2017 is behind us, and is time to reflect on all the good that has happened in Notre Dame athletics. No matter the professional sport, Notre Dame has a plethora of former players playing at high levels. In part one of our four part series, Golden Domer Daily takes a look at Irish in the NFL.
32 former Notre Dame football players held NFL roster spots in 2017. That list includes three rookies (DeShone Kizer, Isaac Rochell and James Onwualu). Kizer spent most of the year as the Browns starting quarterback, and it was a frustrating first year at that. The Browns finished 0-16 and Kizer posted 22 interceptions to only 11 passing touchdowns. He also provided 5 touchdowns on the ground. It was a rough year for Kizer, but his team didn’t help him out much. Rochell and Onwualu spent most of the year as role players for the San Diego Chargers. Onwaulu saw the field early and played mainly special teams while Rochell appeared in only 3 games. However, Rochell did appear in the Chargers’ last two games, totaling 4 tackles and a sack.
The Irish have a solid core of standout NFL players. Offensive guard Zack Martin, tight end Kyle Rudolph, safety Harrison Smith and wide receiver Golden Tate are some of the best in the NFL at their respective positions. Tate enjoyed his 3rd season of over 1,000 yards receiving and fourth straight with 90+ catches. He is regularly one of the best receivers after the catch. Zack Martin will make his fourth pro bowl in as many seasons, and he is one of the best in league. Smith and Rudolph are two of the biggest reasons for the Vikings 13-3 season, and are both proven stars at their positions. Rudolph finished the season with 57 catches and 8 touchdowns (second most in his career), and Smith tied his career high with 5 interceptions and posted a new career high with 12 passes defended. Smith also received the highest grade of any safety in the NFL this season, according to the pro football focus.
Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller have both enjoyed early success, but aren’t considered in that elite category yet. Stanley is coming off his second season as the Ravens left tackle and should start receiving recognition as one of the game’s best at the position. Fuller also just finished his second year in the NFL, but injuries have derailed his stats some. With that said, he showed his play-making ability in spurts this year with 7 receiving touchdowns. Fuller is a big play waiting to happen, much like he was at Notre Dame.
The Best of the Rest
Outside of the aforementioned names, Notre Dame has a multitude of players enjoying nice NFL careers. Many would argue that Stephon Tuitt deserves mention higher up on this list, and the case can certainly be made. Tuitt has 14.5 career sacks in 4 seasons, but has missed parts of every season with injuries. Manti Te’o has also seen injuries cut short many of his seasons. Originally drafted in the 2nd round by the San Diego Chargers, Te’o signed with the New Orleans Saints this past off-season. Te’o was a key cog in the middle of the improved Saints defense in the second half of the season. He could be ready to take that next step.
Theo Riddick has made himself into one of the better receiving backs in the NFL. This was his third straight season of 50 or more catches, and he set a career high with 8 total touchdowns. Riddick will never be a workhorse back, but the Lions have found value for him in their offense. Lastly, Matthias Farley has turned himself into a really good starting safety for the Indianapolis Colts after going undrafted in 2016. This season, he totaled 98 tackles which was good for second on the team. He also picked off two passes and had 7 passes defended.
We all know Jaylon Smith’s story. He was ready to become a top five pick in the 2016 draft, but tore his ACL during his final collegiate game. Smith sat out his rookie season after his 2nd round selection by the Cowboys. His ACL injury caused nerve damage in his leg, which made for a longer and ongoing recovery. Smith returned to the field this season, starting 6 games for the Cowboys and finishing with 81 total tackles. If Smith ever fully recovers from his leg injury, NFL fans are in for a treat. Speaking of devastating injuries, no one knows that story more than former Irish great Tyler Eifert. He led the NFL in 2015 with 13 touchdowns, and defenses feared him in the red zone. Unfortunately, two of his five seasons have been nonexistent due to season-ending injuries, and his chronic back issues will likely cut his career short. I fear NFL fans will never get to experience the greatness of these two individuals like Notre Dame fans did. On pure talent alone, both players would probably top this list.
In Closing and Tomorrow’s List
I could go on about other Notre Dame greats in the NFL, but this list highlights the best currently playing. The rest of these lists (NBA, MLB and NHL) should contain every player currently in the league, considering there are far less players to attribute for. Stay tuned as Golden Domer Daily gets you caught up with the best former Notre Dame athletes. Up next… the NBA.