GREEN BAY — Carl Bradford took a long, hard look in the mirror once the 2015 season was over.
With no regular-season games to show for his first two NFL seasons, it became apparent for the Packers’ linebacker that it’s now or never.
So the former fourth-round pick put everything on the table. Once he returned to Newport Beach, Calif., for his offseason training, Bradford revamped everything from his diet to his attitude toward football.
His goal was to be the best Carl Bradford he could be once he returned in time for training camp in Green Bay.
“Being this third preseason, this third training camp with the Packers, I needed to show them,” said Bradford, the 121st player taken in the 2014 NFL Draft.
“I need to step up and show them why they drafted me in the first place.”
Bradford displayed glimpses of what attracted the Packers to him during their preseason home opener against the Cleveland Browns last Friday.
After dropping roughly 10 pounds this offseason, Bradford returned for camp the lightest he’s been since the Packers drafted him as an outside linebacker from Arizona State.
Now hovering around 243 pounds, Bradford has looked leaner and more explosive in camp. That early progress translated into his 24 defensive snaps against Cleveland.
Along with his team-high three solo tackles, Bradford made a splash play downfield when he perfectly timed a hit on Browns receiver Rannell Hall, forcing him to drop a pass.
Effort never has been the issue for Bradford. It’s just the consistency part that he’s been working to straighten out.
“You see those plays before in the past preseasons and then there’s a play or two where he’s lost,” assistant linebackers coach Scott McCurley said. “This past game, he stepped up and he made those plays across the board. He did a good job when he was in there. Like I told him, he’s got to take that day to day now. He has to show up every day with that mindset and compete the way he did this past week.”
The first step to Bradford’s makeover was dropping weight to help him become a three-down linebacker. When left to his own devices, Bradford openly admits he eats “bad.”
Mixed with his training at Proactive Sports Performance, Bradford’s agency set him up with a food delivery service to help him stay on track with his goals.
He cut out a majority of sweets from his diet. When he does indulge – his favorite cheat snack is LifeSavers Gummies – Bradford takes a smarter approach about tracking his nutrition.
Bradford also got serious about absorbing his playbook and learning his responsibilities as an inside linebacker. He educated himself on the position, understanding the subtle differences between reacting inside and rushing from the outside.
“Being comfortable in my play more helps me play faster,” Bradford said. “It helps me make (more) plays. I didn’t have that confidence these past two years because I really didn’t know the defense. I really didn’t know what I was doing.
“So now it’s like either Carl knows it or he doesn’t at this point. It’s ultimately on me now, so I’m trying to show them something different.”
Green Bay drafted Bradford as an outside linebacker, but converted him inside at the end of training camp his rookie year. He made the roster but was inactive for all 18 games.
Bradford continued the transition last year but was among the team’s final cuts to 53. He re-signed to the practice squad the following day where he’d spend the remainder of the season.
It’s that time on the practice squad that Bradford feels helped him pick up the intricacies of the defense. Implementing them each day against the Packers’ offense doesn’t hurt, either.
Slowly, he felt the confidence return like he did when he had 154 tackles and 21½ sacks in three seasons at Arizona State.
“The guy is working on it day-in and day-out, day-in and day-out and finally the light clicked on the other day,” associate head coach/linebackers coach Winston Moss said. “I went up to him and said, ‘I’m so happy for you and the way that you played. That’s what you can do. Let’s see this as much as possible. Every opportunity that you get, have that confidence and ability to continue to do what you can do,’ which is what we expected for a while now.”
It’s been a long road – and there’s still many more miles to travel this preseason – but Bradford is finally playing again with his “hair on fire,” a characterization given to him in the pre-draft process in 2014.
He’s faced adversity and dealt with disappointment, but Bradford hasn’t lost his love for the game. After two years of watching from the sidelines, he hopes to finally be a part of the action again.
“I’ll do anything for it man,” said Bradford of the 53-man roster. “I have a whole different mindset. Think of the hard times – being cut is a big motivation to me. Don’t let it bring you down. Use that all towards being on the field come September.”