Arizona strong safety Jalen Thompson
Thompson emerged this season as a budding star in the NFL, a leader on a top-10 defense in the league.
He started in the Cardinals’ secondary all year and topped the team in tackles with 133, adding three picks in his third campaign as a pro.
Many NFL pundits consider Thompson one of the league’s underrated talents. Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury called him a “silent assassin” during a news conference last month.
“We knew he was gonna be a good player but this year he’s definitely grown up,” Arizona defensive coordinator Vance Joseph added, per ArizonaSports.com. “His body’s different. He is definitely one of our best communicators out there and boy he can tackle. … He’s one guy in my opinion that has taken a huge step for us.”
Together, Thompson and Budda Baker – a University of Washington alum – form one of the NFL’s best duos at safety.
“Everything is full speed,” Kingsbury said. “If we do a walk-through, (Thompson) is the one guy, him and Budda back there, it looks like full speed still. They have one speed, and they practice that way.”
Thompson played in only five games last year because of ankle injuries. He made nine starts and had 56 tackles as a rookie after he was the only player selected in the NFL’s supplemental draft in July 2019.
The Los Angeles product was a three-year starter at WSU (2016-18), an All-Pac-12 pick and a freshman All-American. He accumulated 191 tackles, 23 pass breakups, six interceptions and five fumble recoveries as a collegian, but lost his final year of eligibility because of a minor violation of NCAA rules.
Carolina linebacker Frankie Luvu
Another former Cougar on the rise, Luvu was a key reserve for the Panthers’ defense this season, appearing in 16 games at outside linebacker and recording 43 tackles, eight tackles for loss, five quarterback hurries and three fumble recoveries.
He also played the vast majority of Carolina’s special-teams reps in his fourth year as a pro.
He was on the field for approximately 23% of the Panthers’ defensive downs and 70% of their special-teams snaps this year, per Pro Football Reference.
He blocked a punt – which was returned for a TD by a teammate – against Minnesota in October.
The high-motored linebacker made a career high four starts. He’d started a combined four games across his three seasons with the New York Jets, who didn’t re-sign him in the offseason. He agreed to a one-year deal with Carolina in March.
Luvu, a native of American Samoa, started 22 games at the rush LB position for WSU and finished his four-year collegiate career with 110 tackles, 19 TFLs, eight sacks and two interceptions.
He signed with the Jets as an undrafted free agent in May 2018. Luvu worked his way into a rotational role as a rookie and tallied three sacks, but his playing time on defense dipped over the next two years as his special-teams usage increased.
Philadelphia quarterback Gardner Minshew
Minshew Mania made a brief reappearance Dec. 5, when the Mississippi Mustache was called on in relief of injured starter Jalen Hurts.
Minshew, fiery as ever, did not disappoint, passing 20 of 25 for 242 yards and two touchdowns in Philadelphia’s 33-18 victory over the Jets.
Minshew reportedly asked Eagles coach Nick Sirianni after the game what it would take for him to secure the starting job going forward. Sirianni told him Philly’s sticking with Hurts long term.
Minshew again filled in for Hurts on short notice Jan. 8 versus Dallas and went 19 of 33 for 186 yards, a TD and tossed two picks in a 51-26 defeat.
Otherwise, he served as a backup throughout the season. He spectated from the sideline as Hurts struggled in Philadelphia’s 31-15 playoff loss to Tampa Bay on Sunday.
Minshew was traded to the Eagles for a conditional sixth-round pick on Aug. 28 after starting 20 games for the Jacksonville Jaguars over the past two seasons. He couldn’t top Trevor Lawrence, the NFL draft’s first overall pick, in a preseason QB competition.
Minshew owns an 8-14 record as an NFL starter. He’s thrown for 5,969 yards on a 63.2% completion rate with 41 touchdowns against just 12 picks.
He has one season remaining on his contract with the Eagles. Minshew’s proven he can be an effective QB in the league, and he’s told reporters in the past that he’s determined to lock up a starting role in the NFL.
Minshew followed a winding career path to the Palouse, where he broke out as a pro prospect and became a WSU icon in one year. He steered an inspired Cougar team to a program record 11 wins in 2018, led the nation in passing and captured numerous accolades. The Jags took him in the sixth round.
Philadelphia left tackle Andre Dillard
Dillard, the 22nd overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft, returned this season from a biceps injury that kept him sidelined throughout his second year.
But he lost a preseason competition for the Eagles’ job at left tackle and watched Philly’s first two games from the bench. When starter Jordan Mailata sustained an injury in Week 3, Dillard got his chance, returning to the Eagles’ first-string unit for the first time since November 2019.
He started four consecutive games from Sept. 27 to Oct. 14, permitting one sack and committing six penalties. Per Pro Football Focus’ grading system, Dillard filled in admirably, ranking as the No. 30 tackle in the NFL during his stretch of starts.
Dillard played sparingly the next two weeks and only appeared on special teams in six straight games. He made his final start of the year Jan. 8 against Dallas, relieving the injured Mailata. Dillard played one special-teams snap in the Eagles’ playoff loss to Tampa Bay.
Mailata, a former Australian rugby star, signed a four-year extension with the franchise this season. That complicates the future for Dillard, who the Eagles drafted in 2019 to replace longtime left tackle Jason Peters.
Dillard, a three-year starter at WSU, soared up draft boards as a senior in 2018. He allowed one sack, earning All-America honors and a first-team All-Pac-12 nod. Most scouts and analysts tabbed Dillard a top-three tackle in the nation.
Indianapolis wide receiver Dezmon Patmon
Patmon introduced himself to millions of NFL fans on Christmas night, hauling in a go-ahead 14-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter of the Colts’ win over Arizona.
It was the second-year pro’s second reception and first TD of his career. He beat his former WSU teammate – Jalen Thompson – to get it.
A primetime game-winner on Christmas was no doubt a gratifying breakthrough for Patmon, who spent his first year in Indy buried down the depth chart and started his sophomore season on the injured reserve list for eight weeks after leading the team in the preseason with 173 receiving yards.
The Colts activated him just before their Nov. 4 tilt with the Jets. In his second career game, Patmon logged his first NFL catch, a 7-yarder. He wound up playing 64 snaps for the Indianapolis offense over eight games, but managed only the two receptions.
Taken in the sixth round of the 2020 draft, Patmon started 24 games at WSU from 2017-19, establishing himself as a pro prospect as a junior. He produced 1,976 yards and 13 TDs on 156 receptions for the Cougs.
New Orleans wide receiver/punt returner Easop Winston Jr.
Winston made his professional debut Dec. 12 and snagged his first-career NFL reception, a 5-yarder during the Saints’ 30-9 win over the Jets.
Early last month, he agreed to a reserve/future deal that’ll keep him in New Orleans.
“Everything I asked God for last year,” he tweeted Sunday, “I have all of that this year.”
The San Francisco native went undrafted in 2020 and signed a free-agent deal with the Los Angeles Rams, who cut him after training camp. He landed in The Big Easy in May.
One of WSU’s most sure-handed receivers in recent memory, Winston found a home in the pros by virtue of his special-teams capabilities.
He averaged 11.9 yards on 10 punt returns across three games this season and saw plenty of action in the return game throughout the preseason. Winston played just 14 snaps on offense and finished his first year on a pro roster with one catch.
Winston racked up 1,624 yards and 19 touchdowns on 137 receptions in just two seasons with the Cougars. He began his collegiate career at City College of San Francisco.
San Francisco special-teamer/receiver River Cracraft
The 49ers’ special-teams utility man is the only former Cougar whose team is still alive in the NFL playoffs.
A fourth-year pro, Cracraft inked a practice-squad deal in September with San Francisco. He played sparingly for the Niners in 2020 and signed a one-year contract extension last February, but was waived during preseason training camp in August.
Cracraft was promoted to the active roster in early December and has appeared on special teams in each of San Francisco’s last eight games. According to Pro Football Reference, he has not seen playing time with the 49ers’ offense this season.
Across 108 snaps on both punts and kickoffs, Cracraft has registered three tackles. He recovered a fumble on a muffed punt return Dec. 12 against Cincinnati and played 19 special-teams reps in the 49ers’ 23-17 playoff win over Dallas on Sunday.
Cracraft returned punts and played special teams last year for San Francisco after a short stay with the Philadelphia Eagles’ practice squad and two seasons in Denver, where he flipped between the active roster and practice squad.
Cracraft signed with the Broncos as an undrafted free agent in 2017 following a prosperous career at WSU.
The crafty pass-catcher started 36 games for the Cougs from 2013-16, amassing 2,701 yards and 20 touchdowns on 218 receptions.
New England defensive tackle Daniel Ekuale
The third-year pro from American Samoa appeared in seven games for the Patriots after signing a one-year deal with the franchise on Sept. 5.
Ekuale started for the Jacksonville Jaguars down the stretch in the 2020 campaign, but was waived by the organization last August. New England added him to its practice squad less than a week later, and he spent the season trying to carve out a spot on the Pats’ active roster.
Ekuale never cracked the starting lineup. He toiled on New England’s practice squad for 10 of the season’s first 12 weeks before being elevated on Dec. 6 for the team’s final five games. Ekuale played about a quarter of possible defensive snaps while active, and totaled five tackles and two sacks this year.
He didn’t see the field in the Patriots’ season-ending 47-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills in the Wild Card round of the playoffs last week.
As a Cougar from 2013-17, Ekuale tallied 71 tackles, 14 TFLs and three sacks across 51 games (22 starts). He went undrafted before beginning his career with a two-year stint in Cleveland.
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