Small-school CB Pierre Desir hitting the NFL at just the right time
The four-year, $57.4 million extension signed by Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman was a testimony to what can happen when an unregarded and undervalued prospect finds the perfect situation, falls into an ideal paradigm and does everything possible to meet those opportunities with his own talent and determination.
Sherman was a fifth-round pick in 2011; a converted receiver from Stanford who played off-coverage more than he would have liked for a head coach Jim Harbaugh he has never liked (the beef between the current Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers has deep roots in the old Pac-10). But as Seahawks coach Pete Carroll moved from USC back to the NFL, he had an ideal in mind for his cornerbacks. They were to be as big as possible, as athletic as possible, and they would play as aggressively as possible. It was an unusual conceit in an era when Cover-2 and Tampa-2 schemes were revered, but it worked better than anyone could have expected.
Sherman's story has inspired a new wave of draft prospects -- perhaps none more so than the best cornerback in the 2014 draft class whose game tape you've never seen.
Pierre Desir knows that he's got a major climb ahead of him as he looks to transition from Lindenwood University to the NFL. Nobody who's played for the Lindenwood Lions in St. Charles, Mo., has ever done so, but the 6-foot-1, 198-pound cornerback knows that he has what it takes to make that jump. And at 23, he's already been though his share of challenges.
Desir was born in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, and moved to the St. Louis area with his parents when he was 4 years old. His sport was soccer early on, and he didn't play football until his freshman year in high school. As it did for Ndamukong Suh, the footwork required in soccer helped Desir excel at his new sport, both as a receiver and cornerback.
But issues with the college entrance exam got in the way, and though he was recruited by several bigger schools -- "Mizzou, Kansas, Michigan State, Iowa, Illinois," he told me recently -- he chose Washburn University in Topeka, Kan. After redshirting in 2008, Desir starred there for two seasons, and then had to sit out the 2011 season because he wanted to transfer, and the school wouldn't let him go.
Which was a problem, as Desir had a perfectly good reason for wanting to do so. Two, in fact. His daughters -- now 3 and 7 years old -- and the challenges inherent in raising a young family while trying to get an education and make your name in the middle of nowhere. It may have seemed at times that Desir would get lost in the shuffle, but he never allowed himself to.
"They were living with me in Topeka, Kan., and it was getting hard to balance school and football with my daughters, with my wife. So, I decided to move back closer to home, where we could have some assistance."
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Closer to home sent him to Lindenwood, where he was an AFCA All-America in his first season and the inaugural winner of the Cliff Harris Award, given to the small college defensive player of the year. From there, he went to the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl, where he was finally able to answer those nagging questions about strength of opponent.
"What I've been telling people is that I did play in Division II, but I made a lot of plays, and I was able to translate that to the All-Star Games," he said. "Making plays in practice [at the East-West Shrine Game] and then getting invited to the Senior Bowl, and getting an interception in the Senior Bowl. For me, whether I was playing against D-II guys or D-I guys, I was still going to make plays. My level of competition was not an issue."
At the 2014 combine, Desir looked fluid in drills and ran a 4.52 40-yard dash -- not a burning time, but good enough to get NFL teams more interested. He's visited the Saints, and welcomed the Browns and Panthers to the Lindenwood field, where he's been working out the last couple of months.
No big-time draft prep place in Los Angeles or Florida for him -- Desir's journey has been a humble one all the way. However, that first NFL contract -- no matter where he's drafted -- will provide Desir and his young family with a major leg up financially. The jobs he's had to take in recent times have been ... interesting.
"I've done temp service jobs, where it's just a day job, and sometimes two or three days," he said. "I would clean sewers, I would clean out the shell casings at gun ranges, I worked at a sheet-metal factory. I painted, I picked up trash on the side of the highway, I've done cleanups on houses that have flooded. I've done a lot of crazy, different jobs, just so I can play football and still provide for my family."
No regrets, through -- at least, not that he'll admit. When I asked him whether he thinks about whether he would have been a first-round prospect had he attended a bigger school, he blew it right off.
"It doesn't [enter my mind]. I don't really think about it. I know I put in the work to put myself in position, and I know that if I just work hard enough, teams are going to be able to take a look at me and give me a chance."
And that's where the Sherman story comes in, just at the right time for a player like Desir. Through the All-Star Games, the combine, and those team visits, the NFL has sized Desir up as the right kind of prototype, based on what Sherman and the Seahawks have accomplished defensively over the last four seasons with hyper-aggressive cornerbacks who press receivers aggressively and take risks in coverage.
"The NFL is a copycat league, and they're looking for corners that are like Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, because they have had so much success," Desir said. "Teams have complimented me on my size and my length, but being a taller corner, I do need to work on my technique and just being fluid."
Desir is aware of other potential liabilities, and he's working hard to overcome them.
"Still working on the backpedal, and opening up my hips, breaking at different angles, and being able to have the correct footwork to be in the right place to make plays," he said. Desir has confidence in his ball skills, his ability to take the correct angle against opposing receivers based on tape study, and the fact that his skillset was easily transferrable when he faced better and more powerful talent.
"I kept getting better and kept listening to the things that the coaches were telling me I needed to work on," he said of the All-Star experiences. "I was happy with what happened, and I think I showed that I stack up well with the bigger-school guys."
In the end, that is what will carry Desir through any NFL struggles -- the fact that he's already been through so much.
"Yeah ... with transferring and having to work, and going to school and still raising a family. It's helped me learn how to schedule things and be more responsible. I don't think the hectic work schedule in the NFL will be an issue for me, because I've been doing a lot of crazy stuff through the last year."
On Wednesday, I asked Sherman about the new NFL prototype, players like Desir who are benefitting from it, and what it means to him that he was able to flip the cornerback paradigm back to something decidedly old-school.
“When I came out nobody wanted this model, they said, Oh you’re too tall, oh you’re too stiff, you don’t run well, you don’t get out of your breaks, and for me to change the prototype on what a corner is, is a great thing. I think the game has always been changing and getting bigger, better, faster and stronger. Receivers are Calvin Johnson’s size a lot of times. A.J. Green, Julio Jones, some of the best of the receivers in the league are huge. You still have your DeSean Jacksons and [shorter] receivers who make tremendous impact, but you also have the Josh Gordons who need big corners to cover them sometimes.
"I think the more big corners you get out there, you give them a chance. These guys probably in my draft class would’ve gone in the sixth or seventh round. None of them would’ve been talked about the first couple of days. I think Brandon Browner and myself and Antonio Cromartie, guys like that who are playing well and being tall rangy corners are changing that.”
Pierre Desir is ready to add his name to that list. All he needs is a chance -- and the right opportunity. It's long overdue.