In a Week 12 game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sean Culkin did something Missouri fans weren’t used to seeing from him when he was playing at MU.
The Los Angeles Chargers tight end took off down the sideline and went up for a jump-ball in double-coverage. The pass from Philip Rivers fit into a perfect window, and Culkin came down the catch, the first of his career and a 24-yard gain that set up first-and-goal.
It wasn’t the kind of play you’d see from Culkin during his college days at Missouri. With just 61 catches and two touchdowns in his career at MU, the 6-foot-6 tight end didn’t see many passes come his way.
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Despite that, Culkin is carving out an unlikely NFL career. After going undrafted in 2017, he made LA’s roster and has slowly become more integrated into the team’s offense, which ranks No. 10. According to Pro Football Reference, Culkin has played 175 snaps for the Chargers this year, only second at the position to starter Antonio Gates, who is in the twilight of his career.
While the tight end position at Mizzou has undergone a renaissance under third-year coach Barry Odom, with NFL scouts flocking to Columbia to see the likes of Albert Okwuegbunam and Kendall Blanton, Culkin was the first Odom-coached player at the position to make an NFL roster. He appears to be in the Chargers’ long-term plans.
During his first three years at MU, Culkin was primarily used as an H-back in Gary Pinkel’s offense, which mostly utilized tight ends as blockers in pass protection. Only occasionally did he run downfield for a pass. Through his first two years he had just 37 catches for 319 yards and two touchdowns — even though Pinkel said Culkin was a better receiver than blocker.
“Culkin was kind of a product of what system we were running,” quarterback Drew Lock said. “He had to block a lot. [There] wasn’t a lot of times he was streaking down the field to catch a pass. If he was in this offense now there would be a different persona as to who he is as a college tight end.”
It wasn’t until Odom took over for Pinkel ahead of the 2016 season that Culkin got to show more of what he could do. Odom brought in tight ends coach Joe Jon Finley, a former all-Big 12 and NFL player, and offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, whose adaptation of the air-raid offense was more pass-friendly to tight ends.
In his final season at MU, Culkin posted career-highs in receptions (24) and yards (282) while serving as one of Lock’s most reliable receivers. At times, Culkin was MU’s best receiver, but the Tigers would spread the wealth. In Missouri’s 2016 losses to Kentucky and Vanderbilt, Culkin had two catches for big gains, but didn’t see more targets come his way until the game was out of reach. Finley also had a noticeable impact on Culkin’s blocking.
“He had a pretty good skillset,” Odom said. “We just needed to find a way to bring that out.”
When it came time to start preparing for the draft, Culkin remained optimistic about getting picked up by a team despite having limited film to showcase what he could do in the passing game.
Culkin approached teams saying that his college career forced him to do a little bit of everything and that he was worth the investment as a developmental project.
“I think I just showed them I had a lot to offer between being a smart kid that could learn the playbook,” Culkin told The Star after the Chargers’ win over the Chiefs on Dec. 13. “I only had 61 catches in my career, but I showed I could do a lot. Split out, hand in the ground or H-back, fullback stuff. As a tight end, that’s sometimes rare.”
While he didn’t enter pre-draft process as a player on many teams’ radars, Culkin did himself as many favors as he could. A basketball star in high school with offers from Davidson and Liberty, his 35 1/2 inch vertical jump at MU’s pro day would have been fifth at his position at the NFL Draft combine, where he wasn’t invited.
Still, it was an uphill battle. Had Culkin had another year in Heupel’s offense, he would have a lot more balls thrown his way like Okwuegbunam, who had 29 his freshman year and 43 in current offensive coordinator Derek Dooley’s offense. The 2017 draft class was also full of tight ends, with nearly 20 getting draftable grades, according to Culkin’s agent, Greg Diulus.
“It definitely hurt him,” Diulus said. “Had he been utilized in a way that he was capable, he would have been a draft pick.”
Culkin eventually signed with the Chargers. Diulus said the Chargers liked Culkin’s chances of making the roster. If he didn’t, the team would likely add him to its practice squad.
In minicamps and the preseason, Culkin lined up all over the field for offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt to prove his worth as a blocker and pass-catcher.
He made the roster as a backup to Gates, a future Hall of Famer, and rookie Hunter Henry, who the Chargers took in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
As a rookie in 2017, Culkin only appeared in one game but gravitated toward Gates, who shared a similar background. Both players were undrafted out of college and had basketball backgrounds. It didn’t hurt that Gates played tight end and attended Kent State, just like Pinkel.
“He saw I was a player,” Culkin said of Gates. “Small things like, ‘Hey this is what I’d do on this route,’ has been huge. He’s made a name for himself as one of the best blockers. You can’t put a price tag on that.”
Henry tore his ACL in May, which offered an opportunity for Culkin to emerge as Gates’ primary backup. Culkin started getting more reps and was able to develop more of a rapport with Rivers.
Despite missing his last few games because of a back injury, Culkin has played in 12 games and his catch against the Cardinals blew up Diulus’ phone, with members of the front office praising the play.
Pinkel and Odom aren’t surprised by Culkin’s success, and although he could have played more at MU, his pro career was always going to be in his own hands.
“I think for him it was, you have all this potential,” Pinkel said. “I thought he would have an opportunity. What are you doing to do with that opportunity?”
So far he’s making the most of it.