Allen Park — Before safety Jalen Elliott ever stepped on a field as a member of the Detroit Lions, he thought it was over. Reporting to training camp as a rookie in 2020, he tested positive for COVID-19, which sidelined him for more than two weeks.
It was an inauspicious start for the undrafted rookie out of Notre Dame.
“My first thought is I’m going to get cut, like immediately,” Elliott said. “Just trusting in God, was praying heavy, talking to my family a lot, and they kinda got me through it.
“Once I got here, my sole objective was to come in here and just work harder than anybody else, just push myself harder than I’ve ever pushed myself, just come in and do my job, and I was given the opportunity to come out and have a chance to play football everyday.”
That effort was recognized, and even though he missed half of camp, and there was no preseason to rubber-stamp his abilities, Elliott earned a spot on Detroit’s practice squad. And he didn’t let go of it for the entirety of his rookie season.
Of course, the people that believed in the talent are gone. The coaching staff and much of the front office that gave Elliott his chance were wiped out in Detroit’s house cleaning that started with the firing of coach Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn last November. And the new regime brought in a different scheme and playing style, particularly at Elliott’s safety position. But again, he hung on, keeping his job on the practice squad.
“I’m thankful to my college coaches, really,” Elliott said. “We played a lot of different defenses in college and we were tasked with knowing a lot at the safety position. Just coming in and being able to know multiple defenses has helped.”
This week, after more than a year of putting in the work behind the scenes, the Lions rewarded Elliott with a promotion to the main roster.
“Definitely feels like a big accomplishment, something that I wrote down on my goals for this year,” Elliott said. “But I know, and everybody else knows, that it’s just beginning and my work is just starting. I think it’s so important for me to remember, like yes, this is where I wanted to be, but we’re not at the end all be all or where I want to be, ultimately, so just trying to work even harder and show that they gave me the nod and that I deserved the nod.”
Living up to that commitment, Elliott was among the last players to leave the practice field on Wednesday, getting in some extra work with practice squad running back Craig Reynolds after the majority of his teammates had headed in to the locker room.
Professionally, Elliott has the loftiest of goals. He’s not content to be clinging on at the back of the roster. He wants to start and he wants to star. He aims to follow in the path of mentor Ryan Clark, going from undrafted to earning a Pro Bowl selection.
Elliott reached out to Clark while still in college and was thrilled to get a response. The 13-year veteran, who played from 2002-14 and currently serves as an ESPN analyst, is so invested in Elliott’s success that he grades the tape every time the young player steps on the field. That includes the past two weeks, when Elliott was temporarily elevated off the practice squad, getting 55 snaps between special teams and defense.
It feels fitting that Elliott’s main roster debut will come against the Pittsburgh Steelers, where Clark had his greatest success, including his lone Pro Bowl season in 2011.
“That’s my big bro, and he’s helped me through so much,” Elliott said.
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