When the Denver Broncos, fresh off of last week's whipping at the hands of the New England Patriots, line up for the first defensive play of this weekend's game against Oakland, 27 percent of their starting lineup will be former Jayhawks.
Although Chris Harris and Aqib Talib — both on the Pro Bowl ballot — already are fixtures in the Broncos' starting lineup, the former KU standouts will make room to share the spotlight with linebacker Steven Johnson, a third-year pro who has played primarily special teams since joining the Broncos as an undrafted free agent.
The Denver Post is reporting that Johnson will start in Nate Irving's spot at middle linebacker, as Irving left last week's loss with an injury and is expected to miss some time. Johnson has been in the Broncos' plans at LB for the past couple of years but mostly in a role as a luxury to have a guy like him for depth purposes. When asked to play, Johnson has delivered, but this weekend figures to be his first true crack at proving himself as a regular in the NFL.
While making the leap from seldom-used reserve to starter on a team vying for a second consecutive trip to the Super Bowl could be overwhelming, at least one Bronco believes Johnson is ready and has been ready for the moment for a while.
"Stevey Johnson is going to be able to get the job done," Harris told The Denver Post. "He's been in our defense going on three years now. He has experience in there. He's been waiting for his shot. Now he has his shot. We've been needing him on special teams since he's been hurt, but now he has a shot to play and he has a chance to show what he can do."
For more on Johnson's likely move into the starting lineup, check out Post writer Mike Klis' report from Monday.
Kansas University's run of having undrafted players land on 53-man NFL rosters continued rolling along last weekend, as four former Jayhawks who were passed up during their respective NFL Drafts survived their teams' final cuts and enter the season ready for work in the NFL.
Not a bad first day at a new job.
Two of the four were pretty much no surprise. Denver cornerback Chris Harris has become one of the top and most respected defensive backs in the league and Broncos' linebacker Steven Johnson, though still in that position of not being able to let up for a second, also has made himself a valuable piece of what the Broncos hope will be another Super Bowl bound puzzle.
Both guys were never in jeopardy of getting cut and both guys continue to improve and impress the powers that be in Denver.
While those two sticking was hardly a surprise, the other two fell-good moments for KU football might qualify as just that.
After a fantastic preseason, cornerback Tyler Patmon made the final roster with the Dallas Cowboys and safety Bradley McDougald made good on his shot with his second team by being one of the final 53 kept by the Tampa Bay Bucs.
Patmon's story is a little more remarkable than McDougald's because there were plenty of people, both at the NFL and college level, who always believed McDougald would get plenty of chances to stick. That he's done it so quickly and with such certainty is a credit to him, both mentally and physically, and the work he has put in to make his dream a reality.
McDougald was one of just four safeties and 10 defensive backs kept by Tampa Bay.
Patmon's success story was born from opportunity. After leaving KU following his forgettable junior season, Patmon landed at Oklahoma State and became a key part of the OSU secondary that helped lead Cowboys to a Cotton Bowl berth last season.
Patmon looked like a different player during his final season in college, like a guy who needed a change and who was energized by the fresh start and new surroundings.
His strong senior season — not to mention OSU's team success — earned him an opportunity to prove his worth with the Cowboys this season; not bad for a Texas kid. Although he needed a tryout just to be included in the crop of 90 NFL hopefuls who opened Cowboys' training camp, Patmon survived cut after cut and made play after play. No moment was bigger than his two-interception preseason game in which he looked more like a seasoned NFL veteran than a desperate rookie just trying to survive.
“He just kind of has that way about him,” Dallas coach Jason Garrett told the team's official web site. “Some guys do. If you watch his Pop Warner tape, he was probably making those kinds of plays. That’s just a part of him being able to play, and that’s a good thing.”
Added Cowboys' cornerback Morris Claiborne: “As soon as he came in, he’s one of those guys that’s got that type of mentality, swagger about himself where when he walks in, he kind of (commands) that attention. He goes out and he plays lights out. It goes from the practice field, from seeing him work and taking it on to practice and from practice to the games, it’s amazing.”
So is the fact that Patmon is starting his pro career on an active NFL roster, but like Harris and Johnson before him, his story is proof that hard work and being ready to take advantage of the limited opportunities that come your way at this level of football can pay off big time.
There's no hiding the fact that Patmon benefited from a couple of injuries to key guys ahead of him on the Dallas depth chart. But the guys who get these chances tend to be the guys who stay ready and don't worry about the overwhelming odds stacked against them.
Harris, Johnson, McDougald and Patmon all stared up at that mountain at one point in their post-college lives. And today all four are sitting on top of it with a Jayhawk flag planted at the peak and a huge smile on their faces.
In other former KU NFL news from last weekend:
• Former KU running back/defensive lineman Toben Opurum made it to the final cut of the Houston Texans but was not a part of the team's final 53-man roster when it was announced. The Texans, however, quickly signed Opurum to their practice squad and I think it's a safe bet that you'll see him active at some point — perhaps multiple points — this season.
• Former KU wide receiver Dezmon Briscoe was cut by the Dallas Cowboys, with whom he landed temporarily after being released by the Washington Redskins, his fourth team in a slow-starting five-year NFL career.
• Former Jayhawks who were drafted into the league such as Aqib Talib (Denver), Anthony Collins (Tampa Bay), Darrell Stuckey (San Diego) and Tanner Hawkinson (Cincinnati) easily made their teams' final 53, as expected.
There's a heck of a reunion taking place in the Mile High City and, believe it or not, at the center of it are a couple of former Kansas University football players.
When news broke Tuesday night that the Denver Broncos had reached an agreement with free-agent cornerback Aqib Talib on a six-year, $57-million deal, my mind immediately shifted to the 2008 Orange Bowl, where Talib lined up at one corner position and true freshman Chris Harris lined up at the other.
Together, Harris and Talib helped lead the Jayhawks to an Orange Bowl championship that capped off a magical 12-1 season. Harris recorded an interception and four tackles in that game and Talib, never one to be outdone, made the most memorable play of the game, a pick-six interception in the first quarter that, after the game, led to these four famous words: “I felt like Deion!”
With Talib joining Harris in the Broncos secondary, the move qualifies as an instant upgrade at one of the biggest areas of weakness for the team that represented the AFC in last year's Super Bowl.
According to a report from the Denver Post's Mike Klis, in the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Talib, the Broncos have secured the kind of big, physical cornerback that Broncos general manager John Elway has coveted since he took control of the team's football operations three years ago.
Talib, 28, snagged four interceptions and 14 pass break-ups during the 2013 season with the New England Patriots, who often lined him up on the opponent's best wide receiver.
While all of that — the age, the talent, the size, the swagger — is great news for the Broncos' defense, I can't help but think about how pumped Harris must be about reuniting with his old KU teammate. Because of the timing of Harris' one season with Talib in Lawrence — Talib was a junior and Harris just a freshman — the relationship between the two always felt like one of big brother, little brother. Harris had great admiration for Talib's skills and always appreciated how he helped him along as a true freshman playing big-time college football for the first time.
Now that both are starters in the NFL, it doesn't to figure to be that way in Denver, but, in Harris, Talib will have a friendly face who can help him break into the Broncos' culture and show him the ropes of how to play for head coach John Fox, defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and, perhaps most importantly, a team led by future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning.
The early days of Talib's career were marred by off-the-field incidents and immaturity but his talent and ability were never questioned. After leaving Tampa Bay midway through the 2012 season, Talib latched on in New England, where Patriots coach Bill Belichick helped him clean up his image and focus on making plays and helping the team win. Although Belichick and Manning will never be mistaken for one another, being under Manning's eye figures to help keep Talib on the straight and narrow the way playing for Belichick did during the past season and a half.
Of course, being around an old running mate like Harris, who is wildly respected in the Denver community and arguably was the Broncos' most important player on defense last season, won't hurt either.
And, of course, having a pair of starters in the secondary of one of the preseason Super Bowl favorites, is nothing but good news for Kansas football.
• CINCINNATI BENGALS — May 10-12
Tanner Hawkinson, OL
Like several other NFL teams, the Bengals open rookie mini camp Friday, when fifth-round draft pick and former Kansas University standout Tanner Hawkinson officially will begin his pro career. Because he was drafted, there is a lot less pressure on Hawkinson at mini camp than there is on the rest of his former KU teammates who are trying to make their respective rosters as undrafted free agents. Still, Hawkinson is competing for playing time and, in some ways, the coaches might be harder on him than the rest of the Jayhawks trying to break into the league. Hawkinson will begin his Bengals career wearing the same number (72) he wore in college.
• CHICAGO BEARS — May 10-12
Tunde Bakare, LB
Josh Williams, DE
The Bears gave free-agent contracts to 10 undrafted players following last month's draft, and, because they are a team that doesn't often load up on these types of players, that does not bode well for the chances of former Jayhawks Bakare and Williams. What the duo does have going in its favor is this: None of those 10 free agent contracts went to players who play their position. Bakare, though a bit undersized, brings a unique skill set to camp. He's a physical monster with good speed and an even better motor. Williams started his career at Nebraska and I've heard on more than one occasion that sometimes guys are picked up or given chances because of the coach or the program they played for.
• DETROIT LIONS — May 10-12
Marrongelli is one of a handful of players invited to the Lions mini camp without a contract. The good news is the versatile and intelligent lineman got the invite. The bad news? The Lions actually signed three undrafted free agent offensive linemen and drafted one in the third round. As was the case going in, Marrongelli seems like a long shot to make the Lions' roster.
• JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS — May 3-5
Duane Zlatnik, OL
The former KU guard was one of nearly 50 rookies in attendance at the Jaguars rookie mini camp last week. Given those numbers alone, Zlatnik faced a tough challenge of standing out in a crowd that included No. 2 overall pick Luke Joeckel. He got his reps, though, and did so wearing No. 68 (he wore 67 in college). Zlatnik has the size, strength and skill to get noticed but must show consistency. I talked to more than one person during Zlatnik's KU career who said the Rossville native was the best O-Line prospect on the team. If Zlatnik sticks around, his next chance to prove that is at the Jags' OTAs, which begin May 13.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS — May 10-12
Dayne Crist, QB
Bradley McDougald, S
Toben Opurum, DE/FB
For the second year in a row, a member of the KU football team participated at the by-invitation NFL combine yet went undrafted. Although wide receiver turned safety Bradley McDougald fully expected to hear his name called during the seven rounds of the draft, landing in Kansas City as an undrafted free agent signee puts him in pretty good position. The Chiefs are thin at safety and McDougald has the skills and confidence needed to make a quick impact. Two of McDougald's KU teammates will be joining him at K.C.'s mini camp, and both Crist and Opurum offer interesting story lines to keep an eye on. We all know that Crist's lone season at KU was a disappointment, but he still has the tools — size, smarts, arm strength, maturity — that NFL coaches look for at the game's most important position. Considering the fact that he's competing for a roster spot with two career back-ups (Chase Daniel and Ricky Stanzi) and another undrafted free agent in Tennessee's Tyler Bray, Crist, with a good camp, could find himself getting a chance behind Chiefs starter Alex Smith. As for Opurum, it remains to be seen whether he'll work as a defensive end/linebacker, a fullback or both. That, alone, is worth tracking and his versatility could keep him around long enough for the coaching staff to get a look at him in both capacities.
SAN DIEGO CHARGERS — May 10-12
Greg Brown, CB
Like McDougald, Brown was impressive enough during his career and his pro day to earn a free-agent contract from the Chargers after this year's draft. That doesn't guarantee him anything other than a chance. And it might get him a couple. Not only does the contract indicate that the Chargers see something in Brown that they like, but San Diego also has a rich history of success with undrafted free agents, with names like Antonio Gates, Malcolm Floyd, Mike Tolbert and Kris Dielman going from draft castoffs to NFL starters.