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Undrafted free agent Jelani Irby could be a diamond in the rough at wide receiver for the Panthers

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The Panthers are expected to lose Devin Funchess to free agency and will need to find a replacement to fill their depth chart. Could they find what they need in UDFA Jelani Irby?

Jelani Irby is a free agent wide receiver who has dreamed of playing in the NFL since he was a kid growing up in Washington, D.C. He’s spent time with the Cincinnati Flex of the Midwest Professional Indoor Football League and played college football at Central State University and Dean College before transferring to the University of Kentucky. He was unfortunately ruled ineligible due to a discrepancy with his junior college credits and never got to perform on the big stage of the SEC.

Irby emailed Cat Scratch Reader and provided the details of his background for some perspective on his journey to make it on an NFL roster. This is his story in his own words:

I’m currently a free agent wide receiver on a journey to achieve something that goes far beyond football. My journey includes four different regions of the country, three colleges/universities, two separate heartbreaking incidents and one woman (my grandmother) who gave me the motivation I needed in order to reach deep down and find the resilience to push through it all.

Being a Washington, D.C. native and growing up in the city during the 1990s, nothing was given, everything was earned. That was the norm growing up in one of, and at one point, THE most dangerous city in the country. Washington, D.C. has always been one of the most crime ridden cities around, and at one point, held the title of the “murder capital”. You can imagine the trials and tribulations that came with this. Your level of focus, attention to detail and overall grit had to be at its peak in order to sustain high spirits. My upbringing, especially my mother and her unwavering level of support, prepared me for what was to come.

Fast forward some years...

After my high school football career was over I ended up enrolling at Central State University, a Division 2 HBCU program, located in Wilberforce, Ohio. After suffering a lower back injury (the first major injury in my career) I was held out of the remainder of fall camp which prompted a transfer to a top 10 JUCO football program (Dean College, Franklin, Mass.). After an abrupt change in the offensive staff and it’s recruiting philosophy on the offensive side of the ball, the majority of holdovers from the previous regime were forced out, including myself. Being the resilient man that I am, this didn’t impede my progress, nor could it ever. I began looking into academic institutions in which I would be interested in walking on. The University of Kentucky stood out to me due to their KHP - Exercise Science major as well as the overall opportunity the football program presented. I was accepted by the University of Kentucky football program as a walk-on, however, more adversity lay ahead. Due to a discrepancy involving my academic credits in junior college I was ruled ineligible by the Southeastern Conference. I appealed the decision, only to be denied, ending my college career.

Following my college career I’ve embarked on a long journey filled with ups and downs. I played on an indoor/arena team in Cincinnati (Cincinnati Flex), landed a few articles which chronicled the long road (including one from USA Today where I was named “one of several free agent wide receivers the Pittsburgh Steelers should consider”), obtained a high school wide receivers coach job (which later turned into offensive coordinator—I have sent five receivers to college, four of which are playing Division 1) to enhance my football IQ while still training and chasing my goals and have continued to strive and reach for the stars! My focus, passion and will power can and will take me a long way!

Irby is an undrafted free agent and is free to sign with any NFL team who’s willing to offer him a contract. What does he bring to the table? Let’s take a closer look at him and find out.

Measurables and film

Irby is an average sized wide receiver. He’s only a half-inch shorter than D.J. Moore, who measured 6-foot-0 at the NFL Combine last year. He’s a half inch taller than Curtis Samuel’s 5-foot-11. He’s not going to stand out on any one’s roster, but that just means he looks the part.

While his 40-yard dash won’t blow anyone away, he has enough speed to get open if he is technically sound with his route running. If Irby can prove to the Panthers’ brass that he has quality route running skills and good hands, he could find a spot on the Panthers’ roster as a backup for Moore or as a replacement for Damiere Byrd as a kick/punt returner on special teams.

Irby has the measurables to replicate Byrd’s role on the roster (No. 5 wide receiver and return man), but what does the film say? We don’t have a lot of film to go on, but we do have two videos of Irby in action: One from his time with the Cincinnati Flex and one of him showing off his skills during a workout.

Here’s a brief video on Irby from his time with the Cincinnati Flex:

And here’s a brief workout video where he shows some of his footwork and catch ability:

Q&A with Cat Scratch Reader

As we approach the draft, Irby can give us a rare insight to the other path into the league. Here’s what he had to say about being an undrafted free agent and why he still fights for the dream of playing in the NFL. Also, because Brian was part of this, there’s another hot dog question.

Tell us about your experience so far trying to get on NFL teams’ radars. What kind of things have you been doing? Working out with players, etc.

It’s been a long, yet enjoyable road. I have sent numerous emails to members of various personnel departments throughout the league. Had some feedback. Just patiently and eagerly waiting while continuing to workout hard!

What skills do you bring to the table as a wide receiver?

I consider myself an all-around receiver. One trick pony isn’t in my vocabulary. I can run any route from any spot on the field. I can run a bang 8, a 15 yard out, or a screen comfortably, in addition to not being afraid to mix it up when it comes to blocking. My football IQ helps slow the game down.

What is your favorite route to run? Break down how you run it if you’d like.

My favorite route to run is a slant or a 10 yard out route. More so the slant. If the defender is playing off coverage, it’s imperative to give a hard vertical push in order to threaten the defenders cushion and turn their hips prior to making that sharp 45 degree angle cut. If the defender is in press coverage, your hands, eyes and feet all work together in order to combat the jam attempt. Violently crossing the defenders face is a must. Secure the rock and tuck that bad boy away prior to coming face to face with the big boys in the middle. Only the strong survive on this route!

What advice would you have for other players looking to make a name for themselves?

Persistence is key! Don’t worry about feeling as if you’re annoying others. Part of your job as a free agent is to relentlessly market yourself. Be unapologetic in doing so! This is your life. When the fat lady sings on your playing days, there’s no coming back. You get one shot at this!

How has your coaching experience impacted your on-field game?

Coaching has changed my mindset for the better. The chess match and overall tactical prowess that comes with it is unmatched. Every move you make as a coach should have a purpose. Why did you call that play? Was there a reason? What was the purpose? All of these elements have proven to be huge factors for my maturation process as a player over the years. It aids you in understanding the ins and outs of a scheme.

What’s your dream team to play for and why?

[Washington]. I grew up in Washington, D.C. Born and bred a [Washington] fan! That’s the D.C. kid in me. The adult Jelani understands the business and is a fan of whoever gives me an opportunity!

This is the most important question... is a hot dog a sandwich?

No. Not where I’m from. I’ve never actually thought that. Lol

Potential fit with Carolina

With wide receiver Devin Funchess (unrestricted free agent) and Damiere Byrd (restricted free agent) expected to hit free agency when the league year opens in March, the Carolina Panthers will have to find at least one—if not two—wideouts to fill their depth chart before the season begins.

For reference, here’s a quick look at the wide receivers who will be on the roster in 2019:

D.J. Moore
Curtis Samuel
Jarius Wright
Torrey Smith
Mose Frazier

The Panthers activated Frazier for the final game of the 2018 season against the Saints as a semi-tryout to get a look at what he has, but he didn’t record any statistics and saw very limited action. There’s no way to know whether the Panthers will keep him on the roster or not. They seem to like him (he’s been on the Panthers’ practice squad for the last two seasons) but we don’t know if they like him enough to give him a spot on the 53-man roster.

Assuming they do, the Panthers will probably need one more guy to round out the depth chart. That spot has gone to Byrd for the last few years, but his health is a major red flag and he’s a restricted free agent, so the Panthers will probably look elsewhere to fill that roster spot.

That leaves one spot available on the Panthers’ roster. Irby could be a potential fit for that role if the Panthers are willing to give him a look.

Final thoughts

Here are some closing thoughts from Jelani about his journey to the NFL:

After seeing a commercial for Monday Night Football as a kid, while my grandmother was babysitting I made a promise to her, that despite how many relationships it may cost me, I would do whatever it took to chase my dream. If I fall short it wouldn’t be because I gave up. I could live with that. I cannot live with quitting. She made it crystal clear to me that everyone couldn’t and/or wouldn’t understand my passion and drive. We had this conversation prior to her passing in late 1997 and I haven’t veered off the path yet! I have conquered any and every obstacle in my path thanks to the tunnel vision engraved I possess!

In addition to “the promise” (as I call it), growing up in one of the toughest cities out there comes with some hardships. I’ve lost numerous childhood friends (death and/or jail) over the years. I’ve seen and dealt with things that children shouldn’t have to see or deal with. This comes with the territory, however, it also made me a tougher, wiser man! The death of two uncles over the last three years and a grandfather with dementia has furthered my appreciation of waking up every day even more than it already was.

I’m far from an expert on what it takes to be an NFL wide receiver. If I were I’d probably be doing that for a living instead of covering news and sharing my hot takes about the Panthers. While I’m no expert, I think Irby definitely has enough of what it takes to warrant a shot to make an NFL roster. With the Panthers being a few men short on their depth chart, why not give him a workout? There are more than six months until the Panthers have to finalize their 53-man roster for the 2019 season. It shouldn’t be too difficult to give Irby a look. That’s all he really wants anyway—a chance. A chance to fulfill a promise he made to his grandmother years ago. A chance to realize his dream. A chance to be an NFL wide receiver. The Panthers assume zero risk in bringing him in for a workout, and you never know—they might find the next up-and-coming star.