The next 24 hours might some of the longest of Chris Orr’s life.
He’s done his part – in the longest and strangest offseason in NFL history, the undrafted free agent linebacker who totaled 187 career tackles, 20 tackles for loss, 14 sacks and two interceptions at Wisconsin and earned second-team All-Big Ten honors as a senior has certainly made an impression during training camp.
While the lack of OTAs, minicamp and preseason games have made it harder for UDFAs to impress, Orr has made plays on the defensive side of the ball; in a linebacking corps that seems fairly vanilla after starters Shaq Thompson and Tahir Whitehead and top backup Adarius Taylor, the rookie has had a good camp – but sometimes just having a good camp isn’t enough. The Panthers have clearly been trying to find the right fits at linebacker, trading Andre Smith to Buffalo and signing both Julian Stanford and James Onwualu in the past two weeks.
Orr certainly seems to be the type of guy Matt Rhule values – tough, hard-nosed players that love the game of football. Rhule has made it clear that yes, you have to be talented – but simply wanting it more can be the difference between winning and losing.
“If I can find a bunch guys that are tough and like to play hard.” Rhule said last month. “You know, we have enough stars. We have enough high-end talent guys. What we need is a gritty tough team that loves to play the game.”
“At the end of the day, at your core as a football player, we want to be a team that always plays hard with passion and energy.”
Translating that grit onto the field was the advice that Orr received from his brother Zach, who played linebacker for the Ravens after making the team as an undrafted free agent and his father Terry, who won two Super Bowls as a tight end in Washington.
Orr is the youngest of four brothers, all of whom play football at various levels – his brother Zach was forced to retire from the Ravens after leading the team in tackles (130) in his first season as a full-time starter after being diagnosed with a rare congenital neck/spine condition at only 24 – he is now a coaching analyst in Baltimore and he, along with the rest of the Orr family, told Chris to just do what he does best, both on and off the field.
“They said just show them the type of player you can be, show them the type of person that you are,” Orr said after the Panthers final scrimmage of training camp with roster cuts looming. “Play physical, play fast, play the game the way it’s meant to be and the chips will fall where they lay, but at the end of the day if you show them that, you’ll make a lasting impression.”
Ultimately, the final few spots on a roster usually are dictated by a numbers game – with G Chris Reed on the COVID/reserve list, the team may want to keep an additional big body up front on the 53. Or perhaps Ian Thomas’ turf toe will linger into Week 1, causing an additional tight end to be necessary – but Orr can’t control any of that, he can only control what he does out on the field.
“I think that there’s only one way that you can play football – and that’s going your hardest each snap. That’s how you stay healthy and that’s how the game is meant to be played,” said Orr, who was named Wisconsin Defensive MVP in 2019 and Special Teams Player of the Year in 2018. “I told myself just do what you do, make sure you’re on your assignments, [on] your alignments [and] make one splash play a day.”
“I felt confident that if I could do that, people would know that I’m a pretty good player.”
Orr is no stranger to adversity – he tore his ACL in the first game of his sophomore season at Wisconsin and worked his way back to start eight games on the second-best defense in the country the next year before taking on a leadership role in 2018 and 2019. Orr, who changed his number from 50 to 54 at Wisconsin to celebrate his brother, played in 50 games with 30 starts at inside linebacker.
“I think that I gained a lot of people’s respect and trust [at camp this year] – that was something that I was big on. I wanted people to know that I’m a heady football player, I know what I’m going to do on each play and I tried to show that as best I could. I’m pretty confident they at least like me, but we’ll see…come tomorrow, we’ll find out.”
He’s been picking the brains of veterans on the team to get better; Tre Boston changed a play early on in training camp and confused the rookie – “In my mind, I’m like playbook, playbook, playbook” – those are the types of adjustments that can get worked out over the course of a full offseason, but in a truncated training camp, Orr’s been catching on quickly. He’s even had some help from the best linebacker to ever strap on a helmet in Carolina.
Orr has been seeking the advice of Luke Kuechly, who clearly has become a guiding post to some of the players on one of the youngest defenses in the NFL – the 23-year old rookie has spoken to Kuechly, who’s working as a Pro Scout at the facility, everyday, pushing the youngest recipient of the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award to critique his form and “give me a little tip in my game” on a daily basis.
“It’s been an honor and a blessing to have him here.”
But now, after the whirlwind of training camp, Orr will simply have to wait for the next 24 hours for his phone to ring with either good news or bad news – he’s done all he can do on the field, now it’s up to the numbers game and for the plays Orr has left on tape to decide.
The only thing he can do is try to distract himself.
“I’m not a very big video game player, but maybe i should do it for a day – try to find a movie marathon or something,” said Orr with a smile. “I’ll try not to worry about it at all, I’ll probably talk to my family, to be honest – they’ll take my mind off of it. I’ll talk to my nephews and my niece a little bit.”
(Top Photo Via Carolina Panthers)