Cameron Wake takes unique path to NFL

DAVIE, Fla. -- The 2006 NFL season was a nightmare for Cameron Wake.

Seven years ago, Wake was far from the Miami Dolphins' Pro Bowl defensive end that he is today. He was completely off the NFL's radar, living in his parents' home in Maryland while waiting for an opportunity.

“I was really unemployed, and I wasn’t doing anything,” Wake told ESPN.com this week. “I was working out. Then, I’d come home and wait by the phone. It kind of got to that point where I’m literally doing nothing. I’d see my mom and dad come home from work, and I’m a 23-year old, perfectly-able guy. I got my sisters at work, my mom and dad, and I’m sitting at home all day. I feel like I should be doing something.”

Wake -- the 20th best defensive player in ESPN's #NFLRank project -- is a perfect example of how scouting is an inexact science. The former Penn State defensive end went undrafted in 2005. Wake had a brief stint with the New York Giants and was released a month before training camp. After that, things went silent.

Unsure if he would get another opportunity, Wake took a job as a mortgage broker in 2006. He did office work during the week and angrily watched the NFL on the weekends. Wake would see many of his former college teammates and competitors play in the NFL when Wake believed he was just as deserving.

Wake's parents sparked a major turning point in 2007. After spending a year on the fence between being a mortgage broker and seeking another shot in the NFL, Wake's mother convinced him to quit his job and focus 100 percent on his NFL dream. Wake put all his energy into training, and the phone finally rang to try out for the British Columbia Lions in the CFL.

Wake was initially skeptical. The Lions offered $48,000 for the entire season only if he made the team. Plus, the CFL was far from his goal to play in the NFL.

“I had never even watched a CFL game in my life,” Wake said laughing. “I’d never heard of a team. I didn’t know a single person in Canada. I was completely oblivious to the whole league.”

Wake had 24 hours to make a decision and accepted the offer. Playing in the CFL turned out to be one of the best decisions of Wake's life.

It had been two years since Wake last put on pads to play football, but he was immediately dominant. He won the CFL Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards by leading the league with 16 sacks. Wake topped that performance in his second season with 23 sacks, which is when NFL teams started calling.

Wake had several NFL offers before the 2009 season and eventually chose the Dolphins. That was a far cry from two years prior, when Wake couldn’t get a tryout.

Just four seasons later, Wake is a two-time Pro Bowler and one of the NFL’s most dominant pass-rushers. He is the backbone of Miami’s defense and has 43 sacks the past four seasons.

“He has a relentless motor,” ESPN.com's Matt Williamson said of Wake. “He's very quick off the snap and strikes his opponent with heavy hands on the rise. He has very quick hands, as well, with numerous moves he has perfected. He’s also a great closer when he beats his blocker. He's a fantastic pass-rusher who has it all."

Dolphins starting right tackle Tyson Clabo has the tough task of facing Wake in practice every day. Clabo, a nine-year veteran, says Wake is one of the toughest players he's had to block in his career.

“He's up there pretty high,” Clabo said. “He definitely has the tools and the skill set to be an elite pass-rusher in this league. I think what makes him tough is his speed and the leverage that he plays with. That right there is pretty tough to beat.”

Wake, 31, is considered a late bloomer. However, the Pro Bowler will be the first to say he's always had the ability. It just took a long time to convince NFL teams he was capable.

The Dolphins provided final vindication by signing Wake to a four-year, $49 million extension in 2012. Today, Wake is a big-money player. But he still has that blue-collar mentality from being overlooked all those years.

“The chip is in myself and it has always been there.” Wake said. “Here’s another challenge and here’s another day -- football is kind of like that. It’s the only sport where you have so many challenges. ... You have to go out there and consistently produce every single day and every single game.”

Wake's NFL journey is unique. He took an unconventional path to stardom, and it is further proof that sometimes elite players can fall through the cracks.

You can still sense some resentment from Wake that he didn't get a better shot to succeed out of college. The career span for many NFL players is short. But Wake is doing all he can to make up for lost time.

“It doesn’t add up, but that’s my path and that’s what I had to deal with,” Wake explained. “It’s definitely different. You look around the locker room and see the super blue-chip first-rounders.

"I didn’t come in with a silver spoon -- my spoon was all bent, dirty and rusty. I had to scratch and claw twice. I had to work my way up in Canada, then hit the reset button when I got to Miami.”