How undrafted rookie Jordan Kunaszyk earned his way onto the 53-man roster

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CHARLOTTE – Jordan Kunaszyk is not anywhere close to Luke Kuechly. Let’s just get that out of the way off the bat.

BUT – they’re both NFL linebackers with hard-to-pronounce last names starting with ‘K’ (it’s pronounced kuh-NAW-shick, by the way).

And they also approach the game the same way from a preparation standpoint.

Take what Kuechly said on “All or Nothing,” for example.

“If I can make two or three tackles based on what I’ve watched,” Kuechly said of his intense film prep, “you never know how that can affect things. ... With all the stuff I write down I’ll probably see certain things, and if you make a couple plays because of that I think it all ends up being worth it."

Now take what Kunaszyk told the San Francisco Chronicle before the 2019 NFL Draft. The similarity is striking.

“What can I do to make myself a better football player? I can watch more film. I can get an extra edge,” Kunaszyk said. “Even if I can make just one extra play that impacts the team and helps us win, then it was worth it.”

So you can see why Kuechly and the Panthers like this guy.

“Gosh, there are so many things about Jordan,” general manager Marty Hurney said Monday when asked why the undrafted rookie made the 53-man roster. “He had a terrific preseason and training camp. He made plays. He’s a guy who studies all the time. He’s just going to get better and better.

"We just feel like we had a young linebacker who really has the skill set, has our DNA, has the approach down and we just didn’t want to risk putting him out there. I think he would have been a guy teams would have found attractive. He’s just going to get better and better, and he gives us good depth."

Here’s the backstory on Kunaszyk: He was hardly recruited coming out of high school so he went the junior college route. Then he made his way to Cal, where he worked his way into the starting lineup as a junior.

He put it all together as a senior captain for the Bears, posting 148 tackles (fifth-most in FBS), 11.0 tackles for loss, 4.0 sacks and five forced fumbles. That production earned him second-team All-America honors from Sports Illustrated.

But the 6-foot-3, 235-pound linebacker wasn’t drafted. His 4.82 40-yard dash was always going to be a tough number for teams grading him.

“Of course I was disappointed,” Kunaszyk said. “I felt like the body of work I did in college, how productive, being a team captain – I feel like I checked all the boxes from a character standpoint as well. I feel like the body of work should have gotten me drafted."

“My journey has always been this way,” he added. “I went junior college out of high school, had no offers. I came to Cal and started at the bottom and worked my way to the top. So those experiences I already endured put me in a position to when I got here it was no different. I had been in this position a couple times. It allowed me to know that I could overcome.”

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The odds are long for undrafted free agents, but a roster spot is attainable. We see it all the time in this league.

It’s not where you’re drafted, it’s what you do once you get there. That’s the saying at least, and it’s a mantra Kunaszyk clearly took to heart.

“Had I got drafted somewhere else, maybe it wouldn’t have turned out as good,” he said. “I know that God doesn’t make mistakes, so it was all part of my journey.”

Kunaszyk said this past weekend was “very stressful” as he waited to learn if he’d made the team, but the hard work paid off and he got the news he was praying for.

Getting the job was one thing. Now he’s got to keep it. Kunaszyk admits he needs to improve as a special teams player, especially since that’s where he’ll be making his contributions for the foreseeable future.

All the while he has to continue to develop as an inside linebacker with limited reps. Lucky for him, in Carolina he’s able to absorb knowledge from the game’s best.

“I can learn from some great veterans, one of the best linebackers to ever play,” Kunaszyk said. “I’m really grateful. I’m going to take advantage of it every day.”

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