It's a very special time of year for NFL fans as the end of July is approaching, meaning the long months without on-field action are finally coming to an end. NFL Training Camps are one week away, and for the first time ever, the majority of teams will begin camps on the same day, July 27th.
While teams await the start of the upcoming campaign, rookies embark on the start of their NFL careers as early as tomorrow afternoon. First year players around the league report to training camps on July 21st, meaning hundreds of players are about to get their first taste of life in the NFL.
Of the hundreds of athletes finding an NFL home are four players who used to suit up at the Dome. The majority of Syracuse's secondary from last year (Andre Cisco, Ifeatu Melifonwu and Trill Williams) as well as punter Nolan Cooney get ready for life after 'Cuse.
With Training Camp just around the corner, we'll take a look at how each player ended up on the team they're with, potential training camp battles to look forward to, and their projections to make the final 53-man roster.
- 'Cuse Career Stats: 136 tackles, 13 interceptions, 29 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles.
Starting off with arguably the best defender to come out of Syracuse since Chandler Jones, Cisco proved from the moment he put on an orange helmet that he was destined for a career in the NFL.
As a true freshman in 2018, Cisco led all FBS with 7 interceptions and earned All-American honors. He followed that up with 5 picks in 9 games his sophomore season, and was primed to have another solid year in 2020. That is until an ACL injury prematurely ended his career with the Orange.
Despite having first or second round talent, Cisco's injury history hurt his draft stock. Nonetheless, Cisco was the first Syracuse player selected in the 2021 draft, going 65th overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars at the beginning of the 3rd round.
A young team in the middle of a rebuild, the Jaguars picked Cisco in an effort to bolster a defense that ranked toward the bottom of the league in almost every metric. The Jaguars defense gave up the second most yards per game (417.7) and second most points per game (30.8) while fielding the fifth fewest takeaways (17).
The ballhawking Cisco can make an instant impact with his natural playmaking ability and ball skills. Projecting to step into camp right away as the backup FS option, Cisco has a chance to fight for the starting gig.
Sixth year man out of Michigan Jarrod Wilson manned the position last year but his role as starter is certainly not set in stone. Wilson has only 3 INTs and 9 PDs since joining the Jags as an undrafted free agent in 2016, and the Jaguars secondary hasn't exactly flourished with him playing center field.
If Cisco's ACL is fully recovered by the start of camp, and he's able to showoff the skills that made him one of the most highly touted Safeties in the draft, then he has a strong case to earn his way into the starting lineup. Even if he doesn't get the starting nod at FS, expect to see Cisco manning the slot in dime and nickel packages as early as week one.
- 'Cuse Career Stats: 88 tackles, 26 passes defended, 3 interceptions.
A player who consistently improved throughout his three years at Syracuse, Melifonwu had his best year in 2020 while making up for lost time from Cisco and Williams.
When the trio were together back in 2018, they helped lead Syracuse to its first AP Top 25 in 17 years. Unfortunately the next two years were riddled with injuries, and last year Melifonwu was the only back who missed the injury bug. While the team as a whole suffered, winning only one game in 2020, Melifonwu had a breakout year and was one of the lone bright spots of last years squad.
Not allowing a single touchdown to be thrown his way until the final week of the season, Melifonwu was a true lockdown cornerback, and was named and All-ACC selection for his efforts.
Following a successful junior year, Melifonwu entered the draft and was selected in the same round as Cisco, going to the Detroit Lions with the 101st pick. Similar to Cisco's situation, Melifonwu joins a young, rebuilding Lions squad who somehow performed even worse on defense than the team down in Duval county.
The Lions allowed the most points (32.4) and yards (419.8) per game while notching the second fewest takeaways (12). The Lions secondary was a mess all year and three of their top 5 corners (Desmond Trufant, Darryl Roberts and Justin Coleman) are no longer on the team.
This being the case, the Lions sought corner help in the draft, and Melifonwu is exactly what the doctor ordered. While Melifonwu will most certainly make the final 53-man roster, there's no guarantee it will be as a starter right away.
The two corners left over from last years team are Amani Oruwairye, who has proven to be the most reliable option the team currently has. Across from him is the 3rd overall pick from the 2020 draft in Jeff Okudah who had a disappointing and injury plagued rookie campaign, but is still viewed as a cornerstone for this Lions defense.
Looking into Melifonwu's first training camp, he has a chance to show off his elite man-to-man cover skills against a lions receiver room devout of any star players after the departure of wideout Kenny Golladay.
Look for a potential battle between Melifonwu and veteran cornerback Quinton Dunbar for snaps at backup corner. The advantage Melifonwu holds is his elite man coverage skills and ability to guard the slot. Skills that could get him some playing time early on in the season.
'Cuse Career Stats: 92 tackles, 4 interceptions, 5 passes defended, 3 forced fumbles.
The final member of the defensive back trio that haunted ACC quarterbacks for years, Trill Williams was on pace to be a mid round pick like his aforementioned teammates. After a career year in 2019 saw him collect his most forced turnovers and tackles, Williams was ready for the next step in 2020.
The year started off great for Williams, highlighted by a game-sealing pick six against Georgia Tech that notched Syracuse their lone win on the season. Syracuse had already lost Cisco at the time and looked to Williams to help fill in his shoes. Unfortunately, injuries of his own cut his final season at Syracuse short.
Still hopeful to go in the later rounds, Williams declared for the draft but didn't hear his name called. Not long after the conclusion of the draft, Williams was picked up off waivers by the New Orleans Saints, along with his orange teammate Nolan Cooney.
However another obstacle disrupted William's journey to the NFL, a failed physical had him released from the Saints just two weeks after signing as an undrafted free agent. Things were looking down for the heralded Syracuse defensive back, but his time on waivers did not last long. Just a few days later, the Miami Dolphins signed Williams, giving him a chance to compete in Training Camp for a spot on the roster.
Now, Williams finds himself fighting for a roster spot down in South Beach, in an already crowded and talented secondary room. While Williams spent time at both cornerback and safety at Syracuse, William's best bet to make the team is at the FS position.
Stud corners Xavien Howard and Byron Jones are locks to start at corner. Meanwhile, Noah Igbinoghene, Nik Needham and Jason McCourtey seem to be comfortably ahead of Williams in the depth charts.
While corner doesn't really seem like an option, the backup FS spot is looking very attractive for Williams chances of making the final roster. After the departure of starting FS Bobby McCain, the Dolphins drafted Jevon Holland in the second round of this years draft to take his place. Behind Holland, lies three players who have gone undrafted in their careers and are hungry for a roster spot.
One of those players is Williams who will be battling all camp for the position, and the two players currently in front of him aren't exactly on higher ground. Nate Holley, a player who went undrafted in 2018, spent most of last year on Miami's practice squad and has three career games to his name. He was only used as a special teams guy, and it's unlikely he makes the final roster.
The real battle will be between Williams and third year player Jamal Perry. While Perry has actual game experience and has been with the team for two years, his numbers last year went down in every metric from his rookie year. Like Williams, Perry is a versatile defensive back whose had snaps at both corner and FS while with Miami.
It's unlikely both Perry and Williams make the final roster so this could be one of the more heated training camp battles you'll see. Even if Williams fails to make the final roster, it's likely he finds a spot on the practice squad with potential to earn his way onto the team in the future. Nonetheless, this training camp will be very important for Williams to fulfill his dream of playing in the NFL.
The other former Orange to go undrafted is punter Nolan Cooney who is trying to be the third active NFL punter from Syracuse University. It's rare to see punters get drafted, so Cooney not being selected was not as surprising as Williams.
Like most punters, Cooney made his way onto a team through waivers. The team that signed him, the New Orleans Saints, are looking for a replacement for longtime punter Thomas Morstead. However, the job will not be handed to Cooney. Rather, he was signed to battle the other punter on their roster Blake Gillikin.
Gillikin was actually a part of the 53-man roster along with Morstead last year, something you don't see too often in the NFL. The Saints kept Gillikian around so he could learn from Morstead in his final year, and be ready to take the reins the following year. However, an injury sent Gillikian to IR for the season and now he finds himself in a battle with Cooney to be the successor to Morstead.
Looking at their final seasons in college, it appears that Cooney has the leg strength advantage while Gillikin is the more accurate punter. A larger percentage of Cooneys kicks went at least 50 yards compared to Gillikin's (33.7% to 19.3%) and his kicks had a higher net yardage per punt (41.7 to 39.7). Gillikin however had a much higher percentage of his kicks fall inside the 20 compared to Cooney (51.6% to 32.4%).
The decision will likely come down to who performs better in camp, making this one of the most heated battles in training camp outside of maybe Williams and Perry.
Don't put it past the Saints to carry two punters on the roster considering they did so last year, but given there is no succession plan in place this time, it might come down to whoever out-battles who in camp.
Gillikin is favored to win the job given he mentored under Morstead and was kept around with the intent to be the starter, but never rule out a punter from Syracuse (also known as "Punter U").
No matter how things play out in camp, the NFL just got a little more orange. There are over a dozen players now in the NFL who are Syracuse alumni. It's an exciting time seeing the return of the most beloved sport in America, and even more exciting knowing that Syracuse has helped produce some of the nations best.