Falcons into the red zone with that play.

The Maryland University turned Ferris State alum finished with those three catches for a game-high 67 received yards — all were racked up in the second quarter, each reception moved the chains and all were instrumental in setting up back to back scoring drives before the end of the half. Every other wide receiver on the team combined for 70 receiving yards. This game was Bernhardt’s magnum opus in the receiver competition, and he successfully took the momentum from that Lions game winner and added to it until he was a downhill freight train.

The next day, the Falcons released Allison and Tate, two players thought to be among the favorites to land a roster spot when they were first signed. There is no doubt in my mind that Jared Bernhardt’s performance helped make that decision what it was for Atlanta. Allison’s snap count dissipated from 20 to five between the first and second games (he had 0 receiving yards against the Jets) and Tate’s went from 14 to zero.

Bernhardt’s snap count increased to 29 against the Jaguars in the preseason finale and he caught a singular 14-yard pass on three more targets. Darby and Batson were the only receivers to see more playing time and each had more receiving yards, but neither showcased close to the same level of performance that Bernhardt did in the second game.

At this point, veterans Khadarel Hodge and Damiere Byrd seemed like they would end up on the wide receiver depth chart along with London, Edwards and Zaccheaus. Bernhardt was head and shoulder above the rest of the competition but the Falcons valued Hodge’s special teams prowess and Byrd’s speed element too much to leave them off the roster. The only question that remained was did Bernhardt do enough to convince the team that they should carry six receivers instead of five, even though starting tight end Kyle Pitts was also a defacto wide receiver in Arthur Smith’s offense.

When the 53-man roster was announced, that question was answered with an emphatic yes. If the plan was to carry five WRs into the season, due to the receiving prowess of their tight ends (I’m not saying for sure that it was), then Jared Bernhardt flipped that plan on its head by giving the coaching staff no choice but to roster him, thanks to his performance.

Bernhardt is my favorite story from this year’s training camp and preseason, and there were no shortage of good ones with fellow undrafted free agents Timothy Horne and Nate Landman also making the roster. Through an incredible work ethic and sheer force of will, he beat out seven other WR hopefuls who were all probably favored ahead of him in this competition at the very beginning, and he may have even changed the team’s plans regarding the overall roster structure. If that’s not what the Training Camp season is all about then I don’t know what is.

The greatest lacrosse player in Maryland Terrapin history and Ferris State University’s only ever championship quarterback is now officially a full fledged Atlanta Falcons wide receiver. I can’t wait to see what Bernhardt does next.