Armanti Edwards thought he was through with football.
In August 2014, after he got fired from an NFL team for the third time, Edwards decided that was it.
As a quarterback, the former Appalachian State legend had led the Mountaineers to two national titles as well as the biggest upset in school history on a remarkable day at Michigan in 2007. But Edwards never successfully made the transformation to NFL wide receiver after the Carolina Panthers had traded up into the third round to draft Edwards in 2010 – giving up their 2011 second-round pick to do so.
Edwards didn’t watch any football in 2014 after the Chicago Bears released him, just as Cleveland and Carolina had. He tried not to talk about it, either.
“I was having a lot of injuries and wasn’t getting healthy,” Edwards said in a phone interview this week. “Football stopped being fun.”
So that was that – until it wasn’t.
Edwards got the itch again a year later, in part motivated by his then 4-year-old son Armanti Jr. watching old clips of his father dazzling everyone at quarterback during his four glorious years in Boone.
Edwards told his agent he’d play anywhere that would take him and has spent the past two seasons resurrecting his career in the Canadian Football League. This year he is playing for the Toronto Argonauts. Toronto was so anxious to get Edwards that general manager Jim Popp – who grew up in Mooresville and still owns Panthers season tickets – traded for Edwards.
And the move paid off. Edwards, at age 29 – and can you believe he is 29?! – is having the best football season of his pro career. For much of a CFL season that is now close to its midway point, Edwards has been among the league leaders in several receiving categories.
“I’m definitely a much better player than I was at Carolina,” Edwards said. “My main improvement is that I’m not second-guessing myself in thinking on the football field. If you are thinking out there, you are slower. The receiver position has finally become second nature to me, just like quarterback was for most of my life.”
A legend at Appalachian
When Edwards played at Appalachian State, he was extraordinary. He played a lot like Cam Newton did during his single season at Auburn. But Edwards was a lot smaller, a little faster and did it for four stunning years. He finished his career with a 42-7 record as a starter for Appalachian. He directed teams that won national titles in 2006 and 2007. He became the only two-time winner of the Walter Payton Award, which serves as the Heisman Trophy for the Football Championship Subdivision.
Edwards was responsible for an astounding 139 touchdowns over his four-year college career, which worked out to almost three TDs per game. Then he got to Carolina, where the Panthers (under once-and-future general manager Marty Hurney and head coach John Fox) wanted to turn him into a receiver. It was a gamble, they knew, but one they decided to take. It was not unprecedented – in the past couple of decades, NFL players such as Antwaan Randle El and Julian Edelman have successfully made the switch from QB to WR.
“He obviously is a project a little bit because he played quarterback,” Hurney said of Edwards on draft night in 2010. “But the versatility he brings – he’s an athlete, he’s a football player. ... We came into this draft hoping we could find a way to get him.”
For most of four years, Edwards stayed in Charlotte – a city he liked so much that he, his wife and their two children have now decided to make it their permanent home. He valiantly tried to get the job done. He was a model of professionalism. Everyone in the Panthers locker room liked him.
But there was no way around it – as an NFL wide receiver, Edwards wasn’t acceptable. At 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, he was a little too frail and not quite fast enough to make up for it. He had major problems getting off “the jam” – the initial contact from a defensive back within the first 5 yards of a route. After those 139 college TDs, you know how many he scored in the NFL in 39 career games with Carolina?
A ‘pretty simple’ explanation
It didn’t help that Carolina went 2-14 during Edwards’ first season in 2010, which meant that the second-round pick the Panthers gave up to New England for the right to draft him turned out to be the No. 33 overall pick in the 2011 draft. Edwards had nothing to do with the hefty price the Panthers paid to get him, but it became attached to him – an albatross not of his own making.
Even on the rare occasions Edwards would make a big play, it came with a caveat. He once caught an 82-yard pass from Cam Newton in 2012 – but didn’t score. He once returned a punt 69 yards – but got tackled by the New Orleans punter.
By October 2013, Hurney and Fox were both gone. The Panthers – by then supervised by general manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera – decided the great Armanti Edwards experiment had to end and released him.
Looking back on it now, Edwards blames no one for the predicament and said he just wasn’t good enough.
“It’s pretty simple,” Edwards said. “I just wasn’t at that point where I am now. The NFL is a much faster-paced business than the Canadian Football League. If you can’t keep up down there, it’s the next man up. I just wasn’t at that point where I wanted to be at that time in my career.”
If there was any doubt the Panthers gave up on Edwards too early, it was erased when he was briefly picked up only to be released by the Cleveland Browns and Chicago Bears over the following year. It was then that Edwards thought he and football were finished.
A lifeline in Canada
Meanwhile, in the CFL, Popp had been trying to land Edwards on-and-off for years. Popp, 52, has been in the CFL for exactly half his life – 26 seasons. For nearly all of that time, he has been a CFL general manager, winning multiple championships (he also interviewed for the Panthers’ GM job before Gettleman was hired in 2013).
Popp knows what works and what doesn’t in a league where the field is longer and wider, 12 players play at a time instead of 11 and you have only three downs to make 10 yards for a first down rather than the NFL’s four. All of that lends itself to a slightly more wide-open game.
As an American player, Edwards was never part of a CFL draft. But each of the nine CFL teams can maintain a list of 45 non-Canadian players it has the “rights” to – a meaningless distinction unless you can convince the player to come to Canada. Anyone with an NFL job is unlikely to do it. CFL players usually make between $100,000 and $250,000 a season, Popp said, although star quarterbacks can occasionally make $500,000. The average NFL salary, on the other hand, is slightly over $2 million.
Popp put Edwards on his rights list while he was the GM of the Montreal Alouettes and kept him there for several years. “Like a lot of people, especially when he was coming out of college, I thought this guy might be able to be a quarterback in our league,” Popp said. “But I could never get him to come up to Montreal. Now that was dealing with an agent, not with him directly. Eventually, we took him off that list.”
When he was back home in North Carolina, Popp would sometimes go to Panthers games. “I watched the whole time as they tried to develop him into a wide receiver and punt returner,” Popp said. “And there were times I wasn’t sure that was his calling.”
Popp put the thought of Edwards on the back burner and moved on to other players. So he was surprised when Edwards suddenly showed up playing for Saskatchewan in 2016, where he had a decent season as a wide receiver. Edwards could have tried to make it in the CFL as a quarterback, but by the time he got to Canada and he threw a few football around, he decided he had been playing wide receiver for so long he should stick to it.
“I was 6-7 years removed from playing quarterback at that time,” Edwards said. “I had worked so hard to get to where I was as a receiver – I didn’t want to give that up.”
‘An outstanding receiver’
Popp left Montreal last season but was then quickly hired by Toronto as its GM. He brought on former Chicago Bears head coach Marc Trestman as the Argonauts’ head coach. He traded for Edwards and made a host of other moves to try to revive a franchise with a proud name but one that had been ailing in recent years.
Toronto is 3-5 so far this season. Edwards has played in all but one game for the Argonauts and has 33 receptions for 444 yards. He still doesn’t score a lot – he had two total CFL touchdowns last season and one this year.
“But I tell you what, this young man has really developed into an outstanding receiver,” Popp said. “He works extremely hard. He’s bright. He is one of our most consistent guys. He understands everything, probably because he’s a former quarterback. He’s very dependable and has outstanding hands.”
Edwards’ contract with Toronto expires after this season. He wants to keep playing, but is not sure where. I asked if he would take an invitation to an NFL training camp over another contract with a CFL team.
“No, I’m definitely not going down South (to America) on a trial basis,” Edwards said. “I’m too far along in my career in age to be going on a tryout somewhere. I’ve got a family to think about.”
That family includes his wife, Desiree, as well as their 9-year-old daughter Langley and son Armanti Jr., who is now 6. They are all together in Toronto for the season, but plan to move back after the CFL season concludes in late November to Charlotte.
“We’re both from South Carolina and went to the same high school (in Greenwood, S.C.),” Edwards said, “and there are a lot of App alumni in Charlotte. So Charlotte is a good base for us.”
As for the Panthers, Edwards said he still wants the team to win. Hurney – who originally drafted Edwards and is now the Panthers’ GM once again on an interim basis – politely declined to comment for this story other than to wish Edwards well.
And Edwards is doing well in Toronto. About 700 miles north of Appalachian State, where he first became a household name in the Carolinas, Edwards has finally found himself a home in professional football.