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Northwestern NFL players’ standout performances showcase Wildcats’ true standard

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Wins or losses usually define programs, but the makings of a good team ultimately stretch into the professional ranks.

@claytonthorson on Instagram.

As I’m sure most of you are aware, Northwestern Football’s Twitter account posts a fun, gothic-style graphic showcasing which “Pro ‘Cats” are taking the field around the NFL each week. Here at Inside NU, we also break down how NU alumni are doing on a game-by-game basis as their respective professional teams attempt to make deep postseason runs.

Looking at those graphics and articles, certain names and information can feel regurgitated. For example, it’s been well-documented how dominant Rashawn Slater has been in his rookie season, earning the highest Pro Football Focus grade for a rookie offensive tackle in 10 years and being named a Second-Team All-Pro on Friday. In terms of other players, Northwestern fanatics have a firm understanding of Dean Lowry’s name appearing on the Packers’ stat sheet each week, as well as Justin Jackson doing well when called upon to fill in for Austin Ekeler.

What I come here to write, though, is that Northwestern’s NFL talent should not be taken for granted.

Around the country, NU is not considered a blue-chip program such as Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, LSU or other powerhouses. If you checked NFL teams’ rosters, they would all likely have multiple players from those schools, and several more earning All-Pro nods from college leviathans. Point blank, Northwestern is a much smaller school and doesn’t have the same ambiance or recruiting appeal, nor the year-to-year consistency of these top-flight teams.

In spite of receiving less publicity and posting just three wins in two of the last three campaigns, Pat Fitzgerald has continued to produce not just pro-level talent, but also players that make immediate and important impacts — something that separates a program from being good to great.

A good example of a school known to produce consistent talent in spite of annual performance is fellow Big Ten performer Penn State.

In 2020, the Nittany Lions went a subpar 4-5, finishing below .500 for the first time since 2004. Even though James Franklin’s bunch did not meet expectations in the slightest, PSU still generated multiple high-octane rookies this year, including Micah Parsons (who didn’t play in 2020), Odafe Oweh, Pat Freiermuth and even Shaka Toney.

A similar tenet applies to Penn State during Franklin’s first two years in Happy Valley, when the Nittany Lions went 14-12 from 2014-15. Despite winning just one bowl game in that span, PSU sent several guys to the professional ranks — Allen Robinson, Adrian Amos, Donovan Smith, Jesse James and Carl Nassib, to name a few — who have been productive with NFL franchises since they entered the league.

Yes, most experts and fans alike would view Penn State as a notch above Northwestern as a program. But both Franklin’s and Fitzgerald’s teams have churned out consummate pros year in and year out.

In the case of NU, former Wildcats frequently draw less attention, often fitting the mold of the program. Take Anthony Walker, who’s quietly become a very solid inside linebacker and has posted over 90 tackles in each of the last four seasons. Walker is an NFL player that most teams would want to have on their depth charts due to his cerebral yet gritty play, a common thread among Northwestern products.

Often, NU alumni can get innately lost in the limelight because of their spots as backups or rotational piece. Even then, former ‘Cats have shined quite brightly.

For much of his career, Trevor Siemian was just a nomadic, third-string quarterback — that is, until the Saints needed him once Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill suffered injuries. Siemian remained cool under pressure and filled the void quite nicely, even beating Tom Brady and the Buccaneers in Week 8 and keeping New Orleans in the postseason hunt. It could have been easy for players in Siemian’s shoes to have grown dismayed, but the former NU QB came in and played nearly to the caliber of the starting gunslingers, which is not something that many backups can hang their hats on.

With the recent transfer of former All-American Brandon Joseph to Notre Dame and more uncertainty mounting at quarterback, things look bleak for Fitzgerald and the Wildcats this upcoming season, especially in light of an adjusted schedule that features a trip to State College, Pennsylvania. A three-win campaign yet again would be another stain on Fitzgerald’s rather shiny resume, and there’s no denying that.

Regardless of how Northwestern has fared this past season, or will perform in 2022, fans of the purple and white should recognize that one of the highest benchmarks for a program is preparing and refining the next generation of athletes.

From Slater and Greg Newsome’s phenomenal rookie campaigns to even Northwestern-turned-Notre Dame wide receive Bennett Skowronek playing an integral role in the Rams’ receiving corps, it’s clear that NU and Fitzgerald are in rarefied air by molding smart, physical and engaging NFL players.