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Thirty athletes with local ties vying to make 53-man rosters in NFL

UPDATED: Mon., July 29, 2019

Former Washington State wide receiver River Cracraft takes part in drills during the opening day of the Denver Broncos’ NFL football training camp in Englewood, Colorado. (David Zalubowski / AP)
Former Washington State wide receiver River Cracraft takes part in drills during the opening day of the Denver Broncos’ NFL football training camp in Englewood, Colorado. (David Zalubowski / AP)

Fourteen former Washington State Cougars are sweating it out this week at NFL training camps across the country.

Five of the nine ex-Eastern Washington stars in the league are wearing Los Angeles Rams uniforms.

Idaho has five former players looking to solidify spots on their respective NFL team’s 53-man rosters, none more established than Seahawks veteran offensive guard Mike Iupati.

Former Shadle High and Boise State star quarterback Brett Rypien hopes to stay a Bronco after signing an undrafted free-agent rookie contract with Denver.

Offensive tackle Jake Rodgers, another Shadle Park product, also hopes to stick around the Broncos organization.

Here’s a look at the former local college and high school standouts on 90-man rosters that will be trimmed to 53 on Aug. 31.

Washington State

Deone Bucannon, Safety, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Bucannon signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract with the Bucs in March after starting the past five seasons for the Arizona Cardinals. The 26-year-old former first-round draft pick is coming off a 2018 season in which he totaled a career-low 38 tackles following offseason ankle surgery.

River Cracraft, WR, Denver Broncos: WSU’s No. 2 all-time receptions leader has been on and off the Broncos’ practice squad the last two seasons. Cracraft recorded his first career catch in 2018 – a 44-yard reception in a regular-season finale against the Houston Texas – before he was cut and eventually re-assigned to the Broncos’ practice roster.

Joe Dahl, OL, Detroit Lions: The former University High standout and fourth-year pro saw time in 10 regular-season games last season, including one start against the Minnesota Vikings, the fourth start of his career. He’s primarily been a second-string left guard.

Andre Dillard, OL, Philadalphia Eagles: Dillard, drafted No. 22 overall by the Eagles in April – the first WSU first-round draft pick since Bucannon in 2014 – is working at left tackle behind his mentor, nine-time Pro Bowl selection Jason Peters. Peters is 37, so Dillard, 23, could occupy a first-team spot sooner rather than later.

Daniel Ekuale, DT, Cleveland Browns: Ekuale went undrafted in 2018, but eventually carved out a practice roster spot for most of the season.

Luke Falk, QB, New York Jets: Drafted in 2018 by Tennessee in the sixth round, the Titans cut Falk, the Pac-12’s all-time leading passer, before the regular season. He was then signed by Miami, who soon placed Falk on injured reserve. The Dolphins cut Falk this past spring before he signed with the Jets, where he hopes to at least make the practice squad.

Shalom Luani, Safety, Seattle Seahawks: The third-year pro saw time in 12 regular-season games for the Seahawks last season as a second-string free safety, totaling nine tackles

Frankie Luvu, LB, New York Jets: Luvu went undrafted in 2018, but he made the most of his free-agent contract opportunity with the Jets, recording 17 tackles and three sacks in 14 regular-season games, including one start.

Cole Madison, OL, Green Bay Packers: Madison sat out all of the 2018 training camp and regular season – which would have been his rookie year after being taken in the fifth round – to deal with a personal matter (he was dealing with the death of close friend and former WSU quarterback Tyler Hilinski, according to The Athletic). Madison has since returned, and has been rotating between guard and center, hoping to earn a spot on the Packers’ 53-man roster.

Hercules Mata’afa, DT, Minnesota Vikings: The former Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year left school a year early, but went undrafted in 2018. The Vikings signed Mata’afa as a free agent last spring before he tore his ACL, missing his entire rookie season on injured reserve. Now healthy, the strong and explosive Hawaiian has reportedly impressed head coach Mike Zimmer and teammates.

Vince Mayle, TE, Los Angeles Chargers: Primarily a special teams contributor and practice squad player since he was drafted by Cleveland in the fourth round in 2014, Mayle, a former standout receiver at WSU, didn’t play in a regular-season game for the Chargers in 2018. This is his fourth NFL team in five seasons.

Gardner Minshew, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars: After helping the Cougars earn a program-best 11 wins last season and garnering Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year honors, the Jaguars drafted Minshew in the sixth round. The charismatic rookie hopes to earn a backup role behind starter Nick Foles, competing with 2018 sixth-round pick Tanner Lee (Nebraska) and 2018 seventh-round pick Alex McGough (Florida International).

Jalen Thompson, Safety, Arizona Cardinals: Thompson was expected to help lead the Cougars’ defense in 2019, but his final year of eligibility was taken away by the NCAA due to what a source said was the purchase of an over-the-counter supplement at a local nutrition store. He was the lone player selected in the NFL’s supplemental draft earlier this month, signing a four-year deal with the Cardinals, who spent a future fifth-round pick to get Thompson.

Destiny Vaeao, DT: Carolina Panthers: Vaeao was primarily on the New York Jets’ practice squad in 2018 and signed with the Panthers in April. He earned a Super Bowl ring with the Eagles in 2017.

Eastern Washington

Taiwan Jones, RB, Houston Texans: Jones is entering his ninth NFL season after signing with the Texans in the offseason. Jones, who mostly has been a returner and kick-off cover man in recent years, was one of the Buffalo Bills’ team captains last season before sustaining a neck injury.

Kendrick Bourne, WR, San Francisco 49ers: Undrafted in 2017 after helping EWU lead the country in passing yards per game, Bourne went on to start eight games for the 49ers in 2018, hauling in 42 passes for 487 yards and four touchdowns.

Jake Rodgers, OL, Denver Broncos: The former Shadle Park and EWU standout signed with the Broncos in the spring, his eighth NFL organization since he was drafted by Atlanta in the seventh round of the 2015 draft. Rodgers has been on and off practice squads throughout his career.

Jay-Tee Tiuli, DL, Seattle Seahawks: The 2018 Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year went undrafted this past spring before signing with Seattle, where he hopes to at least make the practice squad. The recent six-game suspension of fellow defensive tackle Jarron Reed could help Tiuli’s chances .

Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams: Kupp, one of quarterback Jared Goff’s favorite targets before the former EWU star’s season-ending knee injury last season, appears primed to reach the 1,000-yard single-season receiving mark in his third NFL season. Kupp, among the top young receivers in the league since he was drafted in the third round in 2017, is healthy again and hopes to get the Rams back to a second straight Super Bowl.

Samson Ebukam, LB, Los Angeles Rams: Ebukam, a starting outside linebacker, was one of the Rams’ top pass-rushers last season. Year three could be big for the former 2017 fourth-round draft pick.

Aaron Neary, OL, Los Angeles Rams: Neary enters his third year on the Rams’ practice squad, vying for the second-string center slot on the 53-man roster. He was given a four-game suspension earlier this month for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy.

Nsimba Webster, WR, Los Angeles Rams: Webster, one of the fastest FCS receivers in the country in 2018, hopes to be the latest former EWU star to stick around the league. The undrafted rookie totaled over 2,000 receiving yards at EWU and hauled in four touchdown passes in the national semifinals.

Ketner Kupp, LB, Los Angeles Rams: Kupp, EWU’s leading tackler in 2018, was invited to San Francisco 49ers rookie camp after going undrafted, but was cut a week later. He’s now working to gain favor with an organization that seems to have an affinity for ex-Eagles like his brother, Cooper.


Jesse Davis, OL, Miami Dolphins: From the tiny Washington 2B football program of Asotin to starting every 2018 game for the Miami Dolphins at right guard, Davis has made the most of his NFL opportunity. Davis, who went undrafted in 2015, has now started 26 career games in the league.

Mike Iupati, OL, Seattle Seahawks: A bona fide veteran and four-time Pro Bowl selection, Iupati signed a one-year, $2.75 million contact with the Seahawks in March after playing his first nine seasons in the NFC West at San Francisco and Arizona.

Kaden Ellis, LB, New Orleans Saints: Both an All-Sun Belt and All-Big Sky linebacker during his time at Idaho, the versatile rookie – a seventh-round draft pick – hopes to carve out a spot on a Saints team with lofty preseason expectations. His father, former Pro Bowl linebacker and current Idaho assistant Luther Elliss, taught his son well.

Benson Mayowa, DE, Oakland Raiders: Mayowa appeared in 15 games for the Arizona Cardinals last season, starting four. The big, athletic defensive end, who has 115 career tackles and 13 sacks, signed with the Raiders in April.

Elijhaa Penny, RB, New York Giants: Penny. the brother of Seahawks running back Rashaad Penny, was re-signed to the Giants’ practice squad in March. He saw limited time in 2018, totaling eight receptions for 50 yards and seven carries for 25 yards.

Boise State

Brett Rypien, QB, Denver Broncos: The Greater Spokane League and Mountain West Conference’s all-time leading passer went undrafted in April before signing with the Broncos. He now shares a Broncos quarterback room that includes starter Joe Flacco, backup Kevin Hogan and fellow rookie and former Missouri star Drew Lock, a second-round pick.

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