It is extremely hard to make it in the NFL. It is especially hard to make it as an undrafted free agent out of college.
The Indianapolis Colts, however, have been one of the best teams in the league at finding these undrafted gems. From Kenny Moore II to Jack Doyle, the Colts have been able to find UDFA players and turn them into productive role players for the team.
One player I want to look at in particular is wide receiver Ashton Dulin and his journey from undrafted free agent in 2019 to core special teams player for the Colts.
Growing as a Special Teams Player
Dulin's journey starts with quite a bit of success, as the Ohio native left Malone University as one of the school's most accomplished athletes.
He left the school with 5,455 all-purpose yards, 34 touchdowns, and multiple awards under his belt. He is Malone's all time leader in all-purpose yards, receptions, and receiving yards (all records that will never be broken with Malone shutting down it's football program in 2019).
Despite the successful collegiate career and an impressive showing at the NFL Combine, Dulin went undrafted in the 2019 NFL Draft. He signed with the Colts and had to transition his mindset from star receiver to role player fighting for a spot on the roster.
For Dulin, this was expected. Division II football players rarely get drafted, much less are given a chance to even sign with an NFL team. Dulin actually decided to play punt gunner during his senior year in college to prepare for the challenge of the NFL.
"My senior year was actually the only year that I played gunner." Dulin said in an interview with me last summer. "I wanted to be able to show that I had some versatility for the next level."
That repetition helped prepare him for the NFL, as he was called up off the Practice Squad for a week four game against the Las Vegas Raiders in 2020. He was thrown into action as a punt gunner, and he has held onto that job ever since.
Dulin definitely had to go through some struggles with the new role-- and put on his "hardhat" as he told me-- but he has solidified himself as a good gunner and valuable player on kick coverage going into year three. Through two years, Dulin has made 11 tackles on special teams.
Covering kicks is only half of the game for special teams players, though. To be a true core four special teamer, a player has to be able to contribute in the return game as well.
Dulin was a top tier return man in college, averaging nearly 30 yards a kick return and totaling three touchdowns in his senior season at Malone. While he hasn't had many opportunities with the Colts, he does have six returns for 143 yards with the team.
2020 sixth round pick Isaiah Rodgers took over the role of return man after week two last season. Dulin, as a result, lost his chance to be the return man in Indy (at least for the time being).
This never discouraged Dulin though, and he became a strong lead blocker in front of the rookie return man. On Rodgers' 101 yard kick-off return in week five against the Cleveland Browns last year, look who was the lead block that sprung the big return.
"Special Teams are something that every player is going to have to do, whether you like it or not." Dulin said. "It’s a big part of the game and I’ve just taken that role and embraced it."
Doing Your Job
Dulin was able to flip from superstar college receiver to special teams role player seamlessly in the NFL. However, he knows that he is capable of being more in the league than just a special teams player.
He came into the league as a receiver, and the goal for him is to get on the field on offense. In his two year career, Dulin has seen just 211 snaps on offense (compared to 411 on special teams). The plan for Dulin is to just perform whatever role asked of him, whether that is blocking all game long or catching a big pass.
Blocking is an area where he has shown great improvement in his young career. He seems to be following the foot steps of Zach Pascal in this regard, who was also an UDFA who did enough to earn a bigger role on the team.
Here is a great block on the goal line to open the lane for the easy touchdown (that was called back due to an offensive facemask call):
When it comes to actually playing receiver and catching the ball, Dulin isn't too worried about his lack of production in the NFL. He knows his time will come and, for now, he is just "focused on taking my role and doing it to the best of my ability."
Dulin has five catches for 70 yards in his career so far with the Colts:
Friendship with Zach Pascal
I mentioned it above but Pascal is the perfect mentor for Dulin to have in the NFL. Pascal was an UDFA in the 2017 NFL Draft who bounced around a bit as a role player before sticking with the Colts.
Pascal's dedication to the little things and steady improvement led to the significant role that he has in the offense now. If Dulin can just copy the script that Pascal has played out in the NFL, he should have a long career.
"(Pascal) always told me that I reminded him of himself his rookie year." said Dulin."It gives me confidence that he did it with hard work and that it can be done."
Pascal has only glowing remarks about the young receiver, who he has taken under his wing. Here is what Pascal told me about Dulin prior to this past season:
It's no secret that it is hard to make it in this league. When it comes to undrafted free agents out of a Division II college program, the percentages are extraordinarily low.
Ashton Dulin has managed to stick around for two years with the Colts despite these odds. How? He has added versatility to his game, which is making him hard to cut with his special teams ability and upside as a receiver.
The key to making the roster as an undrafted free agent is to be a cockroach. The player has to be able to survive everything thrown their way. It is exactly what Pascal did, and it is what Dulin is doing now.
Dulin isn't a household name, and he probably never will be. He is, however, a vital player to this team with everything he can do and why the coaches have kept him for this long.
Every team needs bottom of the roster players like Dulin. He may be in for yet another battle to make this roster this season but my money is on him surviving yet again and continuing his upwards development with the Colts.
Follow Zach on Twitter @ZachHicks2.