Duke in the NFL: Previewing the 2015-16 season

The NFL season kicks off tonight and 10 former Blue Devils find themselves on professional rosters. From rookies to practice squad players to starters, there are high expectations for some of Duke's former stars. The Blue Zone previews the season ahead for these former Blue Devils.

Kenny Anunike, Denver Broncos: After spending the entire 2014 season on injured reserve with an elbow injury, the defensive end showed serious promise in his first preseason game with the Broncos. The second-year player logged eight tackles, including one sack, and helped his team to a 22-20 victory against the Seattle Seahawks Aug. 14.

Anunike suffered some minor swelling in his knee after Friday's game, but coaches expect him to be back on the field for the team's season opener Sunday against the Ravens.

Jamison Crowder, Washington Redskins: Crowder was drafted in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL draft, becoming the first wide receiver drafted from Duke since 1990. Although Crowder’s impressive speed and acceleration proved worthy of the NFL, analysts have concerns about his size and small target radius. But with the ability to make smooth cuts and fearless catches in the slot, expect Crowder to make an impact on the next level from day one. 

The Monroe, N.C., native was one of the most prolific special teams player during his time in Durham and figures to see a lot of action in the kick-return game during his rookie season. Expect Crowder to serve as a punt returner and possibly even a kick returner in the early going as he works to climb up the Redskins' wide receiver depth chart. 

Vincent Rey, Cincinnati Bengals: Since joining the Bengals in 2010 as a free agent, the former Blue Devil has proved himself at the linebacker position. Rey recorded a team-leading 121 tackles—good for 12th in the NFL—last season and averaged more than seven tackles a game. The former Blue Devil was named his team's Defensive Player of the Year and was also nominated for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.  

With that being said, much of Rey's playing time a year ago was a result of injuries to the Bengals' linebacker corps. Pro Bowl outside linebacker Vontaze Burficit and defensive tackle Geno Atkins are both on the mend for injuries and will likely regain their starting roles as the season progresses. Expect Rey to be a serviceable defensive option that will certainly see hefty playing time as the grueling NFL schedule drags on. 

Juwan Thompson, Denver Broncos: After going undrafted in the 2014 draft, Thompson was picked up by the Broncos with high hopes and carried the ball for three touchdowns and 272 yards during his rookie year. Early on in training camp, analysts reported a possibility of Thompson moving up the depth chart to the second-string running back behind C.J. Anderson, but after a sluggish start to preseason, that no longer appears to be the case. Thompson will start the season as the third string running back behind Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, but expect him to stay in contention for the backup slot if Hillman struggles.

Ross Cockrell, Pittsburgh Steelers: After seeing only 11 snaps of game action during his rookie year with the Buffalo Bills, Cockerel was released by the team this summer during the first round of cuts, only to be picked up by the Steelers a few days later.

Cockrell clearly has his admirers in the Steelers organization as the team had brought him in for a pre-draft visit a year ago and were especially impressed with his cover skills and intellect. With the team's defense a major question mark in the future, Cockrell could have a chance to get some playing time if someone ahead of him struggles or suffers an injury. 

Cooper Helfet, Seattle Seahawks: After signing with Seattle in 2014, Helfet racked up 185 yards receiving on 12 catches and scored two touchdowns a year ago. Stuck behind tight ends Jimmy Graham and Luke Wilson on the depth chart, it is unlikely that Helfet will see much of the field on offense. But, the former Blue Devil will certainly have his opportunity to make his mark on special teams and will need to do so to keep his spot on the roster.

Laken Tomlinson, Detroit Lions: Selected 28th overall by the Lions in this year's draft, Tomlinson was expected to be a major contributor for the team this season. But questions about Tomlinson's athleticism have pushed the former Blue Devil to second on the depth chart at left guard behind Manny Ramirez. Tomlinson will be eased into his role as the Lions'  lineman of the future and should receive adequate playing time in his rookie season. The three-time Academic All-ACC selection also sports a tremendous football IQ that will certainly endear him to coaches and help him contribute both on and off the field. 


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