Former Huskies set for NFL season opening

From New York to San Francisco, former NIU football players are scattered across NFL rosters

Wide+receiver+Kenny+Golladay+runs+with+the+ball+during+New+York+Giants+NFL+training+camp+held+at+Eddie+Moraes+Stadium%2C+Saturday%2C+July+31%2C+2021%2C+in+Newark%2C+N.J.+

John Munson | Associated Press

Wide receiver Kenny Golladay runs with the ball during New York Giants NFL training camp held at Eddie Moraes Stadium, Saturday, July 31, 2021, in Newark, N.J.

Skyler Kisellus, Assistant Sports Editor

With the NFL season opener drawing closer, clubs have trimmed down their rosters to the mandated 53-player limit. 

As the deadline to cut down has come and gone, some rosters feature players who established themselves during their college days at NIU.

Huskies to watch in 2021

One of the more notable former Huskies active in the league is wide receiver Kenny Golladay, a former third-round draft selection of the Detroit Lions. After departing Detroit in free agency this offseason, Golladay signed a 4-year, $72 million contract with the New York Giants back in March. He will go into 2021 looking to make an impact after his 2020 season was cut short by injuries.

In San Francisco, eighth-year safety Jimmie Ward continues to maintain his starting spot on the 49ers’ defense. A first-round pick out of NIU back in 2014, Ward is known for being one of the core members of the touted defensive unit that helped lead San Francisco to the 2020 Super Bowl.

As far as underdog stories are concerned, former Huskie defensive lineman Jack Heflin found himself on the opening roster for the Green Bay Packers. Being lovingly referred to as a “trash can full of dirt” by an anonymous NFC scout during the pre-draft process, Heflin signed with the Packers in May as an undrafted free agent. Over the course of training camp and preseason, Heflin proved himself to Green Bay’s coaching staff enough to be named a primary backup at defensive end.

Down south, wide receiver Christian Blake made the roster for the Atlanta Falcons. Having steadily ascended the depth chart since going undrafted in 2018, Blake will look to contribute to a receiving corps coping with the departure of star receiver Julio Jones via trade in June.

Being one of the most recent Huskies selected in the NFL draft, Max Scharping will serve as the starting left guard for the Houston Texans this year. Scharping was drafted in the second round by Houston back in 2019 and has received praise from coaches heading into his third year in the NFL.

“Max has had a good preseason,” said Texans head coach David Culley in a press conference on Thursday. “There were some things that we wanted to make sure that Max got better at. He’s done that.”

On the outside looking in

While some were successful in securing their roster spots, others were not as fortunate. Linebacker/fullback Sutton Smith, offensive lineman Jordan Steckler, and wide receiver Chad Beebe found themselves on the waiver wire or in free agency by Tuesday evening.

One of the more surprising cuts of the group was veteran cornerback Rashaan Melvin, who was among those released by the Carolina Panthers. Considering that the Panthers only have four cornerbacks available for their season opener against the New York Jets, the move seems questionable.

With sports being an industry that is constantly on the move, teams consistently find themselves with positional needs to address. Teams will sign, cut and trade players for the next several weeks, so hope is not lost for these former Huskies.

The 2021 NFL season will kick off with a Thursday Night Football matchup between the reigning Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Dallas Cowboys at 7:20 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 9, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.