Beach native, former Bison Lechler signs with Bengals
The NFL Draft came and went last weekend, and Landon Lechler did not hear his name selected during his watch party in his hometown of Beach.
Shortly after the draft ended, however, Lechler had a handful of NFL teams vying for his services. Six-foot-seven right tackles tend to be hot commodities.
But it was the Cincinnati Bengals that had won him over a few weeks prior, so Saturday's decision came relatively easy to him.
"I was really fortunate to be out there on a visit a little after Easter. They brought me out to tour their facility, and I got a physical done," said Lechler, a 2012 graduate of Beach High School and former North Dakota State offensive lineman. "I had established a relationship with Paul Alexander, the offensive line coach there, and Coach Robert Couch, the assistant, and I felt really comfortable with them. When they called after the draft and worked with my agent on the contract, it felt pretty comfortable, and I knew it was the right fit."
Lechler started at right tackle for three years for the Bison, a span that saw NDSU win the latter two of its five straight FCS national championships in 2014 and 2015 before falling in the 2016 semifinals to James Madison University.
Lechler was a crucial component of a winning program that ran a pro-style offense. He now hopes to carry that success over to the NFL. Conor Riley, NDSU's offensive line coach, said Lechler has positioned himself well to do just that.
"The obvious thing is that his size, relative to his athleticism, is very unique. You can't teach that. He's got some natural tools, some God-given tools that a lot of people don't have," Riley said. "When you look at the hard work and the intelligence he has about the game of football, I think that impressed some people. And look at his toughness ... along with the God-given ability, and now you got yourself a pretty good prospect."
'Destined for that position'
The quaint town of Beach, N.D., sits a mere 1,300 miles away from Cincinnati Bengals headquarters, but it might as well be a million.
It's not every day that Beach is represented on this large of a scale.
"The city of Cincinnati is a big city and all, but it doesn't feel that huge," Lechler said. "You've got some typical downtown skyscrapers and stuff like that that's cool for a North Dakota kid to see."
Lechler's signing has been a point of pride for Beach's tight-knit community.
"We're all excited here in Beach. There's a buzz around the school and around the town," said Mike Zier, the Buccaneers head football coach. "We're excited for Landon that he gets an opportunity."
Lechler, who was born in Dickinson, called Beach home during his formative years, and he excelled at three sports for the Buccaneers.
He scored more than 1,000 points in his basketball career and was named Class B all-state; he competed in the throws for the Beach track and field team; and he was a two-time all-region pick on the football field.
Lechler played quite a bit on the defensive line then, and he often exerted his will on the linemen in front of him, but Zier said that was sometimes costly.
"I still tell people to this day that Landon got more facemask penalties than any player I ever had simply because he would do a good wrap-up," Zier said, laughing, "and everybody else was so much smaller, but he had good form and would sometimes catch them on the facemask. We tried him at tight end too, but with his footwork and frame, he was destined for that (tackle) position."
Despite looming large relative to his peers, Zier remembers Lechler not being highly recruited, but Zier said his pupil "exceeded any expectations I had when he went to college, that's for sure."
Lechler took a redshirt season in his first year on campus, when the Bison won their second straight national championship. As a redshirt freshman, he backed up All-American Billy Turner at left tackle. Upon Turner's graduation, Joe Haeg moved to left tackle, which opened a spot on the right. It was during spring ball of 2014 that Riley remembers Lechler truly coming into his own.
"I remember quite vividly watching him on film every day in practice because he wasn't playing a whole lot that 2013 season," Riley said. "He had flashes of the athleticism. Obviously he stood out because of how big he is, but there were times I told him he looked like a baby giraffe out there running around. As he continued to mature physically and grow into his body, it was kind of that spring ball in 2014, prior to that season, where we figured this kid is not going to just be a good player, he's going to be a great player for us."
Lechler then started every game at right tackle for each of the next three seasons, helping anchor an offensive line that ranked near the top in the Missouri Valley Football Conference in every measurable category.
Lechler credited his coaches, of course, for helping his development, but learning from Turner, currently a Denver Bronco, and Haeg, currently an Indianapolis Colt, didn't hurt either.
"There's a great strength and conditioning program with Jim Kramer and his staff, and they definitely got me lifting and into shape," Lechler said. "I surrounded myself with great people, and everything kind of clicked that spring of 2014."
Learning to be a pro
The day of NDSU's loss to James Madison in the semifinals of the FCS playoffs — a 27-17 loss in the Fargodome on Dec. 16 — was the same day of the school's winter graduation ceremony.
"We graduated that morning of the game," Lechler said, "so it was a pretty emotional day going from a high to a low pretty quick."
Lechler earned a degree in general agriculture — a combination of minors in plant science, animal science, soil science and agriculture business — which should serve him well as he hopes to someday take over his family's farm north of Beach, which produces barley, peas, durum, some corn, and currently has 110 head of angus cattle.
"My dream someday is to be the fourth generation on my family farm," he said.
After graduation, he was able to focus on his training, a process which culminated in NDSU's Pro Day in March. He felt optimistic about his showing there, so all that was left to do was impress teams in interviews and hope for the best.
"You want to show them you're a competitive son of a gun in everything you do," Lechler said. "You want to show them you're a hard-working kid. ... You want them to be comfortable feeling that you are mentally and physically driving yourself. At that level, they don't want to get guys out of bed in the morning. They want self-motivated guys that are willing to learn."
After the draft concluded, the Bengals and the Detroit Lions reached out to discuss terms. After Lechler decided on Cincinnati, he said his agent also fielded calls from San Francisco, Minnesota, Atlanta and Baltimore. Lechler called the process a "whirlwind," but was comfortable with his decision. The Bengals signed him to a standard undrafted free agent contract for three years at league-minimum pay, but none of the contract is guaranteed.
Lechler will report to rookie mini-camp Thursday and be there through the weekend. Then he has a week off and will return the week of May 14 for a six-week offseason program.
He enters with the expectation that he will have to work his tail off to earn a practice squad spot, but he's already setting his sights higher than that.
"I believe 100 percent I'll be competing for a roster spot. That's a dream of mine, to be on a 53-man roster and be able to travel with the team and be on the active roster," he said.
Lechler said he believes NDSU's system and success will streamline his intake of an NFL playbook.
"Coming from our program at North Dakota State, we were very fortunate to win some games and they love to see the pro-style offense," Lechler said. "North Dakota State does a great job of being as versatile as we can, but at the end of the day we're still a downhill running team and try to wear you out up front, and NFL teams really like that."
Riley praised Lechler's football intelligence and his ability to read defenses from the tackle spot, but maybe even more important, Riley said, is the no-nonsense mindset Lechler has when he puts the helmet on.
"He's one of the hardest working kids I've ever been around. He takes stuff from the meeting room and applies it on the football field, and he's a competitor. He doesn't need exterior motivation to compete," Riley said. "He won't complain. He wouldn't say (expletive) if he had a mouthful of it. He's that typical guy that will go out and do the things asked of him."
The road from Beach to Cincinnati has been a long one, but Lechler hopes it doesn't end anytime soon.
"It's a big challenge ahead, but I'm looking forward to it," he said. "It's a tremendous amount of pride that I carry with me. I'm a very hometown kid ... and I'm happy to represent my hometown of Beach, that's for sure. ... Someday I'll be able to look back on it a little bit, but it's been really awesome so far, and I hope to continue it as long as I can."