The NFL preseason is already halfway over and rookies are scrambling to find a spot on a professional roster as the regular season looms. Not everyone is a Baker Mayfield or a Sam Darnold and has the insurance of knowing they have an NFL home when September gets here. For some young men, it’ll be an honor just to be able to land a spot on a practice squad. Of the many rookies in this year’s batch of hopeful NFL players, Tulane University boasts four graduates with a solid chance. Though the road has been tough and will only get tougher, these Green Wave alumni aren’t shying away from their opportunity to follow in the footsteps of guys like Matt Forte and Rob Kelley.
Parry Nickerson – CB, New York Jets
Nickerson’s 2018 offseason has been a rollercoaster thus far. Tulane’s former standout corner garnered enough attention to be invited to the NFL combine back in April and, once there, that attention quickly grew. His 40-yard dash time tied for the fastest of all the prospects in Indy. 4.32 was nothing to scoff at and NFL GMs took notice. Nickerson was selected in the sixth round of the draft by the Jets (179th overall) but, unfortunately after shining in training camp earlier this summer, he suffered a hamstring injury that has sidelined him for the majority of the preseason. He was recently cleared to return to practice on Monday.
The Argument For: Nickerson is competing for a spot on a Jets team that had its share of problems on the back end last year. In 2017, nickel corner Buster Skrine allowed 39 receptions to his receivers (on 60 targets) and gave up 457 yards, 217 of which came after the catch. He also surrendered three touchdowns and intercepted only one pass. Opposing quarterbacks had a 104.7 rating against Skrine and that was enough for New York to take a chance on Nickerson.
According to multiple reports, Nickerson wowed coaches in camp earlier this year, so much so that he was able to take some reps with the first-team guys. That’s some pretty big stuff for a rookie.
The Argument Against: While Nickerson has flashed some talent this summer, he has yet to line up across from NFL receivers in a game situation. His hamstring injury made him unable to play in either of Jets’ preseason contests this August which means he hasn’t been able to show New York coaches what he can do on the field. Meanwhile, some of his primary competition have gotten valuable snaps in preseason games. Fellow corner Rashard Robinson has recorded seven tackles so far while Morris Claiborne is holding it down with the starters. Nickerson, who has just been given the thumbs up to practice again, will want to see as much playing time as possible in his final two preseason games.
Ade Aruna – DE, Minnesota Vikings
Aruna’s four seasons with Tulane were productive. The defensive end notched 11 sacks and 107 tackles in his collegiate career. Those numbers were enough to receive consideration from the Minnesota Vikings who drafted him in the sixth round (218th overall). Aruna played solidly during Vikings camp in late July into the early parts of August and he found himself seeing game time in both of Minnesota’s preseason bouts to date. But Aruna’s summer has gone similarly to Nickerson’s in that an injury has thwarted his progress. It could be extremely difficult for him to find a spot in this Vikings roster, especially after suffering a knee injury that has placed him on the injured reserve list.
The Argument For: Aruna has gotten to play in both of the Vikings preseason games and made an unassisted tackle against Denver two weeks ago. What is even more hopeful though, is his physical attributes. The 6’5 270 lb. Aruna doesn’t just bring size with him to the D-line but also speed. His 4.6 40-yard dash has Minnesota personnel excited about his potential to add solid depth to the group up front.
The Argument Against: Aruna’s chances of landing a roster spot took a devastating hit last week when he had to be carted off the field with a knee injury against Jacksonville and has since been placed on IR. What’s more is that the Vikings already have astounding talent on their line in the likes of pro bowler Everson Griffen and teammate Danielle Hunter. The duo were a headache for opposing teams last season, combining for 20 sacks and 58 tackles. It certainly appears that Aruna doesn’t have much of a shot at anything other than a backup position, but even then it’ll be challenging with his knee injury.
Dontrell Hilliard – RB, Cleveland Browns
The Browns have been the talk of the NFL this offseason because of all their roster additions. Guys like Mayfield, Tyrod Taylor, and Jarvis Landry have sparked hope around the snakebitten organization and their fans but, believe it or not, there is more to this Cleveland team than the guys they’re talking about on ESPN every day. In May the Browns signed several undrafted rookie prospects, one of which was Hilliard. He now finds himself fighting for a spot on a team that has potential oozing from almost every position which is both a good and a bad thing.
The Argument For: Hilliard has been getting the benefit of working with the Browns second-team squad meaning he has gotten practice time with Mayfield and company against a stout Browns defense. Iron sharpens iron and the workload in camp has undoubtedly helped Hilliard’s running game. He got to see game time in Cleveland’s first preseason matchup with the Giants. In that contest Hilliard carried the ball eight times for nine yards. He didn’t see any touches last week against Buffalo but still has two more game opportunities to show his stuff before the regular season arrives.
The Argument Against: The Browns decided that 2018 would be the year that they would turn their attention to the offense and specifically their backfield. Hilliard isn’t the only new back the team added this summer. Cleveland drafted the gifted Nick Chubb out of Georgia and Carlos Hyde came over from San Francisco. Pair that with Duke Johnson who stayed put and you’ve got a mountain of talent for rookies like Hilliard to climb. Hyde rushed for eight touchdowns last year while Johnson averaged 4.2 yards a carry.
It’ll be difficult for Hilliard to show coaches that he has what it takes to find a spot on a roster with that kind of depth. He is entering the Browns’ Thursday matchup with the Eagles as fifth on the team’s depth chart. A backup position may be within reach, but he’ll need to do something pretty special over these final two games.
Sherman Badie – RB, Arizona Cardinals
Badie’s time with the Green Wave was spent well enough to land him a spot on an NFL club, at least for now. In his four years at Tulane he only had nine touchdowns but averaged over five yards per touch and proved to be an all-around solid complimentary piece behind Hilliard, racking up 1,517 yards on 296 carries. He was given a tryout in Green Bay this May, but it is now Arizona that has granted the undrafted Badie a chance to compete for a roster spot.
The Argument For: Of the Tulane newcomers, Badie has made the most noise in the preseason up to this point. In the Cardinals’ first game he rushed for six yards on as many attempts. A week later he carried it seven more times for 18 yards in a homecoming of sorts against New Orleans. Also, unlike Hilliard, Badie doesn’t as much talent blocking him from gaining playing time. It’s not as if David Johnson is going to lose his starting position to the rookie, but Badie does appear to have a better chance at nabbing a backup or practice squad spot on the roster than some others.
The Argument Against: Some of Badie’s main competition, while not as notable as Hilliard’s, may get the nod just because of their work on special teams. Fellow back T.J. Logan, who missed all of his rookie season last year with a dislocated wrist, has been splitting kickoff return duties for the Cardinals. So far he has returned only two kicks but has done so for 43 yards. Furthermore, D.J. Foster will prove to be a tough obstacle as well. While Foster has rushed for fewer total yards this preseason than Badie, he solidified himself as a reliable special team contributor a season ago. Foster averaged 23 yards per runback (eight returns) in 2017. Badie’s path to a place on Arizona’s roster, while more favorable than some, is far cry from easy.
Like I said earlier, Nickerson seems to have the best shot of these four at landing a spot in the NFL this season. He caught the attention of coaches before his injury which he is now back from. If he has two big games here before the season starts, then you can almost count on him staying in New York.
Badie seems to be making the biggest splash thus far and, on a Cardinals roster that isn’t insanely deep, he does have a prayer. As far as the others go, it doesn’t look quite as promising. I personally don’t see Hilliard staying with the Browns simply because of their talent pool. If someone higher up on the totem pole gets injured then things change, but as it stands right now he would have a better chance signing on with another team who is desperate for depth in the backfield.
Then there’s Aruna who I honestly don’t see having much of an opportunity now. IR is sort of a death sentence for a sixth round rookie but of course I’m not in the Vikings coaching circle so I can’t say for sure what’s going to happen. Still, I wouldn’t hold your breath.
Wherever these guys end up, professional squad or not, the Tulane faithful will be rooting for them and who knows? The little school from New Orleans may just have sent up superstar who is waiting to break through in this next generation of NFL youngsters.