The NFL just ended its 100th regular season, which means we can wrap it up for the handful of former Duke players making a living in what is still America’s most popular professional sports league.
But not everyone.
It wasn’t too long ago that “former Duke players in the NFL” would have been the punch line to a joke, like “the wit and wisdom of Calvin Coolidge” or some such.
And Duke doesn’t have anywhere near as many NFL-caliber players as they need to take the step from .500 to championship level. But it’s a far cry from the days when you could count Duke alums in the NFL on one finger; thanks Patrick Mannelly.
Before we close the door on the 2019 season, we have the playoffs, which began this weekend. Two, possibly three Blue Devils are still fighting for a spot in Super Bowl LIV. They won’t play this weekend, which enhances their chances of playing in February.
Duke has had players in the Super Bowl before. Duke lists Kenny Anunike and Juwan Thompson as members of the Denver Broncos team that defeated the Carolina Panthers 24-10 in Super Bowl 50.
But Anunike was on injured reserve and did not play and Thompson was not active. Seattle tight end Cooper Helfet did not play in Super Bowl 49. The most recent Blue Devil I can find who actually played in a Super Bowl appears to be Patrick Bailey for Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLIII.
But players like Mike Curtis, Billy Bryan, Bob Matheson, Ed Newman and Mannelly were key players in the Super Bowl.
As will be the case if the San Francisco 49ers make it to the Super Bowl. Laken Tomlinson starts at guard for the Niners and he played 1061 of their 1062 offensive snaps this past season.
Offensive linemen are the most anonymous team-sport athletes in American sports. But Tomlinson looms pretty large in recent Duke football history, and no that’s not a pun on his 315-pound physique. Tomlinson was a first-team AP All-American in 2014 and won the 2015 McKelvin Award (same academic year) as the ACC’s top male athlete. The Detroit Lions selected him 28th in the first round of the 2015 NFL draft, Duke’s first pick in the first round of the regular draft since Mike Junkin in 1987; Dave Brown was picked in the first round of the 1992 supplemental draft.
He was underwhelming in Detroit and was traded to San Francisco in 2017 for a fifth-round pick.
It was highway robbery for the Niners. Tomlinson has blossomed into a standout blocker. San Francisco nominated him for the Pro Bowl.
Lucas Patrick started at left guard for Duke, while Tomlinson was at right guard. Patrick wasn’t an All-American and wasn’t drafted. He signed with Green Bay as an Undrafted Free Agent and worked his way onto the permanent roster. Green Bay recently signed him to a four-year contract.
Patrick is a backup but plays regularly on special teams. He will be on the field for Green Bay this post-season.
There’s a third possibility. Tight end Daniel Helm hasn’t played at all this season but he is on San Francisco’s active roster and could see post-season action.
San Francisco and Green Bay are on the opposite sides of the NFL playoff bracket, which means they will comprise two of the final four NFL teams. Which means a 50-50 chance of seeing a Blue Devil in the Super Bowl, better if we assume the 49ers and Packers are marginally better than the teams they will be facing in the Divisional round.
There’s no one left on the AFC side of the equation. Center Matt Skura was having a Pro-Bowl-caliber season for Super Bowl Favorites Baltimore. But the Ravens star — another member of Duke’s 2013/2014 title-level teams — went down with a season-ending knee injury in November.