Clifton Duck is believed to be the only player in Appalachian State football history to leave the program early for the NFL. And he did so with the understanding he might not get drafted.
“I knew leaving early out of a school like App State and being my size, and I heard it every time — I heard it going into college, so I knew it could go either way,” Duck, a 5-foot-9, 176 pound cornerback, said. “I could get drafted or I could be an undrafted free agent. I just knew for a fact that if I was going to do it, I was going to have to be ready for whatever and be ready to work wherever I went.”
Duck indeed wasn’t selected in April’s NFL Draft, and caught on with the Bears as an undrafted free agent. He was ranked by The Athletic’s Dane Brugler as the 37th-best draft-eligible cornerback — 46 spots ahead of Bears sixth-round pick Duke Shelley — but turned pro with a few things in his favor.
Most notably, Duck’s 13 interceptions from 2016-2018 were the most among FBS cornerbacks in that span. He was rated to have good football instincts and the kind of scrappy mentality teams like.
He just didn’t have the size teams prioritize when evaluating cornerbacks. Another year of college wouldn't change that.
“I just felt like everything at App, I’d just reached the peak of it,” Duck said. “It just felt right, and I didn’t want to decline, you know what I’m saying? Any time you get that feeling it’s time to push yourself harder, work harder — I knew obviously coming up to this level would be much harder work, and every time you move up you gotta work that much harder. But I felt like I was ready for it. I talked with God and talked with my family and was just ready for the next step.”
Like every undrafted free agent, Duck faces an uphill climb to make an NFL roster. But in a crowded field of those guys with the Bears, Duck has had a few standout moments during training camp. He had at least one interception in three consecutive practices at one point, and showed some scrappy toughness in a pass breakup and hit on a Carolina Panthers receiver during Thursday night’s preseason opener. He recorded a team-high six tackles in the game.
Duck, though, was targeted seven times and allowed four receptions totaling 43 yards, something with which he wasn’t happy after the game. But he said a switch flipped for him Thursday night after a pep talk from safety Deon Bush, which calmed him down and allowed him to play more naturally later in the game.
The Bears’ four preseason games are Duck’s resume, the kind of thing that could allow him to latch on with another team if he doesn’t make the Bears’ 53-man roster. But he’s also prepared to begin his NFL career on a practice squad if need be.
“Every time I go up, I gotta get it from the bottom,” Duck said. “If I have to start from practice squad and work my way up, I’m fully prepared. Before I left, I thought of the worst outcome and I thought of the greatest outcome and I prepared myself for both.
“… If I start on practice squad and gotta work my way up, that’s just my journey. If I make a roster, I want to show what I can do and work my way up there too. I believe in God’s timing. I really don’t try to put too much pressure on myself to where I line up first. It’s just that I keep improving and keep getting better.”
The Bears’ cornerback landscape does feature a fairly open competition for at least one roster spot. Kyle Fuller, Prince Amukamara and Buster Skrine are locked into spots, and while Shelley and Kevin Toliver II seem to have the inside track to make the 53, their places are not guaranteed. So that leaves guys like John Franklin III, Michael Joseph and Duck with a legitimate chance of making the cut in Chicago.
And really, that’s all Duck wants.
“I’m forever thankful,” Duck said. “That’s why, (Thursday), I hope I showed it that I’m playing as hard as I can, as much as I can to show how grateful I am to them not only to make an NFL team but to show how grateful I am because this is what you dream about. A lot of people don’t make it this far. For them to take that chance and bring me here with this great team, great people in this locker room, coaches, offense, defense, it’s just a lot of great players.
“Just to get this opportunity is a blessing. You can’t say anything less about it.”