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Washington Redskins kid: Anthony Lanier II

How Anthony Lanier II went from an undrafted free agent to a potential premier player with the Washington Redskins

For months now, Anthony Lanier II has been staring a lot. He knows it, too. And he has tried to stop. Oh, man, has he tried. But he can’t. At the Washington Redskins’ team complex, something invariably catches his eye. Even late into his first NFL season, the defensive end is still blown away by the weight room. All of that state-of-the-art equipment to use whenever he pleases. Shoot. Nothing’s better to help him stay on the grind. The food at Redskins Park is also legit. A brother can maintain his playing weight on that dope spread. The locker room, though, gets Lanier the most. Often, he catches himself gazing at the nameplates above the dressing stalls. His is there, too. His. He shares his work space with millionaires. Maybe he’ll never get over that.

“There was a time when I never thought I would be here. I could have been working a regular nine-to-five [job],” Lanier said. “All of a sudden, I’m here?”

The Redskins will tell you Lanier is where he belongs.

The undrafted rookie free agent from Alabama A&M, one of the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCU), was once considered a long shot to make the roster. Of course, that proves again there’s no telling how far a nonstop motor and gobs of raw talent will take you. Lanier has gotten some run recently in the defensive-line rotation and made every moment count. A fumble recovery here, an eye-opening quarterback pressure there. It all adds up. Talk to Lanier’s teammates on Washington’s defense, and you’ll learn he’s the only one who’s surprised. The young fella needs to be on the field. Ballers know ballers.

“He’s making an impact,” Redskins veteran end Ricky Jean Francois said.

Longtime tackle/end Cullen Jenkins went further: “Just watching the natural talent he has, as long as he keeps coming along, he can be a premier player in this league. Seriously.”

Team decision-makers – especially senior personnel executive Doug Williams, the former Super Bowl-winning quarterback who brought in his fellow HBCU alum – have every right to be pumped about Lanier’s future. “Whenever I see him, I always make sure to tell him he hasn’t made it yet,” Williams said. “He still has a lot to learn about how to play. He still isn’t fully developed as far as what playing football in the NFL is all about.

“But what he already has is uncanny talent. And that talent can be refined. And when you see his athleticism, some of the things he can do at his size, you think to yourself, ‘He could become a pretty good defensive lineman.’ There’s something to work with there.”

Until recently, the process had been way ahead of schedule. Then in a Week 12 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Lanier suffered a lower-leg injury. It’s unclear how long he’ll be sidelined. However, Lanier is undeterred by the setback. He’s in the right place to get on the mend.

“As long as you have the right mind-set here, as long as you come to work each day knowing you have something to prove, everything you need to reach your goals is here,” Lanier said. “Look at where I came from. And look at where I’m at.”

“Black college! Black college!” Whenever Lanier shines in one-on-one practice drills, Redskins defensive lineman Chris Baker shouts those words over and over. Although the loquacious Baker never needs much prodding to share his opinions, he gets especially hyped about Lanier. In the hardworking rookie, Baker sees a lot of himself. Baker also went undrafted coming out of Hampton in 2009 (he transferred there after three years at Penn State). Despite bouncing around the league, Baker kept putting in work. The payoff finally came before the 2014 season: The Redskins rewarded Baker with $4 million guaranteed in a multiyear contract.

Like many players from HBCUs, Baker faced an increased level of skepticism about his ability compared with players who starred at major college programs. Among NFL talent evaluators, the belief – or outright prejudice, depending on your perspective – is that in this era of fully integrated colleges nationwide, HBCU players must not be very good, because they’re at HBCUs. Baker knows. When he was first coming up, he felt the negative vibe. That’s why Baker has Lanier’s back. “You’ll hear a lot of talk about how we aren’t that good. Just a lot of questions about guys coming out of black colleges,” Baker said. “But when we do get a chance, we show something. We can play.”

Alabama A&M defensive lineman Anthony Lanier (90), left, chase down Alabama State running back Malcolm Cyrus (22) in the game between Alabama State and Alabama A&M.

Alabama A&M defensive lineman Anthony Lanier (90), left, chase down Alabama State running back Malcolm Cyrus (22) in the game between Alabama State and Alabama A&M.

Michael Wade/Icon SMI

Beginning this season, there were 32 players from HBCUs on NFL teams, including practice squads, which are not part of the main roster used for regular-season and postseason games. In large part because of the efforts of Williams – who was a superstar signal-caller at Grambling and a head coach at Grambling and Morehouse – the Redskins reportedly topped the league with seven HBCU players on their preseason roster and four signed to open the season.

It’s not a secret that athletic departments at HBCUs lack the financial resources of the biggest programs in college sports. The disparity is glaring in facilities, support staff, training and therapy equipment, etc. Alabama A&M and the University of Alabama are only separated by about 160 miles. But they might as well be worlds apart. Williams can tell you all about it.

Few players in the history of HBCUs are as decorated as Williams, who led Grambling to three Southwestern Athletic Conference championships, a 36-7 record, was twice selected the Black College Player of the Year and finished fourth in the 1977 Heisman voting. Playing under legendary Grambling head coach Eddie Robinson, Williams learned that what you did on the field mattered more than what you had off of it.

“Everybody who went to Grambling back in that era would say, ‘We’ve done so much with so little, you can almost do anything without nothing,’ ” Williams said. “But at black colleges, the ones who are successful move past what they don’t have and work with what they’ve got. Coach Rob used to tell us all the time, ‘It’s blocking and tackling. It’s the football field.’ All the other extras that you don’t have, you’ve got to get over that part of it. What Anthony has done is just use what he has.”

The Redskins’ opponents couldn’t care less about where Lanier came from. They merely see a guy who’s proving to be difficult to block.

In a 27-27 Week 8 tie against the Cincinnati Bengals, Lanier recovered a fumble. Then during a 26-20 Week 10 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, he apparently made a strong impression on Sam Bradford while notching a quarterback hit. Following the play, Bradford focused on Lanier, pointing him out to Vikings blockers during pre-snap reads. For a defensive lineman, when quarterbacks start paying attention to you, you’re doing something right. Even around other typically large NFL players, Lanier (6-feet-6, 285 pounds) is as easy to spot as a running back who wants no part of pass protection.

He has taken full advantage of the weight room and dining options at Redskins Park, adding about 18 pounds since the season started while maintaining his quickness. With his work ethic – “You can see he tries to improve every day,” said Jenkins, Washington’s veteran defensive lineman – just think of how much Lanier, who’s only 23, could develop in a couple of years. The Redskins surely do. All the time, they talk about Lanier’s upside.

“The best part of him is that he actually wants to learn,” said Francois, the defensive end. “A lot of young guys come in and think they know everything. They work – but they’re not being smart. There’s a lot to learn in this game.

“You see what our O-line looks like? He has been going against some of the best in the game [in practice] – and hanging with them. But then he goes and talks to them, so he can make his game better. When he goes into a game, he’s prepared. He can make himself more successful to help us. He is helping us.”

Williams looked at the phone number and smiled. It’s always good to hear from Anthony Jones, he thought to himself.

The longtime friends and former Redskins teammates talk often, usually reminiscing about both their playing days together and the times they matched wits while Williams was leading Grambling and Jones was the head coach at Alabama A&M. But on this day late in February, Jones had a tip for his guy.

Alabama A&M’s head coach from 2002-13, Jones recruited Lanier and watched him develop, in his opinion, into an NFL prospect. Jones made sure Williams understood how high he was on Lanier.

Washington Redskins defensive end Anthony Lanier (72) carries helmets as he walks from the field during the NFL football teams minicamp at the Redskins Park in Ashburn, Va., Wednesday, June 15, 2016.

Washington Redskins defensive end Anthony Lanier (72) carries helmets as he walks from the field during the NFL football teams minicamp at the Redskins Park in Ashburn, Va., Wednesday, June 15, 2016.

AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

“I called Doug and told him I had a kid that I thought the Redskins should really look at,” said Jones, who played tight end in the NFL for five seasons and roomed with Williams the night before his record-setting MVP performance in the 1988 Super Bowl. “I said, ‘Doug, man, this kid can play.’ ”

Even after Jones left Alabama A&M, he remained close with Lanier, whom he recruited and pushed hard. During his in-home recruiting visit with Lanier and his mother, Yolanda, at their home in Savannah, Georgia, Jones laid out his vision of the then-high school senior’s future, which included the NFL.

“I really believed that if he did all I asked him to do,” Jones recalled, “I didn’t see any reason why he wouldn’t be an NFL prospect.”

Lanier and his mother liked what they heard. Lanier was ready to make the move to Huntsville, Alabama. Just one thing: He wanted to play basketball as well for the Bulldogs. Reluctantly, Jones agreed. All football coaches prefer football players to remain focused on football, “but I figured he wouldn’t come unless I agreed,” Jones said. “The first couple of years, he wouldn’t leave basketball alone. But once he started to realize his potential, he put that aside.”

Jones encouraged Williams to check out Lanier’s film. Lanier’s performance in two games in particular prompted Williams to take notes. During Lanier’s senior season, Alabama A&M lost nonconference games to Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina by a combined score of 10-107. What Williams noticed, though, was that Lanier was highly disruptive against two teams vastly more talented than Alabama A&M.

He displayed some strong pass-rush moves. He was stout against the run. Time after time, Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina double-teamed Lanier. To a scout’s trained eye, there was a lot to see. And because of Williams’ background, he doesn’t get all caught up in the debates about the competition level at HBCUs.

“I always tell them [scouts], ‘Don’t grade the school, grade the player,’ ” Williams said. “On those two tapes against bigger schools – Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina – he played well. You want to talk about the competition at HBCUs? Talk to me about how he played against other types of competition. Let’s not miss that. Forget about him being at Alabama A&M. Let’s just talk about Anthony Lanier.”

After calling Jones back to thank him for the heads-up, Williams laid out his thinking about Lanier to Washington general manager Scot McCloughan. Following the draft, other teams reached out to Lanier. Williams’ interest in him meant a lot. Lanier wanted to join the Redskins. That’s what Williams wanted to hear.

“I knew he was going to come in, work and give you everything he’s got,” Williams said. “He’s one of those guys who you know was raised right.”

Yolanda Lanier never envisioned having to help her son develop a post-up game. Life, though, threw her a curveball. She adjusted.

Lanier’s parents split when he was 5. Anthony Sr. struggled with substance abuse and Yolanda, a no-nonsense high school teacher, had to move on. She had a son to raise.

“My mom did everything for me,” Lanier said.

This also included helping him improve at sports. So many sports. Basketball was Lanier’s favorite. Yolanda spent more hours than she cares to recall tutoring her son on the finer points of playing position defense. She could have directed an instructional video on how to operate with your back to the basket. Lanier stayed busy. His mother did, too.

“I had help as far as my family. But I would have to help him learn to do different things that a man should have taught him,” she said. “And, of course, I would be there for everything.”

They were a team. A really good one.

Yolanda Lanier kept her son on the go so much, he didn’t have the time to get caught up in any mess. That was exactly the way she planned it. In the classes she taught, she had seen too many young people take the wrong path. Not her child, she vowed.

“I didn’t want to lose him the way some parents had lost their kids,” she said. “I would just make sure he was involved in a lot of different activities, church and sports. He has never given me any trouble.”

She also taught her son how to forgive. Today, he’s in a good place with his father. “He’s still my dad. I still love him,” he said. “I just had to put it in my mind a long time ago that he has an addiction problem that makes him not who he is at heart. I had to accept that. You have to move forward.”

Lanier has, in both his personal and professional life. He’s part of the Redskins’ fam now, and they’re counting on him for much more down the road. For Lanier, that’s great news – even if it does take a little getting used to.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.