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O'HARA: Benzschawel grateful for NFL opportunity with Lions

Beau Benzschawel didn't arrive at his first rookie minicamp with the Detroit Lions with his spirit shattered from being passed over in the draft two weeks earlier.

To be sure, not being one of the 254 players drafted was a comedown after being a four-year starter at Wisconsin. He started the last 43 games at right guard, a position the Lions are looking to fill on the offensive line.

However it happened, the opportunity to do what he wanted to in life – play pro football – was still in Benzschawel's hands when the Lions signed him as a undrafted free agent.

Benzschawel (pronounced BEN-shawl) is studying and taking practice reps in the Lions' offseason program with everybody else – veterans, draft picks and rookie free agents.

"When it was all said and done, at the end of the day I had an opportunity," Benzschawel said. "That's all I can ask for. Now it's up to me, in order to make that a reality and make this my career.

"Everybody starts off at different places. It doesn't matter how you get here, as long as you're here. That's all you can ask for."

Tackle Ryan Pope of San Diego State is another undrafted free-agent offensive lineman signed by the Lions.

There is an unusual twist to Benzschawel's draft story. It's a cruel one, in some ways.

In his annual "Way Too Early" 2019 mock draft, ESPN's Todd McShay projected on May 3, 2018 that Benzschawel would go to the Atlanta Falcons in the first round and 20th overall.

Benszchawel said he did not follow any draft projections for 2019, but friends who did filled him in about the first-round projection.

"I was kind of trying to block out the outside noise and take care of what I needed to take care of," he said. "People told me, 'Hey, people think you're going first round.' Obviously, that's not how it worked out.

"It was tough, thinking I was going to get drafted. I'm pretty grateful now. I'm here in Detroit, just glad to be here, working with the offensive line. It's in the Midwest – not too hot, like in the south."

Wisconsin is known for sending offensive linemen to the NFL, and the 2019 draft was no exception. Guard Michael Dieters went to Miami in the third round, and tackle David Edwards went to the Rams in the fifth.

"The three pillars of Wisconsin are "smart, tough dependable," Benzschawel said. "You have to pride yourself on being tough, especially on the offensive line. You're not going to take a play off. You have to go out there and fight for your brothers."

As Benzschawel said, "everybody starts off in different places." That's especially true for the offensive line. Outside of finances – signing bonus and salary – draft position doesn't guarantee anything or exclude anybody from having a great career or being a disappointment. There are draft busts and free-agent stars.

Eagles tackle Jason Peters is the prime example among active offensive linemen that going undrafted does does not automatically end a career.

Peters is a nine-time Pro Bowler who made the Bills' roster as an undrafted free agent in 2004. He has earned the nickname "The Bodyguard" for the way he's protected quarterbacks.

David Andrews has been the Patriots' starting center since opening day in 2015 when he made the roster as an undrafted rookie.

On the Lions' roster, guard Kenny Wiggins is going into his sixth active season and second with the Lions since entering the NFL in 2011 as an undrafted rookie.

There are many starting points to begin a career, and the draft is not the only one.

"We stress that very highly," said offensive line coach Jeff Davidson. "It really doesn't matter. We're really looking for the best players at that point. There are small schools. There are defensive linemen who get converted to offense.

"There are a number of ways to get to the position. It's what you do with the opportunity. That's what the players control."

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