The prospect of as many as ten former black college standouts finding their way into the 2017 NFL Draft did not materialize last week as only four names went off the boards when the league held its annual 7-round confab last week in Philadelphia.
Somewhat surprisingly, Grambling State wide receiver Chad Williams was the first HBCU product selected as the Arizona Cardinals took him with the 34th pick in Friday’s third round. He was the 98th overall selection.
Diminutive record-setting North Carolina A&T running back Tarik Cohen was next, going early Saturday to the Chicago Bears with the 13th pick of the fourth round and 119th overall.
Later in the same round, Albany State defensive tackle Grover Stewart was taken by the Indianapolis Colts with the 38th pick, 144th overall.
No more HBCU players came off the boards until Alabama State offensive tackle Jylan Ware was selected by the Oakland (soon to be Las Vegas) Raiders with the 13th pick of the seventh and final round. Ware was the 231st overall selection.
The four selections continues a trend that has not seen HBCU products reach double-digits in the draft since 2000. Another ten HBCU products, many considered draftable, were quickly gobbled up by teams with free agent contracts.
The selection of Williams (6-1, 204), the top black college receiver last year with 90 receptions for 1,337 yards and 11 TDs for the HBCU national champion Tigers, was not a surprise in the sense that most had projected him to be taken. The surprise was that he went first.
He was suspended for Grambling’s season opener after his arrest for a series of charges last year. The charges were later dropped but the arrest, with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodall’s recent focus on players’ off-field issues, prevented him from participating in the Combine. And, he was a late addition to the Senior Bowl after turning heads with an outstanding showing at the NFLPA all-star game in California.
But his personal interviews, the 4.43 40-time at his Pro Day and what some considered a dominating performance against Div. I corners at Senior Bowl practices convinced the Cardinals that he was worth the pick.
Cardinals’ officials said after speaking with Williams at Grambling that they believed his arrest was a ‘wrong place, wrong time’ incident.
Williams, who finished his 47-game career at Grambling with 210 receptions for 3,062 yards and 29 TDs, is the type of big-bodied receiver that Cardinals’ head coach Bruce Arians covets. According to the Arizona website, Arians has been fantastic at identifying impact pass-catchers in the third round, helping nab NFL standouts Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, T.Y. Hilton and John Brown over the past nine years. Williams hopes to be the next one.
“I’m just going to come in and be me, and I know for a fact I can live up to that third-round hype,” Williams said.
Cohen, who finished his A&T career with an MEAC-record 5,619 rushing yards, is seen as a ‘change of pace’ back by the Bears. He had nine touchdowns on runs of over 70 yards in his career and is expected to be used also as a receiver out of the backfield like Philadelphia’s Darren Sproles. Six-foot, 222-pound rookie running back Jordan Howard out of Indiana was the Bears’ feature back in 2016 running for 1,313 yards and six TDs.
“He had a chip on his shoulder and I like that,” said Chicago head coach John Fox on the Bears’ website of his visit with Cohen when the scatback came to Chicago. “He always wants to prove people wrong. He has a confidence to him.
“When we get these guys in the building, a lot of time is spent with our coaches, really gathering their football intelligence. He (Cohen) has a really high football IQ, which is important for that position because you’re going to be moving him around a lot and doing a lot of different things with him. I think the thing that stood out was the energy that he has and he has a chip on his shoulder and I really like that about him.”
Cohen, at his draft celebration on the A&T campus Saturday, said, “I’m ready to make plays. I’m ready to play.”
Stewart said coming from NCAA Div. II Albany State will not be a problem as he steps up to face NFL competition. “I don’t see any difference between it. I’m going to play like I play, and dominate like I always do,” he said.
At 6-5, Stewart grew from 295 to 334 while at Albany State with no dropoff in production. He was an all-SIAC selection in all four years he played.
And dominate is just what he did registering 27 sacks and 48.5 tackles for losses while starting all four years. The Colts and others liked his power and explosiveness, footwork and ability to collapse the pocket. He was on the radar for a lot of teams and was one of the fastest movers up the draft boards. “I can play anywhere from nose (tackle) to three-technique,” he said online at coltswire.usatoday.
Ware is about as tall, at 6-7, 317, as Stewart is wide. The Raiders liked his long arms and NFL frame. Because of those attributes, Ware also moved steadily up the draft boards late.
Online at raiderswire.usatoday.com, Spencer Hall of CBS Sports said of Ware that he, “possesses superb run blocking abilities and this likely enticed Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie as the team has brought in former Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch.”
Seven players signed free agent contracts and three others were given tryouts. Among the latter group was former Texas Southern basketball and football standout Derrick Griffin who was granted a tryout by Minnesota. “All I’ve asked for is a chance to prove myself,” Griffin said.
There’s a modest amount of guaranteed money invested in an undrafted free agent, while a tryout player isn’t guaranteed anything, one agent explained. “The main difference is if you’re an undrafted free agent, you sign your contract immediately. If you’re getting invited for a tryout, you’re basically going out there with a two- or thee-day tryout and then they decide out of this pool of 15 or 20 guys, ‘OK, we’re going to sign this one or that one.”