Orange Watch: Looking for a Syracuse Orange-tint in the 2018 NFL Draft

Zaire Franklin
Central Michigan Chippewas wide receiver Mark Chapman (3) runs with the ball after a catch as Syracuse Orange linebacker Zaire Franklin (4) leaps over teammate Jonathan Thomas (23) during the second quarter at the Carrier Dome. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports.

Item: With the NFL Draft coming up April 26-28 at the Dallas Cowboys’ palatial AT&T Stadium, will there be a Syracuse player selected during the three-day, seven round spectacle? Only one ex-SU player has heard his name announced as a draft selection by one of the league’s 32 teams over the last three drafts, with 2015 and ’17 joining 2008 as the only other years in which there was not at least one former Orange player among the eligible players selected in a particular year. And that’s a streak that goes all the way back to…1975 (there’s only been five Syracuse NFL draft-less years dating back to 1952)!

As we all know, Denver Broncos punter-in-transition Riley Dixon has been the only Syracuse draft pick since Jay Bromley (New York Giants) and Marquis Spruill (Atlanta) were 2014 selections; with Dixon making the Broncos roster as the seventh round pick in 2016, signing a four-year, $2.4M rookie deal and performing well enough for the team to release seven year incumbent Britton Colquitt who was making more than Dixon’s entire salary per season.

Dixon certainly had a respectable rookie campaign in ’16, finishing 16th in the league in average with 28 kicks landing inside an opponent’s 20 yard line, one of only four punters with over 4,000 total yards, a long distance boot of 68 yards, and besting Britton Colquitt’s numbers who had moved on to Cleveland.

Despite dropping in total yardage, Dixon actually rose to 14th in punting average last year with a best of 60 yards, but had two blocked punts and one kick returned for a touchdown by the Los Angeles Chargers, and five fewer kicks inside the 20 yard line.

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When new Oakland Raiders coach Jon Gruden came aboard this off season and started formulating his roster plans and salary allotments, suddenly booming leg punter Marquette King, second in the league in average and yardage last season, but signed to a five-year, $16.5M contract extension prior to Gruden’s arrival, became a free agent.

King sorted out his options, eyed Denver’s mile high altitude advantage to aide his trade, most importantly accepted a drop to an average $2M per season, and presto, Dixon was left knowing he was either going to be traded or released after two seasons as a Bronco, left to sort out with his agent where to continue his career.

Such is life in the NFL where special teams players, including punters and kickers are often times shuttled from multiple teams over the course of a career, and sometimes even during one season, but the multi-talented and athletic Dixon has shined from scholastic ball at CBA, collegiately at SU, to two more-than-productive NFL seasons.

Who is going to be the next player from Syracuse selected?

No former ‘Cuse player was invited to last month’s NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, while 11 players worked out for scouts and personnel directors at the program’s Pro Day at the Ensley Athletic Center on March 19, and the highlighted player that wowed those on hand figures to end the draft-less streak of late.

Linebacker Zaire Franklin matched or even succeeded the strength/performance and running numbers of the top six linebackers that were invited to the Scouting Combine. After a couple of months of intense, custom workouts with a Seattle-area based sports performance center, Franklin, along with wide receiver Steve Ishmael (a breakout 105 catches, 1,347 yards, and seven touchdowns in 2017), give the program its best hope of hearing a Syracuse name announced at the 2018 Draft for the first time since Dixon’s name was announced by Denver.

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Brad Bierman
About Brad Bierman 514 Articles
Now in his fifth decade of covering SU sports, Brad was sports director of WSYR radio for eight years into the early 1990s, then wrote the Orange Watch column for The Big Orange/The Juice print publication for 18 years. A Syracuse University graduate, Brad currently runs his own media consulting business in the Philadelphia suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @BradBierman.