Football season is fast approaching, and many former Jackets will continue their playing careers on Sunday afternoons, living their dreams as professionals in the NFL. There are currently 22 players in the league that used to call the Flats home, ranging from All-Pro superstars to rookie free agents hoping to make the cut.
Calvin Johnson is perhaps the most renowned Tech alum in the pros. He is the number one wide receiver on the Detroit Lions and is considered by fans and experts to be the best receiver in the league. He caught twelve touchdowns and racked up nearly 1500 yards in fourteen games last year, and should be on track for another very productive season. The NFL will be emphasizing defensive holding and illegal contact rules this year, which will open up the passing game, so expect Johnson to put up even more impressive numbers this year.
Demaryius Thomas is another highly skilled NFL receiver that will be making a lot of highlight reel catches throughout the year. He caught 92 passes last year, 14 of them for touchdowns, and gained almost as many yards as Johnson. He also has the benefit of catching passes from Peyton Manning, so look for him to have another big year.
Stephen Hill and Kevin Cone round out the receiving corps. Running back Jonathan Dwyer has a new home in Arizona after spending four years with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He will be providing depth to the Cardinals’ backfield and may see most of his action in short yardage and third down situations.
On the defensive side of the ball, five-year veteran Morgan Burnett will be the starting strong safety for the Green Bay Packers. He is respected in the organization, having been named team captain for the postseason this past January. The team was ninth in the league in passing defense last year, with Burnett contributing on 96 tackles (16th in the league among defensive backs) and recovering three fumbles, returning one for a touchdown.
Safety Dawan Landry is entering his second year with the New York Jets and ninth overall in the league. He can be pretty disruptive in the running game and is best suited to play under head coach Rex Ryan’s zone schemes. His experience in the league may also serve to benefit to the team, which has a relatively young defensive core.
Defensive end Michael Johnson will be on the minds of opposing quarterbacks down in Tampa Bay. He had a career-high 11.5 sacks back in 2012 for Cincinnati, good for sixth in the league, but has never had more than six in any other season. He will be playing under head coach Lovie Smith in a Tampa 2 scheme, so he will need to be quick off the line and generate pressure for the defense to be effective.
Five-year veteran defensive end Derrick Morgan of the Tennessee Titans will be undertaking a challenging assignment as he will be seeing a lot of time at outside linebacker in addition to his regular role. He has not played in coverage since he was with the Jackets, but is embracing the challenge with a positive mindset.
Veteran linebackers Daryl Smith and Philip Wheeler will both contribute many tackles for their respective teams, the Baltimore Ravens and Miami Dolphins, as each player had about 120 stops last year.
As for the rookies, six Tech defenders from last year made it to the big show, at least for the preseason. Linebacker Jeremiah Attaochu, Tech’s all-time sacks leader, was drafted in the second round by the San Diego Chargers and should make the final roster cut. He will be fighting for the opportunity to play alongside a strong interior linebacking corps that includes defensive team captain Donald Butler and Manti Te’o, so he will have plenty of learning opportunities in the preseason and during practice.
Defensive back Jemea Thomas and linebacker Brandon Watts were also drafted by the New England Patriots and Minnesota Vikings, respectively, and are working hard during camp to secure a roster spot. Thomas is currently buried within the Patriots’ depth chart and may line up at both cornerback and safety during the season. Head coach Bill Belichick typically tries out his younger players in a few different positions in order to determine what best suits both the player and team, so Thomas will have several opportunities to showcase his talents.
Defensive linemen Euclid Cummings and Emmanuel Dieke, as well as cornerback Louis Young were signed as free agents after the draft and are also seeing a lot of action this preseason as they try to make the cut. Cummings has notched four tackles for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers so far this preseason, while Dieke and Young have each contributed one to their teams. The first round of roster cuts will occur on August 26, when the teams will reduce their rosters to 75 players, followed by a reduction to 53 players on August 30 for the start of the season. If they do not make the team, they will hope to sign on a practice squad with on of the team in the NFL.