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Northwestern in the NFL: Wildcats get bit by injuries

NU alumni faced some unfortunate circumstances in Week Three.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cleveland Browns
Sep 22, 2022; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Cleveland Browns linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. (5) is carted off the field after injuring his leg against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the third quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Lon Horwedel
Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

With three straight losses to non-conference opponents, it’s been a rough go for Northwestern’s football program as of late. Now, the team heads to State College to take on No. 11 Penn State, which isn’t ideal, to say the least. But hey, at least women’s soccer is thriving!

What’s the best well to cope with current issues? Well, why not remember the good ol’ days? As they say, “remembering the past gives power to the future”, which seems a bit curious, but, hey, we’ll go with it! What do I mean by this? Of course, we have to check in the players that donned Northwestern purple long before this current group.

There are still plenty of alumni with legitimate NFL roles currently. At the same time, though, perhaps this wasn’t the best week for said players — unfortunately, many of them now face the dreaded injury bug.

Rashawn Slater — LA Chargers, OT

Speaking of which, if you needed another reminder of how cruel said injury bug is, just take a look at the Chargers this year:

  • Wide receiver Keenan Allen has missed multiple games due to a hamstring injury
  • Cornerback JC Jackson has missed multiple games due to an ankle injury
  • All-Pro center Corey Linsley will miss a prolonged period of time with a knee injury
  • Star edge rusher Joey Bosa will miss some time with a groin injury
  • Superstar quarterback Justin Herbert is still dealing with a rib injury

In some ways, that made Rashawn Slater the last man standing, and, sadly, that is no longer the case; he’ll miss the entire 2022 season after suffering a torn biceps tendon. To say this is a devastating development would be a drastic understatement, especially as Slater was continuing to ascend into one of the game’s elite tackles.

I mean, to finish as a second-team All-Pro while ranking 8th in PFF grade amongst tackles as a rookie, given the general learning curve of the position, is absolutely absurd, and Slater only added to that by ranking third in the same metric to start this season. At a time when the Chargers, who have the lowest-graded pass-blocking offensive line from PFF, have struggled mightily, he had been the one stabilizing force, essentially eliminating any sort of blind-side pressure for Justin Herbert. Let me put it this way; his replacement, Storm Norton, allowed five more pressures in half a game than Slater had allowed in the 2.5 games he played prior to the injury. Heck, we haven’t even mentioned the fact he was the third-highest graded run blocker from PFF as well!

Sadly, injuries come with playing in the NFL, but there’s no reason to expect Slater not to get back to solidifying himself as one of the game’s elite players at the position. At tackle, that’s going to mean a hefty payday soon enough, as well as keeping a superstar quarterback upright. Sounds like a win for all sides if you ask me! For now, though, here’s hoping for a smooth recovery.

Greg Newsome II — Cleveland Browns, CB

Let’s shift to a brighter note, shall we? The other member of Northwestern’s 2021 first-round class is, in fact, still healthy, and is coming off his best game of the season.

Coming into the season, the Browns were hoping to field one of the best secondaries in football, but that involved some conditionals coming into effect, such as Greg Newsome II fully adapting to moving full-time into the slot. Those growing pains showed up early, but Week Three provided reason for optimism moving forward.

Going up mainly against Chase Claypool in the slot, Newsome II more than held his own on Thursday Night Football, allowing just two receptions for eight yards on three targets, which is quite impressive on 35 coverage snaps. Interestingly, this game featured his highest usage in the slot (81%) compared to outside corner, and he’s now allowing the seventh-fewest amount of yards/coverage snap (0.63) in the slot this year. We’ll see how he’s deployed on Sunday in Atlanta with Kyle Pitts playing over 40% of his snaps in the slot, which could present an interesting test for Newsome II. Still, though, things are heading in the right direction.

Week Four Matchup: at Atlanta Falcons (Sunday, 12:00 p.m. CT)

Anthony Walker Jr. — Cleveland Browns, LB

Back to the sad news. It’s not every day that a fifth-round pick develops into a starting linebacker, especially with the amount of turbulence Anthony Walker Jr. went through during his four-year career in Indianapolis. After signing with the Browns, however, the Miami native had a career year, earning the fifth-highest PFF coverage grade (78.2) amongst linebackers. Even with some run defense woes along the way, a linebacker with his coverage skillset is immensely valuable in today’s game.

Yet, the NFL clearly did not agree; at a time when multiple linebackers received lofty contracts, Walker Jr. received a modest one-year, $4.25 million deal, where he’d immediately respond by being PFF’s third-highest graded linebacker in coverage. Unfortunately, this is where the good times come to a halt. In the middle of a Thursday Night affair against the Steelers, Walker Jr. suffered a torn quadriceps muscle that will keep him out for the rest of the season, with free agency now up next. It’d make sense for him and the Browns to keep what has been a great marriage going, though it’s far too early to know what’ll happen at this point. It’s a shame in what looked like another high-end season from a late-blooming player, but here’s to better days ahead.

Dean Lowry — Green Bay Packers, DE

It’s still strange that the Packers are now a team winning on the back of their defense combined with enough offensive efficiency as opposed to the other way around, though I’ve come to not rule out any possibility nowadays. A lot of that comes down to what the team is able to accomplish on the defensive line, and while the focus will immediately go to Kenny Clark, Rashan Gary, and Preston Smith, Dean Lowry has developed into a very important contributor as well.

A fourth-round pick in 2016, Lowry has consistently served in a rotational role on the interior of Green Bay’s defensive line, yet it wasn’t until 2021, when he had 42 pressures on 441 pass-rush snaps along with a career-high 73.9 PFF pass-rush grade, where he truly took the next step as a pass rusher. That’s a very interesting alignment with the hiring of Joe Barry as defensive coordinator, and, so far this season, Lowry has picked up right where he left off- a 69.8 PFF pass-rush grade and five pressures. Week Three was more the same (69.1 PFF pass-rush grade), though he’ll now face a tough test with a strong Patriots interior offensive line. That said, with them favored by ten points, it’s shaping up to be a scenario where he’ll be involved in plenty of obvious passing situations, leaving plenty of opportunities for him to continue to play his part for a defense meshing together at the right time.

Week Four Matchup: vs New England Patriots (Sunday, 3:25 p.m. CT)

Ben Skowronek — Los Angeles Rams, WR (also FB?)

When you think of the Rams, you probably think of head coach Sean McVay leading an offense with Matthew Stafford, Cooper Kupp, and Allen Robinson. Yet, what if I told you a former Wildcat is doing something that no other player in the NFL is doing?

Usually, a fullback is a 250+-pound player meant to be a better version of a blocking tight end and needs to hold their own against 300-pound defensive tackles. So, the fact that Ben Skowronek, a 224-pound receiver, is taking legitimate snaps at fullback is simply incredible:

Mind you, that’s Zaven Collins, a 260-pound linebacker drafted with the 16th overall pick in 2021, whom Skowronek is simply handling as if he was an offensive lineman. On top of that, he accumulated 66 receiving yards and four receptions on four targets (3.14 yards/route run). Sounds like a multi-purpose weapon to me! Kudos to Sean McVay for being creative enough to add this wrinkle to an 11-personnel-heavy offense (this is still a three-wide receiver set, to be fair), and even bigger kudos to Skowronek for being able to take on a role that few players can handle. In many ways, he is currently a unicorn, and football could use more unicorns.

Week Four Matchup: at San Francisco 49ers (Monday, 7:15 p.m. CT)

Ifeadi Odenigbo — Indianapolis Colts, DE

Can you believe the 2021 Browns had THREE former Northwestern players on the same team at once? It’s a bit strange that after two seasons with a PFF pass-rush grade over 68 that Ifeadi Odenigbo hasn’t been given the opportunity for any sort of notable role since 2020, though that’s the challenge as a former seventh-round pick. Regardless, he continues to make the most of his opportunities as they present themselves.

In Indianapolis, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley runs a defensive scheme predicated on rushing four and playing cover-three, placing great pressure on his defensive line to generate pressure without any extra help. Well, it certainly helps when a role player like Odenigbo can step in with three pressures on six pass-rush snaps, good for an 82.5 PFF pass-rush grade in the process. The 28-year-old likely will continue to be limited to five-to-ten pass-rush snaps a game, though the Colts playing in more favorable game scripts in the future would help, as it’s going to be hard for him to get many opportunities elsewhere with Kwity Paye and Yannick Ngakoue both talented edge rushers whom the front office invested in. Still, though, it’s at least encouraging he’s found a role he can succeed in; not many former seventh-round picks who have bounced around teams like he has can say the same. Should he get his chances, the Colts play a depleted Titans offensive line ranked fourth-worst in PFF pass-block grade, which should be music to every pass rusher’s ears.

Week Four Matchup: vs Tennessee Titans (Sunday, 12:00 p.m. CT)

Mike Kafka — New York Giants, Offensive Coordinator

Well, folks, the Giants will not be going undefeated this year. With that shocking development out of the way, there are still encouraging signs with the team’s coaching staff, including the man calling the plays in New York.

Nope, that would not be head coach Brian Daboll, who instead relegated play-calling duties to former Northwestern quarterback and Chiefs quarterbacks coach Mike Kafka. On the surface, you wouldn’t think that ranking 21st in expected points added per play (EPA/play) and 26th in successful-play rate would be a good sign, but consider this: The Giants have the lowest team offense PFF grade, including the third-worst pass-block grade, the fifth-worst receiving grade, the seventh-worst passing grade, and the ninth-worst run-blocking grade. The fact that this is an offense that has had any sort of viability whatsoever is impressive in and of itself, and that mainly continued to happen (14th in successful-play rate) on Monday Night Football against a strong Cowboys defense.

After a run-heavy mindset in Week One, Kafka has shifted much more back to expectations, ranking sixth in early-down pass rate (65%) in Week Three. That, combined with the sixth-highest play-action rate, is an example of them trying to push all the right buttons on early downs, which, with improved personnel, should start to show. After having to compensate for an extraordinary Cowboys pass rush, being able to take a deep breath against a much weaker Bears defense surely is a relief for him; the talent deficiency he’s usually dealing with is no longer there, allowing for the process to start leading to results. Of course, every extra win also impacts them in a potential search for an upgrade at quarterback, though I’m sure that is as far from this coaching staff’s mind as it gets.

Week Four Matchup: vs Chicago Bears (Sunday, 12:00 p.m. CT)

Other Wildcats in the NFL: RB Justin Jackson (somehow still relegated to special teams for the Detroit Lions), DL Joe Gaziano (Los Angeles Chargers), DL Earnest Brown (Los Angeles Rams), OL Blake Hance (San Francisco 49ers), QB Trevor Siemian (Chicago Bears), LB Joe Jones (Tennessee Titans), WR Kyric McGowan (Washington Commanders)