In the opening days of training camp, when Bradley McDougald stocked his locker with the bare essentials, he made sure to tote along a KU blanket from his days as a Jayhawk.
The blanket, McDougald says, is more practical than it is pure nostalgia. It’s been less than a year since he played his last college game, and he needed something for those pre-practice naps during his first camp as a member of the Chiefs secondary. But that didn’t stop the blanket from causing a little locker-room friction when McDougald was stationed next to fellow safety Tysyn Hartman, a second-year pro from Kansas State.
“It might be disappearing here pretty soon,” Hartman said of the blanket in question.
“He always does give me crap about it,” McDougald countered. “I might have to find a new hiding spot for it.”
Aside from a potential blanket throw-down, McDougald has found plenty of benefits from lockering next to a former rival.
Last year, Hartman entered training camp as an undrafted free agent. In most cases, undrafted free agents aren’t supposed to find their way onto an NFL roster. But Hartman came armed with a plan: Soak up the playbook. Be assignment sound. Follow the veterans. And when an opportunity presented itself, Hartman made the team, appearing in 11 games and making two starts last season.
So when McDougald showed up for camp, another undrafted free agent from a local school, he set a pretty simple goal: Be the next Tysyn Hartman.
“That was one of the things I learned from players before I even left college,” McDougald said. “Find an older guy that’s been there, that’s been in your similar situation and just try to get up under his arm and figure out how he did it.”
McDougald’s long-shot plan will continue Saturday, when the Chiefs travel to Pittsburgh for their third game of the preseason. And as another set of roster cuts loom early next week, McDougald is hoping to make the most of his remaining chances to impress the Chiefs coaching staff.
“He’s not necessarily trying to make this team, but he’s trying to make 31 other teams, too,” said Emmitt Thomas, the Chiefs’ defensive backs coach. “That’s what we tell them. You run into a buzz saw here, because of the safeties that we have. (But) you put some good stuff on tape, you never know what injuries occur, and you can make a lot of other teams, too.”
That buzz saw at safety includes starters Eric Berry and Kendrick Lewis, and two veteran offseason acquisitions in Husain Abdullah and Quintin Demps. And then, of course, there’s Hartman, who hasn’t shied away from mentoring McDougald — despite the fact he could steal a coveted roster spot.
“I had a lot of great mentorship and a lot of guys looking out for me,” Hartman said. “So I’m trying to pass that on.”
Earlier this summer at offseason training activities, Hartman would invite McDougald over to his place in town. McDougald was still finding his way in the NFL, and if he could handle a little trash talk about Bill Snyder and the Wildcats’ recent Big 12 championship, he could also take in some survival tactics.
“He’s telling me, ‘Get in that playbook,’” McDougald said. “‘That playbook is serious, because anybody can come out here and make a play. But everybody can’t come out here and line the defense up and then go make a play.’ That’s a big difference.”
So far, listening to Hartman has appeared to pay off.
“Both of them are cerebral players,” Thomas said. “Hartman came in last year as an undrafted free agent and impressed us with his special teams play and learning the defense and calling the signals. And he’s a little more physical than people realize because of his slender build.”
McDougald, meanwhile, is fighting his own perception battle. When he arrived at Kansas as a freshman, he was a receiver who had passed up the opportunity to play defensive back at more prestigious programs. McDougald would eventually slide back to defense, but no matter how well he played, there was little chance to attract attention while playing on a KU defense that cratered during his final years in Lawrence.
Still, McDougald says he’s not going to stop reppin’ KU in the Chiefs locker room — even after a few dismal years.
“You gotta like it,” McDougald said, pointing in the direction of Hartman after a recent practice. “I don’t care if you’re K-State or you’re KU, you gotta like it.”
McDougald may be a longshot for now, but he’d also like to make the blanket a fixture in an NFL locker room somewhere, whether that’s in Kansas City or elsewhere. In the Chiefs’ opening preseason game in New Orleans, McDougald had five tackles and a pass-breakup on third and nine that forced the Saints to punt. There were fewer opportunities when the Chiefs fell to the 49ers at Arrowhead last Friday, and that makes Saturday in Pittsburgh all the more important.
“I felt like it was a pretty good start,” McDougald said of his first two preseason games. “I’m not gonna say I did everything right because I didn’t. I definitely feel like I left a couple of plays out there, but going forward, I just want to show I can do it again and be consistent with it.”