Draft day is a big day for countless college athletes, from baseball players to lacrosse players.
But the NFL draft is the apex predator of American pro-sports-league-drafts. The NFL combine—it was canceled this year—and countless school-specific Pro Days, draft websites, magazines and mock drafts lead up to a three-day, nationally televised extravaganza with draft analysts falling all over themselves to critique over 200 draft picks.
If you are a Duke football fan, your interest in the NFL draft probably has related to how your favorite NFL is or is not enhancing their Super Bowl chances.
Because, in recent years, not a lot of former Blue Devils hear their names called. Duke had a three-year gap (1993-’95), another three-year gap (2001-’03), a five-year gap (2008-’12) and another three-year gap (2016-’18) in which not one single Blue Devil was selected. From 1997 though last season Duke had only 11 NFL draft picks. Laken Tomlinson (1st round) and Jamison Crowder (4th round) were picked in 2015, the only draft in the 20th century in which two Duke players were selected.
A rational person wouldn’t expect a 2-9 football team to establish school records for draft success. But “rational” isn’t the word any of us would use to describe the 2020 college football season, so why not?
For the record, Duke had 10 draft picks in 1946. But eight of those were drafted from the 12th to the 30th round. Of course, there were fewer teams in those days, so Jim LaRue, that 30th-round draft pick was the 281st pick of that draft.
But, I’m not going to attempt to compare draft classes from different eras. It probably makes sense to start with 1993, when the NFL compressed its draft from 12 rounds to eight or the following season, when the league went to its current seven rounds.
Interestingly, the last Duke player to get picked outside seven rounds was offensive tackle Chris Port, who was picked by New Orleans in the 12th round of the 1990 draft and went on to play six seasons for the Saints.
Duke’s best draft class in the modern era came in 1996, when Ray Farmer, Spence Fisher and Jon Merrill were drafted. Farmer spent parts of three seasons as an NFL player before a knee injury ended his playing career. A front-office stint with Cleveland did not end well.
David Cutcliffe didn’t have any three-player classes but some of his selections had more staying power, Tomlinson, Crowder and Ross Cockrell among them.
Which brings us to 2021.
In the absence of the NFL combine, Duke’s Pro Day was huge. Defensive ends Chris Rumph II and Victor Dimukeje, defensive backs Michael Carter II and Mark Gilbert and tight end Noah Gray were the original invitees. Running back Deon Jackson and offensive lineman Devery Hamilton were late additions.
The post-Pro-Day narrative was positive and it wasn’t spin. Rumph, Dimukeje and Gray helped themselves and Carter helped himself a lot. All four were selected, all on Saturday, the third and final day, devoted to rounds four through seven.
Rumph was considered Duke’s best prospect and it played out that way, as the Los Angeles Chargers selected him as the 13th pick of the fourth round, 118th overall.
Rumph is in an interesting position. He played mostly defensive end at Duke. He’s bulked up to 244 pounds but still projected as a linebacker at the next level.
But he’s going to a team rebuilding under new coach Brandon Staley and there’s always opportunities under new regimes. For what it’s worth Staley says he wants “edge rushers” and doesn’t care if they’re linebackers or ends. And if Rumph can somehow get on the field at the same time as star defensive end Joey Bosa, well Bosa is going to be the one getting double teamed.
Uchenna Nwosu starts alongside Bosa but the Chargers did not sign free agent Melvin Ingram, so there’s an opening at defensive end.
Rumph has never lacked for confidence, as witness by his comments shortly after the draft.
“You got one guy with the Chargers right now that I’m happy to learn under,” Rumph told the L.A. media. “I’m excited to learn from him. He’s a great player. All the accolades he has (are) well deserved. I’m excited to play with someone who is as relentless to the quarterback as he is. I’m ready for that. Also, the competition, because if he’s trying to get there, I’m trying to get there at the same time. Somebody has to get there first, so it’s only going to make all of us better, improve the team and make a run to the Super Bowl.”
Carter was the second Blue Devil off the board, 10th in the fifth round, 154th overall. He was picked by the New York Jets one round after they picked the UNC running back also named Michael Carter.
The Jets had some fun with it.
“For the first time in NFL history, a team has selected two players with the same first and last name in the same draft, they tweeted, adding ”We don’t actually know if this is true, but we’re busy and just going with it.”
Duke’s Carter helped himself immensely on Pro Day, running a jaw-dropping 4.30 40-yard dash. His versatility should also help him stick in New York; Carter played safety and corner at Duke and was a special-teams standout.
Former Duke receiving great Jamison Crowder will be one of his Jets teammates.
Kansas City traded up to take Gray with the 18th pick of the 5th round, 162nd overall.
Now the Chiefs have the best tight end in the game, Travis Kelce, but even the best starters need a rest now and then and it’s hard to imagine Gray having a better mentor.
And having Patrick Mahomes on the other end of a forward pass must be nice.
Dimukeje was the last Duke player selected. Arizona picked him the sixth round. He was the 210th pick. The Cardinals recently upgraded that position group when they signed future hall-of-famer J.J. Watt.
In the best-of-all-possible-worlds-the 32-year old Watt would mentor Dimukeje to be his replacement.
Hey, it’s draft weekend, a time to dream.
Speaking of dreaming, it didn’t take long for the three undrafted Devils to sign on the dotted line. Gilbert signed with Pittsburgh, Jackson with Indianapolis and Hamilton with Las Vegas.
Most undrafted free agents fade away. But not all. A number of former Blue Devils have used UFA status to make an NFL roster. Among them, Lucas Patrick (Green Bay) and Breon Borders (Tennessee) stand out.
Can Duke derive any future benefit from this relative draft bonanza?
Hard to say. David Cutcliffe will turn 67 next September and figures to coach only two more seasons.
On the other hand, every high-school football player in the country watches the NFL draft and seeing and hearing Duke football on that TV screen has to be seen as a good thing, whether Cutcliffe or his successor ultimately reaps the benefits. Get a great education at Duke and get drafted by the NFL is a great message and it’s one that has more validity today.