No regrets for Steelers free agent Quadree Henderson
When the Steelers called Quadree Henderson near the end of the NFL Draft to offer a free agent contract, he was not relieved.
He was not drafted, but that didn't bother him.
"I felt like I was physically and emotionally and mentally ready for the NFL," he said. "(Not getting drafted) wasn't stressful at all,"
Henderson, one of the ACC's top return men the past two seasons, declared for this year's draft after only three seasons at Pitt, leaving a year of eligibility on the table.
The only problem: No NFL team wanted to invest a draft choice in him.
"I knew I was going to be on somebody's team no matter what the outcome was," he said. "I was going to work hard enough to be on somebody's team."
Henderson said he discussed his decision with his parents and Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi before declaring for the draft. If others question his decision, that's not his problem.
"I come from a humble home. I felt like it was the best position for me," he said.
"A lot of people said I should have done this, I should have done that. I made my own decisions. You got people talking behind fake accounts on Twitter. I just laugh at that stuff. I'm not losing sleep at night over someone saying something bad about me."
Henderson said Narduzzi was OK with his decision.
"Coach Narduzzi said he was good with whatever I was doing," Henderson said. "He said he wished I stayed another year, but that's what all coaches are going to say. They want to get all four years out of you.
"I still talk to him to this day. I still go over there to this day. We're still laughing. He asked me if I was still working (hard). I was over there (last week) when (Pitt players) were working out."
The next steps for Henderson are perfecting his return skills and becoming a threat in the passing game. At Pitt, he returned seven kicks for touchdowns (four kickoffs, three punts — and at least one in all three seasons). But he must learn to take advantage of his speed while encountering better special-teams athletes than he saw in college.
Plus, he has to prove he can play wide receiver in the NFL at 5-foot-8, 192 pounds after catching only 45 passes in 31 games at Pitt.
"I was all over the place," he said. "I was outside. I was in the slot, in the backfield. Trying to learn so many positions at once. That's why it came slow.
"Everybody knows what I can do in the return game. It's like second nature to me. I want to come out here and prove I can play receiver."
Overall, he amassed 3,799 yards, but 64.2 percent (2,439) came in the return game. He was a threat in the run game as a sophomore in 2016 (60 carries, 631 yards and five touchdowns), but defenses caught onto the jet sweeps last season and his production slipped to 36/251/0.
Last week, during the Steelers' organized team activities, he found himself blocking veteran cornerback Joe Haden.
"You have to work against the best to be the best," he said. "It's an honor to block Joe Haden. I watched (him) growing up when he played with the Browns.
"Now, he's here and (I'm) getting to practice with him and also (Antonio Brown). It's a dream come true."
Henderson's initial opportunity will come in the return game.
Brown has been the team's best punt returner, taking back four punts for touchdowns in his first six seasons. But he's an All-Pro wide receiver and the Steelers wouldn't mind someone else stepping up to return some punts.
Brown's opportunities have decreased every year from a high of 32 returns for 409 yards in 2013 to only 11 for 61 (and no scores) last season.
Perhaps there's a role for a newcomer in kickoff returns, too, with JuJu Smith-Schuster's role in the passing game growing.
Competition for Henderson could come from wide receiver Eli Rogers — if he recovers from knee surgery and re–signs — and young players Cam Sutton and Marcus Tucker.
In any case, if Henderson can take advantage of his opportunities, no one will care he wasn't drafted. Henderson doesn't care.
"I'm living my dream now," he said. "I can't be down on myself. I'm proud of myself, actually."
Jerry DiPaola is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.