How about those players whose seasons ended more naturally?
Several have reason to feel good about the state of their careers.
Being a starting quarterback in the media capital of the world is the opposite of the anonymity of an offensive lineman. Daniel Jones’ rookie season with the New York Giants was full of soap-opera subplots. New York received copious criticism for selecting Jones sixth in the 2019 NFL draft when they could have selected a quarterback from a more NFL-friendly school, like Ohio State, Missouri or West Virginia. The New York Post called the pick an “utter disaster.”
Then there was his early takeover as starting quarterback from Eli Manning, the Giants starting quarterback since 2004. The fact that David Cutcliffe coached both Jones and Manning in college added to the spicy stew.
Jones became an overnight sensation when he led the Giants to a comeback win over Tampa Bay in his first start. The bloom wore off a bit as the season progressed. The Giants aren’t very good-there’s a reason they picked sixth, after all. The losses mounted, while Jones showed an alarming tendency to fumble; he led the league with 18.
But those doubters have changed their tunes. Jones threw five touchdown passes in an overtime win over Washington on December 22, one of five games in which he passed for more than 300 yards.
It also tied the NFL record for touchdown passes by a rookie. He and Matthew Stafford are the only NFL rookies since 1950 to pass for 5 touchdowns and 300 plus yards in the same game. Jones broke virtually every team rookie passing record the Giants have bothered to tabulate. plus yards and five touchdowns in the same game.
Despite missing two games with an ankle injury Jones threw for 3,027 yards, 24 touchdowns and rushed for two touchdowns. His RTG passing rating was better than that of Heisman Trophy winners Kyler Murray, Jameis Winston and Baker Mayfield.
Jones’ rookie season was better than anything Dave Brown put together. In fact, we have to go back to Sonny Jurgensen to find a Duke alum having better passing stats than Jones produced last season and that’s where the list ends.
Jamison Crowder also played in New York but without a fraction of the media scrutiny faced by Jones. A 2013 and 2014 All-America as a punt returner, Crowder holds or shares Duke career records for receptions in a season, receiving yards in a season, career receptions, and punt returns for a touchdown.
Crowder played his first four seasons for Washington but signed with the Jets as a free agent. Despite some instability at the quarterback position Crowder had a career year, 78 receptions, 833 yards, and six touchdowns, leading the Jets in all of those categories.
He finished 24th in the league in receptions, 39th in yards.
Duke has never had another NFL receiver with even remotely comparable stats.
Crowder’s Jets teammate Thomas Hennessy completed his third season as their long snapper. They signed him to a four-year contract last fall, at over a million dollars per season for arguably pro sports’ most specialized job.
He still has a long way to go to match former Blue Devil Patrick Mannelly, who snapped the ball 2,282 times without a botched snap in 16 years for the Chicago Bears.
Like Jones and Crowder, Ross Cockrell is a Charlotte-area product. An All-ACC cornerback at Duke, Cockrell missed the entire 2018 season with his hometown Carolina Panthers with a broken leg but recovered enough to start 11 games this past season, intercepting 2 passes, with 62 tackles.
It gets skimpy after that. Linebacker Joe Giles-Harris gave up his fifth year to enter the draft. He went undrafted but stuck with Jacksonville, where he played mostly on special teams.
Cornerback Breon Borders--another Charlottean--began the season as Giles-Harris’ teammate, was waived and picked up by Washington. He has 7 career tackles and no interceptions in 3 seasons.
That’s everyone with a Duke pedigree who played a down in a 2019 regular-season NFL game.
It’s a lot more than Duke used to have. But the teams Duke competes against in the ACC have more, some a lot more and Duke is not going to consistently beat NFL-ripe rosters without NFL-ripe rosters of its own.
Duke has to recruit smart players who can play at a high level. No problem with the academic part of the equation. The more Duke can sell the narrative that we-can-get-you-to-the-NFL to the best prospect, the stronger the program will become.
But Duke has to leverage the NFL success of Tomlinson, Jones, Crowder, Skura and others to achieve that goal.