‘Mr. Irrelevant’: Behind Grant Stuard’s rookie season
The 2021 NFL Draft was down to the final selections and the curtain began to close on former UH football linebacker Grant Stuard.
It was the final pick in the draft that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Stuard 259th overall in the seventh round. After a long training camp and a preseason of proving himself, Stuard was named to the official 53-man roster.
But the process wasn’t as simple as it may have seemed.
With numerous free agent offers already on the table, a call from the Buccaneers appeared to be just another offer after the conclusion as an undrafted rookie.
“I was getting calls throughout the end of the draft with multiple teams trying to make those deals with me but, then I got the call from the Buccaneers thinking it was just the same thing.” Stuard said.
The Buccaneers, who at the time were the reigning Super Bowl champions, informed Stuard that they would be taking him with the final pick in the draft, dubbing him with the infamous title of “Mr. Irrelevant.”
“They asked, ‘do you know where you want to go in free agency?’,” Stuard said. “And before I could respond, they said ‘you don’t have to worry about it, we’re going to get you with this last pick.'”
Stuard was unaware of the running gag that was “Mr. Irrelevant” when he got drafted, but he didn’t really care because, in the end, he was one of just 259 players who were selected that night.
“I didn’t really know anything about the whole ‘Mr. Irrelevant’ thing,” Stuard said. “I was a bit confused, but I was just happy to be the pick. On the backend, it gave me a lot of positive publicity and opportunities.”
One of those opportunities was an Uber Eats commercial that aired throughout the 2021-22 NFL season.
Chip on his shoulder
For Stuard, being called “Mr. Irrelevant” only motivated him more coming into the NFL, but playing with a chip on his shoulder was nothing new to him.
The underdog mentality Stuard had was originally fostered during his time at UH. Before being named a team captain and to the All-Conference First Team in 2020, he was originally the “last choice” for the Cougars.
“I didn’t get an offer from Houston until a week and a half before signing day, a big reason was that they had guys at my position who de-committed,” Stuard said. “I was coming into UH understanding that I was their last choice.”
That same feeling of being the last option was resurrected on draft night and Stuard said the chip on his shoulder remains.
“It was the same thing coming into the Buccaneers facility, I knew there were guys they thought were more valuable than I was,” Stuard said. “Even though I’m grateful they got me, there’s still that chip on my shoulder.”
Stuard felt being last put him in a grey area between the drafted and undrafted players, leaving him on an island of confusion as to where he belonged and who he could really relate to.
“From all the drafted guys you’re still looked at as the last guy, as if you’re not as important and you’re just somebody that’s got to do everything in their power to make the team,” Stuard said. “But at the same time, you don’t really go with all the undrafted guys because you still got drafted. I have to keep working hard and understand that I have to earn it every day.”
Stuard has hope that his underdog mentality in the NFL provides the same results as it did when he first began at UH. There he was able to get on the field immediately thanks to his efforts on special teams, despite being a last-minute offer.
“I was the first freshman on the field out of my recruiting class at UH and it wasn’t because I played defense or took a starting position, but because I was going to give maximum effort and block my butt off on kickoff return,” Stuard said. “It was a similar thing when I got to the NFL, I didn’t earn a starting position during the preseason but I earned a position on special teams.”
Stuard made his name known on special teams for the Buccaneers, he not only led the team in tackles but Stuard also ranked third in the NFL overall in that regard.
The focus UH put on special teams during Stuard’s time with the Cougars is what he feels gave him an edge coming into his rookie season, crediting former UH coaches James Casey and Blake Gideon for instilling the importance of special teams play.
“They let it be known that there (are) guys that have a professional career from playing special teams, that’s probably the biggest thing that gave me an edge over everybody,” Stuard said. “Those competitive special teams drills that we took a long portion of practice to do are literally what I’m doing on the field in the NFL now.”
Leader to learner
Stuard’s impact on special teams provided him a place on the team where he felt comfortable enough to voice himself as a leader like he once did at UH, but it took time to get that privilege with the Buccaneers.
After gaining enough respect to be a vocal leader at UH, Stuard had to hit a reset button and earn it all over again when he got to the NFL.
“It was just a big adjustment because my coach would tell me I’m a rookie and I just need to shut up and learn,” Stuard said. “I had to get it under control and get some games under my belt before I could start leading and guiding people.”
The leadership habits built at UH couldn’t directly translate to the NFL yet, Stuard recognized that he had to prove himself first.
“I had already built up so many habits being a leader at Houston, it was almost like I had to break them,” Stuard said. “My body was tensing up to not say things in certain instances when I wanted to lead or answer a question during a meeting, it’s not my question to answer.”
It wasn’t until after Stuard began to garner some attention and respect through the special teams play that he was able to display his leadership and vocal style of play.
“I eventually started to make some plays and garner some respect amongst my peers and I was able to lead where I thought I could, like within the special teams room,” Stuard said. “I did my best to be a vocal leader and an energizer bunny and lead by example anytime I’m on the field. I tried to find the role the team needed and if I could provide that, I just wanted to do the best I could.”
Locker room inspiration
Like any rookie, Stuard learned a lot from his teammates. Sharing a locker room with the likes of seven-time Super Bowl Champion Tom Brady or a veteran line-backer like LaVonte David gave Stuard all the motivation a young player could ask for.
“Being in the same locker room as them has been eye-opening,” Stuard said. “It’s been inspiring meeting some guys because they’re just regular people, it’s been inspiring and lets me know I can achieve the same things they’ve achieved because we have the same blood and skin, we’re both human beings.”
Having someone like Brady on the team, who has accomplished so much while not necessarily being the most physically gifted showed Stuard that there is more to being a successful NFL player than just raw talent.
Stuard said David has been the most inspirational for him, due to the similarities the two share as far as measurements go and since he’s been a successful player at Stuard’s position for so long.
“The biggest inspiration to me has been LaVonte David because he’s somebody who has similar size and speed to me, but just maximizes his entire body on his technique, his effort and his mental,” Stuard said. “That’s why he’s been able to play so many years.”
With Stuard’s rookie season in the books, a lot was learned and a role on the team has been established for himself.
Stuard hopes he can continue the grind and make the team again next season, building on what he started his first year and cultivating it.
“I really want to take everything I learned and keep moving forward and really just try to keep doing the same things and elevate them as much as I can,” Stuard said. “I just want to make this team again next year, I want to help them win more than I did this year and be more effective.”