Each year seems like a new challenge gets thrown at you, so you’re forced to adapt, to learn and to grow. It’s been a wonderful experience. —Kansas City Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen
This Saturday, as the seventh round of the 2018 NFL draft wraps up, the focus will turn to those players who sign undrafted free-agent contracts.
It’s a path familiar to hundreds of players each year. Back in 2014, former BYU safety Daniel Sorensen found himself in just that situation.
Fast forward to 2018, and it’s worked out pretty well.
Sorensen is heading into his fifth season with the Kansas City Chiefs, the team he signed with after going undrafted. He inked a four-year contract extension last year, worth a reported $16 million with more than $2 million in incentives, according to The Kansas City Star.
Sorensen’s advice to anyone who has to take the undrafted route in the NFL is pretty straightforward: “Take advantage of the time to prepare and also the opportunities that you are given. That’s about the best (advice) I can give them,” he said.
Going the undrafted route is certainly not uncommon: last year, 34 players with Utah ties either signed rookie free-agents deals or earned a camp tryout invite in the hours following the end of the 2017 draft.
The year before, there were 28 local players who either signed free-agent contracts or got a tryout in the immediate aftermath of the draft.
This is a similar outlook facing the majority of Utah ties in the 2018 NFL draft, which runs Thursday through Saturday in Arlington, Texas. Outside of likely draftees linebacker Fred Warner (BYU), quarterback Luke Falk (Logan High), tight end Dalton Schultz (Bingham High) and defensive end Kylie Fitts (Utah), most of this year’s local crop of pro prospects could be looking at signing free-agent deals this weekend.
“As I look back, I wouldn’t have picked a different route. It seemed to have lined up just perfect to land in Kansas City, to be with the coaches that we have there and the team that we have there,” Sorensen said.
Last year, Sorensen had his best statistical season as a pro, as he started in place of injured Pro Bowler Eric Berry — lost to a ruptured Achilles tendon — for most of the year. He had 89 tackles, 1.5 sacks, six pass deflections and an interception while starting 14 regular-season games at strong safety.
Sorensen played a career-best 1,058 defensive snaps in 2017, including one postseason game, and was on the field for 95.6 percent of the possible defensive snaps he could have played. He also logged 164 special teams snaps.
His path to seizing opportunities began before he ever stepped on an NFL field.
While in Utah County earlier this month to accept the Distinguished American Award during the 24th annual banquet for the Utah chapter of the National Football Foundation, Sorensen recalled how he made the coaches notice him his freshman year at BYU.
Sorensen said he entered college in 2008 weighing 195 pounds and found himself at the bottom of the safety depth chart. Heading into the Cougars’ final fall scrimmage prior to the regular season, the frustrated freshman decided to make his coaches take notice.
“The first drill that we did was a live kickoff drill, and I decided before I run down that I was going to hit whoever lines up there as hard as I possibly can,” he said.
Sorensen drilled his man on the kickoff, and they both fell to the ground. A penalty forced the players to line up again, and again, he hit his man as hard he could, and he kept that effort up throughout the scrimmage.
“That next week, (BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall) called me into his office, sat me down and said, ‘There’s been some injuries at outside linebacker and we’d like to see if you’d want to switch from safety to outside linebacker,'" Sorensen said.
"He said, ‘We think that you’re physical and we think we can trust you.’”
Sorensen played in every game that year for the Cougars, then after serving a two-year LDS mission, he returned to BYU and starred as a safety. He had 211 career tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, eight interceptions and a school record 23 pass breakups as a four-year Cougar starter.
That set the stage for Sorensen’s draft experience.
“I remember having a lot of doubts going through that process. I go undrafted, we have to make a split second decision — my wife and I — on where to go. We decide to pick Kansas City, my wife with tears in her eyes,” Sorensen said.
That first fall with Kansas City, an injury to Berry gave Sorensen the chance to start the Chiefs’ four preseason games his rookie year. He made the team’s 53-man opening day roster and felt good about his circumstances.
“I’ve got four preseason games under my belt, I think I’m doing great. I’m learning I’m trying to pick up as much as I can,” he said.
Reality set in during Sorensen’s first regular-season NFL game.
“I made several really bad mistakes on special teams, I missed a tackle on defense. It was the worst game of my career,” he said.
The next week, he was cut, then signed to the Chiefs’ practice squad two days later.
“We had just signed a lease to an apartment, we had just moved all our stuff in and the next thing you know, we’re on a week-to-week contract, not knowing if we we’re going to stay or go, or where we were going to be,” Sorensen said.
His first stop? Talking to the team's strength coach and developing a plan beyond the required two days of strength work, upping it to four days a week, sometimes after practice. Being on the practice squad, he didn’t travel with the team. So instead, he’d wait for the team to leave, then he’d hit the practice field and do drills.
“I didn’t want anyone to see me, though. That’s why I waited,” he said.
He picked specific things he wanted to work on, then watched film and made adjustments.
“Although I didn’t play on Sundays, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, those were my game days and I would play like it. When we would do special teams drills, it was all out, 100 percent,” Sorensen said.
He spent six weeks on the practice squad before an injury opened the door for him to rejoin the active roster and contribute on special teams. He’s been on Kansas City’s active roster ever since.
His role on special teams increased piece by piece that year, leading up to the season finale against the then-San Diego Chargers, where his brother Brad Sorensen was a backup quarterback.
That day, Daniel Sorensen played all four phases of special teams and served as special teams captain for the first time as a pro.
"They score special teams based on your production. The highest score anyone has received on special teams (for Kansas City) was my last game my rookie year," he said.
The lessons Sorensen gleaned from his first year in the NFL, as well as at BYU, still pay dividends to this day.
In addition to being a special teams standout for the Chiefs, Sorensen has developed into a reliable defender. Over his NFL career, Sorensen has 182 tackles, 14 pass deflections, 3.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and four interceptions, including a 48-yard pick-six off New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees in 2016.
Those numbers compare favorably to the top safety taken in the 2014 NFL draft, Calvin Pryor, taken 18th overall by the New York Jets that year and who is currently a free agent. In his career, Pryor has 192 tackles, 14 pass deflections, a half sack, two forced fumbles and two interceptions.
In Sorensen’s 2014 class, other locals who went undrafted and are still in the NFL include former Skyline High and Utah defensive tackle Tenny Palepoi, now with the Buffalo Bills, and former Jordan High and Utah State offensive lineman Tyler Larsen, now with the Carolina Panthers.
All three stand as examples of how preparation and persistence, mixed with luck and opportunities, can lead to finding a place in the pros.
This year, Berry is back and on track to be ready for the season for Kansas City, along with fellow safeties Sorensen and Eric Murray. The Chiefs released multiyear starter Ron Parker while adding veteran safety Robert Golden. It’s possible the Chiefs could use the draft to further strengthen the safety position.
“(I’ve) been able to learn a lot,” Sorensen said. “Each year seems like a new challenge gets thrown at you, so you’re forced to adapt, to learn and to grow. It’s been a wonderful experience.”
Sorensen understands the business side of the NFL and the fact opportunities don’t come without sacrifice.
“Any success that I’ve found in life has been met with equal challenge. It’s required some hard work, some deliberate practice, goal setting and decision-making,” he said.