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Knights in the NFL defensive review and Draft Preview

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Harmon earns nickname “The Closer”, DBU still going strong.

NFL: New England Patriots at Pittsburgh Steelers
Harmon with another game winning INT.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

We are days away from the 2018 NFL draft when a few Rutgers football alums hope their names get called. Let’s recap how other former Rutgers players performed in the NFL this past season and who may join them in the coming week via draft or free agent signing.

We begin on the defensive side of the ball.

MVP: Logan Ryan.

It’s true that Ryan had some rocky moments after signing a big contract in the offseason, but at the end of the day he was one of the reasons Tennessee reached the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The upstart Titans then pulled off a huge comeback against Kansas City before falling to Ryan’s former club the Patriots in the divisional round. His stats weren’t eye popping (62 tackles, one forced fumble, 11 passes defended) but it’s impossible to measure the value of a true number one cornerback. Let’s see if he can top his charitable notoriety and his Titans can take the next step on the field in 2018.

Mr. Consistency: Devin McCourty

Devin edges his brother Jason in this category. Though he was not named to the Pro Bowl like he was a season ago, Devin once again was the leader of a New England defense that reached yet another Super Bowl. Just 97 more tackles, a sack, an INT, five more passes defended in the regular season alone for DMac. He was one of the few Patriots defensive bright spots in the Big Game (seven tackles, two PD) as they surrendered 41 points on the day. Expect more of the same from him (happy face) and his team (sad face for some) again next year.

Most improved: Duron Harmon

Harmon earned the nickname, “The Closer” this past season and for good reason. After the Patriots elected to let Ryan walk this past offseason, it meant more three safety packages for Bill Belichick including DMac and Harmon. Duron only defended seven passes in the regular season, but four of those were interceptions. Three of those picks sealed games, most notably the one to defeat Pittsburgh and assure the Patriots home field advantage throughout the playoffs. In the Super Bowl, his interception near the end zone likely saved a touchdown demonstrating his clutch play to a global audience. Expect a little more again this year for the New England ballhawk.

Comeback player of the year: George Johnson

Johnson seems to have produced everywhere he has gone in his NFL career. Yet despite playing the league’s second most in demand position (pass rusher) he has bounced around to a few teams. After his Detroit defense was torched by Brandon Coleman’s New Orleans Saints, the Lions elected to move on from Johnson. The Saints must have liked what they saw because their own beleaguered pass rush got a boost from George in December with 2.5 sacks in his first two games. The Saints rode the wave to a division title until a shocking ending to a solid year. Johnson remains with a New Orleans team that may be in the NFL’s most difficult division.

Staying the course

Jason McCourty never quit. He was one of the veteran talents the Cleveland Browns brought in to try and establish some leadership with in 2017. But everything that could go wrong did for the Dawg Pound and they completed the second 0-16 season in NFL history. Their best chance for a win came in an overtime loss to the Packers when Jason was seemingly everywhere tallying 10 tackles. McCourty himself did what he could game in and game out, ending the season with 65 tackles, two forced fumbles, three INTs, and 14 passes defended. This offseason he’s on the move again, having gotten the news he will be reunited with Devin in New England.

Steve Longa’s season was most notable due to the unexpected death of his father as a pedestrian in a traffic accident. On the field, Steve carved out a role for himself as a special teams warrior. He made four tackles in a 14-7 win over rival Minnesota and three more in a 27-24 win over other division rival Chicago. Longa will enter his third season on Detroit’s 53 man roster.

Jonathan Freeny was well traveled in 2017. He was let go by the Patriots before the season and when injuries mounted in the linebacking corps, it appeared they may call him up. Instead, Freeny signed with Baltimore. Three games in Baltimore were followed by a brief four day stint in Jacksonville where was cut before the team’s next game! Then Freeny actually joined the Saints the same week as Johnson. He had his best game of the season in the wild card playoff win over division rival Carolina with three tackles. Then in the Saints’ shocking loss mentioned earlier against Minnesota he had two more. He is now with the Lions also, alongside Longa.

Kevin Snyder is currently a free agent after inhabiting the mountain time zone this past fall. Snyder was one of the final cuts by the Broncos before the season began, but was brought back. After playing his first two career NFL regular season contests, Denver let him go again. Less than a month later he joined Carlton Agudosi on the Arizona Cardinals practice squad for about a month. Now an NFL veteran at the bare minimum, Snyder offers a little more to his next employer.

Quentin Gause is also a free agent. Despite playing in the preseason for Denver alongside Snyder, Quentin didn’t play in any NFL contests during the regular season for any team. He has two career tackles from his special teams play during the 2016 season. Still only 25 years old with prototypical size for his position, he should be in minicamp somewhere.

Sleeper: Anthony Cioffi

I know Cioffi signed with the CFL’s Ottawa Redblacks last week not the NFL, but more than ever the CFL represents a league that requires NFL translatable skills. After a second appearance at Rutgers pro day, Anthony wowed scouts with a 4.49 40 and an incredible 6.62 three cone drill. If he can show an ability to play corner and safety, he might get another call from the Raiders (where he had a solid 2017 preseason) or another franchise looking to add guys who can run and play defensive back.

Looking to bounce back: Marcus Cooper.

Cooper had a forgettable season after signing with the Chicago to man one of the starting cornerback positions. His season started out strong with a combined ten tackles in the first two games. Then in Week 3, the rebuilding Bears were stymying the juggernaut Steelers. With only six seconds left in the first half Chicago blocked a field goal attempt and Cooper dashed 73 yards toward the end zone in front of a raucous home crowd. But like Leon Lett and a few other defensive players before him, Cooper started showboating before he actually scored a touchdown and fumbled at the one yard line as the first half expired. The Bears blew the lead before recovering for a shocking overtime win, but Cooper was benched for the rest of the year. He played sparingly as the coaching staff sent a message to their young team. Marcus has the skills as one year left on his contract, so hopefully he can earn his coach’s trust and show resiliency to his younger teammates.

Who could join them?

Kemoko Turay accumulated statistics as a senior to show production that is closer to, but still not close to his physical talent. After opening eyes at the Senior Bowl he unfortunately injured himself at the NFL Combine. Despite that, he ran a 4.65 40 yard dash and should be picked in the second or third round next weekend.

Sebastian Joseph is a defensive lineman “Chiseled out of granite.” His pro day numbers didn’t blow people away, but teams always need guys in the trenches. He should get a shot in an NFL rookie camp. Ross Douglas and Darnell Davis Jr have a huge hill to climb due to their size.

Jamaal Westerman was among the CFL sack leaders again in 2017 after leading the league in 2016. It’s always possible he returns to the NFL as a pass rushing specialist. Demaso Munoz was the game’s leading tackler in the 2016 Grey Cup but not on a roster in 2017. Khaseem Greene signed with the BC Lions this offseason as well. The two-time Big East defensive player of the year has been in several NFL organizations since he was drafted by Chicago in the 2013 third round, starting as a rookie for the Bears.

Good karma