The Bruins narrowly escaped ignominious status over the weekend. When tight end Caleb Wilson was taken with the last pick in the draft by the Arizona Cardinals, UCLA avoided the fate of blue blood programs like Nebraska and Tennessee that had no players picked in the 2019 NFL Draft.
The Bruins had only the one pick, but they also had four players get unsigned free agent contracts. They will get shots at training camps. Each has their unique challenges and opportunities with the new NFL prospects.
Bruins Get Their NFL Chances
Wilson wears the tag of Mr. Irrelevant, as the 254th and final pick of the draft. Traditionally, the Irrelevant Week Committee, which serves as a charity fundraiser, hosts a week of celebrations in Southern California for the player. It’s hard to imagine there is much they can show Wilson that he has not already seen but go for it.
In the 43 years of the Mr. Irrelevant Award, 25 players have never played a game in the NFL. The last six, however, have made it onto rosters and played, even as little as one game. Chiefs kicker Ryan Succop has had the most prominent Mr. Irrelevant career, with 160 games since his 2009 selection.
As for Wilson, there is great irony in going to Arizona the same weekend his former UCLA teammate Josh Rosen was shipped off to Miami. The new look Cardinals though, are probably as good of a place for him as any.
The knock from scouts on Wilson was his poor blocking skills. With rookie head coach Kliff Kingsbury installing a new offense that relies on movement and quarterback rollouts, a traditional blocking tight end would not fit in anyway. Thanks to playing behind one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL, Rosen spent much of 2018 running for his life. With elite level linemen available in the draft, Arizona spent four of its early draft picks on a quarterback and three wide receivers. New quarterback Kyler Murray will be scrambling plenty and that bodes well for Wilson having a potential future.
With his 60 receptions in 2018, (for 965 yards), Wilson was adept at finding a hole in the middle of a zone defense and sitting down to make it easy for the quarterback to find him. With Wilson playing as more of a big slot receiver than a traditional tight end, it makes him harder to cover in man-to-man defenses. When the quarterback is scrambling for his life, nothing is a better site than a 6-5 guy with strong hands and the ability to out-muscle a defender for a ball.
Wilton Speight may have the clearest path in front of him for roster spot. He was given a free agent camp contract by the San Francisco 49ers. Starting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is coming off a season ending torn ACL that he suffered in week three last season. He has the big contract and the sometimes-hot stats for all to acknowledge that, when healthy, he is the starter.
But there are question marks after that. The 49ers also carried C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens on the roster last year. Beathard is a 2017 draft pick by San Francisco out of the University of Iowa. He was 20-7 as a two years starter in Iowa City, throwing for more than 4,700 yards. Beathard has 13 appearances with the 49ers in two years, with 10 as a starter. He has thrown 2,600 yards but has a dreadful ratio of 12 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
Mullens is technically in his third stint in two years with San Francisco. He was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Southern Miss in 2017. He was cut but then signed to the practice squad for the season. In 2018, he was cut again at the end of training camp, but later signed to the practice squad. He was put on the active roster as a backup when Garoppolo went down. Mullens started the last eight games of 2018 when Beathard suffered a wrist injury. He had some bright moments and ended with a 151.9 passer rating. But his efficiency is questionable with only 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in eight starts.
Speight should fit in better in a pro-style formula than a college spread offense. He has never been the most mobile of quarterbacks but is usually solid in his decision-making. A 60% completion rate with 1,527 passing yards in just seven appearances at UCLA on a young and struggling offense says he should have a legitimate shot as a viable back-up.
We said from the beginning that Andre James needed another year of college ball to fix some of his technical difficulties. But young players are going to what they are going to do, and James went undrafted. He did get a free agent contract from the Raiders. The line in front of him though is not going to be easy to make.
The Raiders have a left tackle familiar to Bruin fans. Kolton Miller signed a four-year contract as a rookie with Oakland and beat out veteran Donald Penn for the job, starting all 16 games last season. He likely will move to right tackle in 2019 as Oakland just signed free agent left tackle Trent Brown to a four-year, $66 million contract. Thirty-six million of that is guaranteed. He is the highest paid tackle in NFL history. Brown will start. They also have Gabe Jackson and Denzelle Good returning. The Raiders did not use any of the nine draft picks last weekend on an offensive lineman. James could move to guard, which would help alleviate his difficulty of opening his hips to the outside rush too soon, but the Raiders just signed free agent Jordan Devey from Kansas City. The numbers are not in James’ favor in Oakland.
Nate Meadors started seven games as a senior at UCLA in 2018. That was coming off a standout junior season in which he was one of the most efficient cornerbacks in the Pac-12, (55 tackles). He probably would have been picked in the 2018 draft but came back for a senior season that did not match his junior year. But he graduated and is now rewarded with a free agent contract in Minnesota.
For most of his time at UCLA, Meadors was a press cornerback. With the new staff last season, he had to learn to play off the line of scrimmage more. That and a late season hamstring injury cut down on his productivity numbers.
It’s a crowded defensive backfield in Minnesota. The Vikings have Xavier Rhodes and Trae Waynes locked in at the corners. Rhodes has been a starter since his second season out of Florida State in 2014. He also has three more years left on a five year, $70 million dollar contract extension. Waynes was the 11th pick overall out of Michigan State in 2015. They also have Mackensie Alexander and Mike Hughes as likely backups.
They also drafted cornerback Kris Boyd from Texas and Marcus Epps from Wyoming who has played safety and corner.
If Meadors can make the difficult transition to safety, it might be easier to crack the final roster. Harrison Smith is one of the best defensive backs in the league, but that second safety spot is in a state of flux. Neither Anthony Harris nor Jayron Kearse has been a consistent answer. There is an opportunity for a hard worker like Meadors.
Like Meadors, Adarius Pickett stayed all for all of his years at UCLA. He also went undrafted but got a free-agent offer from the Chicago Bears. The defensive backfield in Chicago already has two all-pros in cornerback Kyle Fuller and safety Eddie Jackson. They also have HaHa Clinton-Dix and Prince Amukamara slated to start in the defensive backfield. But behind that is not a lot of established depth. The Bears drafted cornerbacks Duke Shelley from Kansas State and Stephen Denmark from Valdosta State. Shelley is two inches shorter and about 20 pounds lighter than Pickett. He is a good cover back, but a poor tackler in open spaces. Denmark is big at 6-3 and 220 pounds. He is fundamentally sound, as a receiver turned cornerback with good athleticism.
With Pickett having played both cornerback and safety at UCLA, the call here is to be able to play in the dime package, and also try to find a role on special teams. He did some punt returning in each of his last three years at UCLA, and he goes to the ball well in run support well enough to play either side of special teams.