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Duke in the NFL: 2021 season preview

Giants quarterback Daniel Jones hopes to revitalize his career in year three after a disappointing 2020 season.
Giants quarterback Daniel Jones hopes to revitalize his career in year three after a disappointing 2020 season.

With the recent finalization of 53-man rosters, a handful of former Blue Devils look to build upon or anew a professional career in the NFL. Though they no longer bear the blue and white on the field, Duke fans should keep an eye out for former Blue Devils as they suit up for what will likely be a pivotal season for many careers.

Daniel Jones, QB, New York Giants

Though Jones, the former sixth-overall pick, has preserved his starting role entering his third season, he has done little to quell his critics. In his 26 starts for the Giants, Jones has gone 8-18 with a 62.2% completion rate and 35 touchdowns. His inability to take care of the football has led to Jones throwing 22 interceptions and losing a league-high 29 fumbles over the two-year span.

Despite his offensive woes, the blame certainly does not fall solely on Jones. With an upgraded offensive line, running back Saquon Barkley returning to health and signings of proven receivers such as Kenny Golladay, Jones will likely see a more efficient 2021 season.

Most fans and analysts agree that this year will be a make-or-break season for Jones. The franchise has preserved its faith in Jones, retaining him as their starter despite his lack of success. With all the physical gifts an NFL quarterback could ask for, Jones will hope for a drastic third-season turnaround, though he may find himself on a short leash. 

Jamison Crowder, WR, New York Jets

The slot receiver kicked off last season with a strong start, catching no less than seven passes in the first four games, averaging 95.8 yards per game. However, the stunted offensive efficiency of the Jets in addition to several injuries stifled Crowder’s contributions in the latter half of the season. This lack of consistency has seemingly permeated invariably throughout Crowder’s seven-year NFL career. Nonetheless, Crowder looks to retain his role as WR1 for New York with his deft footwork and breakout potential. 

Perhaps Crowder will find greater individual and team success with new head coach Robert Saleh and rookie quarterback Zach Wilson. The Jets look to rebound from their second-to-last place finish with a revamped offensive lineup. However, Crowder, in his contract year, will likely be absent for the season opener against the Carolina Panthers, having recently tested positive for COVID-19. 

Laken Tomlinson, G, San Francisco 49ers

Perhaps the former Blue Devil with the greatest job security this season, Tomlinson enters his seventh season in the NFL and fifth with the 49ers. Tomlinson has been a reliable force at left guard, starting 63 of 63 games in his four seasons in the Bay Area. Who he will be blocking for—between quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance—remains in question. Tomlinson is currently on the final year of the three-year $18 million extension he signed in 2018, hoping to bring the 49ers back to the playoffs. 

Lucas Patrick, G, Green Bay Packers

Capping off the list of Blue Devils who played significant minutes last season, Patrick is looking to repeat the success he found in 2020 after a breakout season for the Green Bay Packers. After starting zero games in 2019 and a combined six games in his first three seasons, Patrick started fifteen of the sixteen games he played last season. Patrick played 90% of offensive snaps last season, previously never eclipsing 27%. However, the Packers selected guard Royce Newman in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft, and he will likely compete with Patrick for offensive snaps. 

Latest draftees suit up for NFL teams

A program-record four Blue Devils were selected in the 2021 NFL Draft. Defensive end Chris Rumph II was the first off the board, as he was selected by the Los Angeles Chargers in the fourth round. Rumph logged 52 tackles in his redshirt-junior All-ACC season for Duke. The edge rusher could find himself starting for the Chargers by the end of the season, as he is currently listed second in the depth chart.

Defensive back Michael Carter III was taken by the New York Jets in the fifth round. Although the Jets now have a crowded cornerback room, Carter could distinguish himself from the bunch under the tutelage of defensive mastermind Saleh. Carter was a third-team All-ACC selection alongside Rumph. 

Tight end Noah Gray was also selected in the fifth round, joining the star-studded Kansas City Chiefs. Gray, who caught 29 passes for 285 yards in his final college season, will have the opportunity to catch and block for Patrick Mahomes. Kansas City head coach Andy Reid is known to utilize bigger tight ends in offensive play calling, so Gray will look to follow in Chiefs' top tight end Travis Kelce’s footsteps and aid the Chiefs in their quest for another Super Bowl. 

The last Blue Devil selected in the 2021 NFL Draft was defensive end Victor Dimukeje. He will be fighting for a role on a Cardinals team that posted the fourth-most sacks last season while adding additional pass rushers including J.J. Watt. Dimukeje recorded 44 tackles and 7.5 sacks last season for Duke. 

Other veterans look to solidify roles

Cornerbacks Ross Cockrell and Breon Borders, of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans, respectively, along with Jets long snapper Thomas Hennessy also strive for consistent playing time, rounding out the former Duke players on NFL active rosters.

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