While more than 100 current Washington State players anxiously wait for the green light to strap on pads and helmets for the first time since December, a handful of their more successful former teammates will be doing that Tuesday when the NFL officially opens its training camps.
By our count, 14 ex-Cougars will be on a practice field Tuesday. While preseason camp may look different than it normally does, many former WSU players enter it with the same goal of earning a coveted spot on the 53-man roster. Others, like 2019 draftees Gardner Minshew and Andre Dillard – both roster locks – will enter camp with different goals in mind.
Below we break down the individual situation for each of the 14 ex-Cougars, with a look at four free agents that spent time on an NFL roster/practice squad last season and will try to get back there in 2020.
In the mix
Gardner Minshew, QB, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars made a major financial commitment to their returning starter this offseason. Not by paying Minshew, who’s still under a rookie contract, but by unloading Nick Foles and the four-year, $88 million deal he’d signed nearly a year earlier. Jacksonville’s obviously banking on Minshew to be its franchise quarterback, and for the sake of their own jobs, Jaguars coach Doug Marrone and general manager Dave Caldwell might be as well. Needless to say, year No. 2 will not only be a defining one for Minshew, arguably the NFL’s best rookie QB a year ago, but also for the club that drafted him. Minshew has the weapons to make it work, but he could use more consistent play from offensive line and would be the first to say he needs to fumble less in 2020.
Andre Dillard, OT, Philadelphia Eagles
Philadelphia drafted Dillard as a future replacement for longtime left tackle Jason Peters, but the future came sooner than the Eagles or Peters expected. Dillard replaced the injured veteran midway through the season, making four starts, and has seemingly locked up the job for the foreseeable future. Peters is back, but reports indicate he’ll play at left guard, rather than left tackle. As for Dillard? The Eagles encouraged him to spend the offseason strengthening his body and all accounts suggest the now 335-pound Dillard has done exactly that, which should help him protect the blind side of franchise QB Carson Wentz.
Deone Bucannon, S, Atlanta Falcons
After five years of NFL stability with the Arizona Cardinals, Bucannon spent half of his sixth pro season in Tampa Bay and the other half in New York with the Giants. Now Bucannon’s onto his fourth stop: Atlanta. Because of his versatility, Bucannon, a hybrid safety/linebacker, could back up the Falcons’ starting linebackers – a position where depth is needed – or he may be used more in nickel sets. One way or the other, it seems Bucannon’s found a team that values his diverse skill set, and it seems unlikely he’ll be apartment hunting midway through the 2020 season.
Jalen Thompson, S, Arizona Cardinals
One year ago, Thompson was still adjusting to the reality he’d be spending the fall of 2019 in the NFL, rather than on the Palouse for his fourth college season, after entering the Supplemental Draft. It’s worked out splendidly for the hard-hitting safety, who had 45 tackles, one interception and one fumble recovery in 15 games as a rookie. The Cardinals may place two former Apple Cup rivals next to one another in the secondary, if Thompson earns a starting job next to former Washington safety Budda Baker, but either way he’ll be a crucial piece for Arizona’s defense as an NFL sophomore.
Hercules Mata’afa, DL, Minnesota Vikings
It appears Mata’afa addressed one of the major issues that kept him out of the lineup during his second pro season, and the obstacle many thought he’d have entering the NFL after his junior year at WSU. In an Instagram reply to former WSU teammate Marcellus Pippins, Mata’afa said the Vikings instructed him to report to preseason camp at 285 pounds, and months earlier the former AP Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year shared of a photo of a weight scale reading 289. If the added weight doesn’t cost Mata’afa his quickness off the line, he could have a chance to compete for the starting defensive tackle spot. And if not, he should still see more field time as a backup.
Shalom Luani, S, Houston Texans
Luani spent 2019 in three different locker rooms. The Samoan-born safety was waived by the Seattle Seahawks, signed and waived by the Los Angeles Chargers after making three appearances and then signed to Houston’s practice squad in December. Early 53-man roster projections suggest the practice squad is where Luani could once again end up, and like it will for many fringe roster players, the lack of preseason games could dent his chances of making the active squad, barring injuries.
Frankie Luvu, LB, New York Jets
The disruption Luvu caused for New York’s defense was certainly a pleasant surprise for the team in 2018, and he followed it up with a decent 2019 campaign. The former free agent signee hasn’t done enough to secure a starting job in two NFL seasons, but even if he isn’t an every-down player, the Jets seem to value what he offers in certain packages and few doubt the affectionately-named “Boa from Samoa” will retain a 53-man roster spot in year No. 3. Not too shabby for someone who didn’t become an impact player at WSU until his senior season.
Joe Dahl, OG, Detroit Lions
Next to Bucannon, Dahl, who enters his fifth pro season, is WSU’s most experienced active NFL player and it doesn’t appear he’ll fall out of favor with the Lions soon. Largely because of his plug-and-play ability at all three offensive line positions, Dahl has been a regular on Detroit’s 53-man roster since he was drafted in 2016, and the club signed him to a two-year contract extension in last year. The Spokane native and University High graduate will look to reassert himself as a starting guard despite being placed on the injured reserve toward the end of the 2019 season.
Cole Madison, OG, Green Bay Packers
None of WSU’s recent NFL draftees have had a tougher path than Madison, who took a year away from the game to focus on his mental health and returned for the 2019 season only to tear his ACL during a practice in late November. Will the Packers retain Madison in 2020? PackerCentral notes his injury could make him a candidate for the PUP (physically unable to perform) list, but it doesn’t bode well for Madison that the club picked up three interior offensive linemen in the recent draft, or that he hasn’t taken a single in-game snap for the Packers since he was drafted.
Daniel Ekuale, DT, Cleveland Browns
Some roster projections figure Ekuale into the 53-man equation while others don’t. The former WSU nose tackle had his second NFL season cut short by a calf injury suffered in week eight against New England, giving his backup Eli Ankou the benefit of replacement reps, and whether he earns the spot back will depend on how well he fares in camp and if he can avoid injury. Ekuale’s had some nice moments in Cleveland, but it’s also worth noting he logged the worst tackling grade by a Browns player last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
Dezmon Patmon, WR, Indianapolis Colts
Matt Terpening, Indianapolis’ Assistant Director of College Scouting, recently revealed that Patmon’s showing at the East-West Shrine Game played a large role in the Colts drafting the big WSU wideout. It’s unwise to place much stock in many of these way-too-early 53-man roster projections, but Indianapolis media members seem to think highly of the team’s receivers room – or at least its depth – and few of them have Patmon making the squad. Whether Patmon does so or not, learning the NFL route tree will be an important first step for the rookie.
Anthony Gordon, QB, Seattle Seahawks
To the surprise of many, the nation’s leading passer went undrafted, but that consequentially allowed him to choose his free agency destination and ultimately allowed Gordon to stay in the Pacific Northwest. Cracking the 53-man roster could be tough, given that Seattle re-signed former backup Geno Smith, and that Gordon won’t have as many opportunities to show the Seahawks’ staff what he’s capable of. Seattle’s practice squad isn’t a bad place to be, though, and Gordon will still get the benefit of learning from one of the league’s most respected and accomplished players.
Easop Winston Jr., WR, Los Angeles Rams
When Bleacher Report published a list of the top free agent signee at every NFL camp, it chose Winston Jr. as its cover photo. Despite the front-end talent the Rams boast at receiver – led by ex-Eastern Washington star Cooper Kupp – there’s reason to think Winston Jr. will impress coaches with his consistency and ability to separate from defenders, and wind up grabbing the sixth or seventh wide receiver spot on the team’s 53-man roster. It’s very possible that Winston Jr. and another area standout, EWU’s Nsimba Webster, will be scrapping for one of the final spots on Los Angeles’ roster.
Fred Mauigoa, C, Carolina Panthers
The man who snapped footballs to each of WSU’s last three record-setting quarterbacks will now have a chance to follow Luke Falk, Minshew and Gordon into the NFL. Teams obviously don’t keep an abundance of centers, so Mauigoa’s ability to make the 53-man roster, or stay on the practice squad, could depend on if he’d able to slide over into one of the two guard positions. Mauigoa’s quiet work ethic could go a long way in an NFL camp, and it would complete an incredible story if the American Samoa native was able to make Carolina’s roster, but it’ll no doubt be an uphill battle for WSU’s longtime center.
Outside looking in
Luke Falk, QB, free agent
There will be a few Cougars who didn’t start in NFL games last year that will make 53-man rosters, but there’s no guarantee Falk, who started in two games for the New York Jets in 2019 and played in three, will find his way back into the league – especially under current conditions. Fairly or unfairly, Falk was thrown into the fire in New York without taking many first-team reps and had three interceptions to no touchdowns by the time his three-game stint ended. He was cut when Sam Darnold returned from mononucleosis and hasn’t had a bite since. Falk’s intangibles, including his tireless work ethic, could help him get back into the league, but it’s easy to argue his brief spell as an NFL starter hurt more than it helped.
River Cracraft, WR, free agent
Cracraft has made the most of his time in quarantine, and it’s evident he has his eyes on making a roster this fall judging by the workout and training videos he’s posted the last few months. The slot receiver who most recently was a member of the Philadelphia Eagles’ practice squad shared photos and videos of workouts in Los Angeles with the likes of Drew Brees, Sam Darnold, Chase Daniel, Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley and Kyle Allen. Cracraft posted another photo of the body transformation he made this offseason, and it appears he’s 10-20 pounds heavier than when the Eagles signed him in December.
Vince Mayle, TE, free agent
The former WSU receiver-turned-NFL-tight end hasn’t played in a game since 2017, when he was still a Baltimore Raven, and is currently focusing on a career in the Canadian Football League after signing with the Toronto Argonauts on Jan. 27. But there’s no doubt the 29-year-old would hope to get another shot in the NFL, especially after suffering an injury with the Los Angeles Chargers in 2019 and eventually being waived by the club.
Destiny Vaeao, DL, free agent
The former Super Bowl champion hasn’t been on an NFL roster since Sept. 24, when the Carolina Panthers waived Vaeao once more after placing him on the injured reserve. Vaeao played in 33 games with three starts the first three years of his career – all with the Philadelphia Eagles – but didn’t touch the field while playing for the New York Jets and Panthers. Vaeao’s still just 26 years old, so there’s still some time to revive his career, but the big defensive tackle first needs to latch on with a fourth NFL team.