With the 2018 NFL draft in the books, as well as the following flurry of signings of those who were not selected, I suspect their new NFL coaches have one really important question for those who suited up at Syracuse as they chase their NFL dreams:
Can you play special teams?
It sounds belittling to all five players who latched onto NFL teams, as the group includes only the second three-time captain in Orange football history and a couple wide receivers who scribbled their names all over the school record book, but it is a very valid question.
Zaire Franklin, who was a seventh-round selection by the Indianapolis Colts, and four teammates who were signed as undrafted free agents – Parris Bennett (Green Bay Packers), Steve Ishmael (Colts), Jamar McGloster (San Francisco 49ers), and Erv Philips (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) – will likely find the most direct route to a roster spot by what they can do on special teams.
Franklin is in the best spot, as Indianapolis invested an asset in securing his services. The middle linebacker also seems to fit the bill for the Colts, whose defense finished 30th in points allowed, 29th in yards allowed per play, and 32nd in pass yards allowed per play. In short, the Indianapolis defense needs all help it can get.
It was pretty clear the Colts were aware of their defensive shortcomings at linebacker, as Franklin was the fourth one the team drafted. The team also signed two more linebackers as undrafted free agents, further cluttering Franklin’s path to a roster spot.
Franklin, however, tested very well at SU’s pro day and calling him a solid citizen is almost an insult. A semifinalist for the inaugural Jason Witten Collegiate Man of the Year Awards and the Coach Wooden Citizenship Cup as a senior, Franklin graduated as a dual major who appeared on both the SU Athletic Director and ACC Honor Rolls. Add all of that on top of Franklin’s production on the field for the Orange (311 tackles, 31.5 tackles for loss) and Franklin could rise through the ranks of the Colts’ depth chart.
Of the four undrafted signees from Syracuse, Erv Philips is the one who can most easily be pointed to as a special teams contributor. Philips returned 25 kickoffs as a freshman and one punt as a sophomore. Those numbers are likely just as important to his NFL prospects as are his SU record 223 receptions.
Even though Philips has an impressive college resume, the Buccaneers are set with three returning wide receivers with at least 50 receptions last season. One of them, DeSean Jackson, is interesting to note regarding Philips. Jackson, the Bucs’ slot receiver, will turn 32 years old late this coming season and Tampa Bay can opt out of the last year of his contract for 2019, shaving $10,000,000 off their salary cap.
No one will be able to tell Philips there is not a short route to a roster spot with the Buccaneers there. Syracuse fans have seen Philips do some good work with short routes in the past, but he will need to contribute in special teams to get there.
It is hard to talk about Philips without thinking about fellow wide receiver Steve Ishmael. Ishmael is right behind Philips in career receptions with 219 and holds the SU record for receiving yards with 2,891. Like his former teammate Philips, Ishmael had one punt return at SU.
At 6’2”, Ishmael has good, not great height, and with his 4.58 second-time in the 40-yard dash at Syracuse’s pro day, he has okay speed. Physically, there is no single trait that will make Ishmael stand out, even among a mostly pedestrian wide receiver corps in Indianapolis. The quality of that corps might actually be the best thing Ishmael will have going for him in camp, as there will certainly be an opportunity to impress starting at their rookie minicamp this weekend.
There is one thing to remember about the record-setting Ishamel. The year before Ishmael set multiple records for the Orange, Amba Etta-Tawo posted massive numbers at SU as a graduate transfer with similar size and a little more speed at wide receiver. Amba-Tawo was an undrafted free agent who signed with Jacksonville, spending some time on their practice squad before doing the same in Kansas City and with the New York Giants.
Parris Bennett logged over 100 tackles in each of his final two years at Syracuse, a production level beyond his athletic traits. While Orange fans got used to Bennett roaming sideline-to-sideline to stop ballcarriers, Bennett does not have great speed or size, which are two checkmarks against him.
The desire that led to those gaudy tackle numbers, including a career high 17 stops against Notre Dame as a junior, suggest Bennett could carve out a roster with special teams coverage work. Bennett will simply need to show a combination of intelligence and motor in every opportunity, and even that may not be enough.
Jamar McGloster likely has the toughest road to a roster spot. The 49ers not only signed McGloster, who started every game of his last two years at right tackle, as an undrafted free agent, but they also selected Mike McGlinchey, a three-year starter at right tackle from Notre Dame with the ninth pick in the first round.
If that’s not enough, the left tackle for the Niners is Joe Staley, who has been to the Pro Bowl six times, including after last season. With just a few reserve roster spots available on the offensive line, just making the practice squad would be a significant accomplishment for McGloster.