Ryan Schraeder has come a long way from delivering steaks for extra cash.
The Atlanta Falcons' right tackle needed a job out of high school. That's why he caught on with Indiana Hills Meat and Poultry Inc. in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas.
"I was making $8 per hour," Schraeder recalled. "I was delivering to all the restaurants all over the city of Wichita. I got to know a lot of people doing that. And they probably have no clue that I'm in the NFL now."
Pretty soon, Schraeder should have enough money to open his own steakhouse, if desired.
Schraeder, the former high school basketball player who made stops at Butler Community College (Kansas) and Valdosta (Georgia) en route to the NFL, was one of the success stories in what evolved into a disappointing season for the Falcons. The undrafted player started all 16 games for the first time in three pro seasons and proved to be an asset opposite ascending left tackle Jake Matthews.
Pro Football Focus placed Schraeder on its first-team All-Pro list at right tackle, noting he allowed just two sacks, two quarterbacks hits, and 20 quarterback hurries in 1,062 snaps played. Schraeder had an extremely strong showing in a late-season matchup against Carolina Panthers pass rusher Charles Johnson, a guy who gave him fits in the past.
"To me, it's more about how I feel inside and how my teammates feel about me," Schraeder said. "It's about earning the respect of my teammates. I go into every week confident. I don't really need somebody to tell me I'm playing well or whatever. ...It's more about being accountable and your teammates being able to count on you and rely on you, and I had that feeling more this year than other years."
Schraeder impressed offensive line coach Chris Morgan.
"Ryan really improved a lot," Morgan said. "The biggest thing for him is consistency. He started the whole year, and he's never done that before. The consistency factor, learning how to work and how to grind, be a pro, study, he's done a really good job with that. It's really important to him. He comes to work every day and tries to fix his problems. It's just cool to see his growth."
Surely the front office noticed Schraeder's maturation as he approaches restricted free agency in March. Nothing precludes the Falcons from working out a long-term extension with Schraeder, which might be a wiser move now before the price tag increases. The league's highest paid right tackle is Bryan Bulaga of Green Bay at $6.75 million per season. Eight starting right tackles in the NFL, including Bulaga, make $5 million or more per season.
Schraeder made $585,000 this past season in the final year of his deal.
Of course, the Falcons could extend the free-agent tender to Schraeder before the March 9 deadline. The low level tender would be around $1.69 million, while a second-rounder tender -- the one most likely to be used on Schraeder -- could be as high as $2.47 million. That would be Schraeder's one-year salary if he decided to sign the tender by April 22. However, a team could snatch up Schraeder while surrendering a second-round pick to the Falcons.
Schraeder is not overly consumed with the process.
"Atlanta has given me an opportunity," he said. "I felt like I've tried to make the most out of it. Whatever happens in the future, happens. But I know deep down inside that I can play in this league.
"My agent [Joel and Justin Turner], I feel like I have the best agents in the business. They'll handle a lot of that. And I'll probably give them some input."
Being tendered isn't something Schraeder thinks about much, either.
"Somebody tried to explain it to me, but honestly, I have no clue," Schraeder said. "Obviously, I've never been in this situation. I've only heard about stuff like that."
Schraeder is more worried about controlling his play. This offseason will be about taking the next step. Having a coach such as Morgan, who Pro Football Focus tabbed the offensive line coach of the year, should aid his continued growth.
"He is what we needed in Atlanta: a guy who comes in and pushes people to be the best they can be," Schraeder said of Morgan, "not just on Sundays, but every time we step on the practice field. He is all about the grind, which can be overlooked at this level. This year was the most fun I've ever had playing ball, and it was the hardest I've ever worked as well."
And Schraeder definitely delivered.