Despite a disappointing 2013 season, Notre Dame saw its roster from a season ago produce 8 NFL Draft picks in the 2014 NFL Draft including five picks within the first three rounds alone. Not bad for a team that played in the Pinstripe Bowl and won just 9 games. A year later, the deep Notre Dam rookie class has produced two main storylines – the rapid rise of Zack Martin to being an elite NFL lineman and injuries. Lots of them.
By popular demand from our comments section, here is a full rundown of how all of the Notre Dame rookies faired in their first season as professional footballers.
Zack Martin (Dallas Cowboys, 1st Round)
From day one of his NFL career, Zack Martin starting drawing rave reviews. Jerry Jones fought every urge in his body to pass up Johnny Manziel to select one of the greatest offensive linemen in Notre Dame history with the 16th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, and the Cowboys are still alive in the NFL playoffs because of it. Martin has had about as good of a rookie season as any rookie offensive lineman in years. He was one of three rookies to make the Pro Bowl and the only rookie to be named an All-Pro this year as part of a Cowboys offensive line considered to be one of the best in the entire league. All of this after switching from left tackle to left guard – and then right guard – once he arrived with the Cowboys.
Cowboys offensive line coach Bill Callahan recently had this to say about Martin to the Dallas Morning News:
“I haven’t seen a guy step into this league that I’ve had personally and accomplish what he’s done in such a short period of time,’’ Callahan continued. “It just speaks volumes for everything about him. His character, his tenacity, his toughness, you name it. He’s got it all.”
Martin has a bright, bright NFL future in front of him which is something that should only help Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts along the offensive line moving forward.
Troy Niklas (Arizona Cardinals, 2nd Round)
After surprisingly leaving Notre Dame after his junior season and getting picked #52 overall by the Arizona Cardinals, Troy Niklas’s rookie season never really got off the ground. Niklas started two games, but after just seven games into his rookie year, he was placed on season ending Injured Reserve because of an ankle injury. The Cardinals were hoping Niklas would be a big part of their passing game this year, but the injuries limited him to just three catches. The Cardinals season crashed and burned after injuries to both their starting and backup quarterbacks which resulted in a first round exit from the playoffs after looking like the team to beat in the NFC for much of the season. Niklas, like his team, will look to heal in the off-season and come back strong in 2015.
Stephon Tuitt (Pittsburgh Steelers, 2nd Round)
Like Niklas, Tuitt left Notre Dame after his junior year. Unlike Niklas, Tuitt’s rookie rookie was not derailed by injuries. He did, however, get off to a slow start, but came on strong down the stretch. Tuitt didn’t see much action through the first 13 games of the season, but got his first career start in week 14 against the Cincinnati Bengals. He went on to start the final four games of the season – all Steeler wins – as Pittsburgh rode a wave of momentum to winning the AFC North. In week 15 Tuitt picked up the first sack of his career and in week 16 he had the defining moment of his rookie season. Without describing it, I’ll just show it to you (H/T Behind the Steeler Curtain)
Tuitt will head into the off-season as an integral part of the Steelers plans moving forward and looks like he is on his way to becoming a force in the NFL. For Notre Dame, Tuitt becoming a NFL star would be huge as it would give Brian Kelly and staff a NFL star defensive lineman to point to on the recruiting trail.
Louis Nix (Houston Texas, 3rd Round)
Like Niklas, Louis Nix’s season never really got out of the starting block. For Nix though, he was never even on the active roster for a single game landing on IR before the season ever began. Injuries weren’t the only thing holding back Nix as a rookie though. Before landing on IR, Texans head coach Bill O’Brien said that Nix had a “long way” to go and rumors were he was in O’Brien’s dog house. Nix’s start to his pro career is actually similar to how his collegiate career started as well. Nix red-shirted as a freshman in 2010 and had to improve his conditioning and work ethic before he was ready to see game action in 2011. Hopefully for Nix his sophomore season in the NFL is as productive as his sophomore one in college was.
Chris Watt (San Diego Chargers, 3rd Round)
Watt came into the league as a guard after starting next to Zack Martin for three years with Notre Dame, but ended up moving to center with the Chargers because of injuries. The move earned Watt a spot in the Chargers starting lineup for five games before an injury caused him to miss the final game of the season – a game which eliminated the Chargers from the playoffs. Where Watt plays moving forward is still up in the air, but his versatility looks like it will earn him a place in the NFL for a potentially long career.
Prince Shembo (Atlanta Falcons, 4th Round) – Shembo flashed elite pass rush ability at times in college but was always a bit inconsistent. That pass rush ability though enticed the Falcons to draft him higher than most of his projections had him and early on it looked like they got a steal. Shembo was turning heads in camp but ended up having an average rookie season. He totaled 59 tackles for the Falcons which is pretty solid, but didn’t register a single sack or any turnovers. The Falcons will have a new coaching staff soon with rumors of Rex Ryan bringing his 3-4 defense down to Hot Lanta. Such a move would be hugely beneficial for Shembo and his future pro prospects.
Bennett Jackson (New York Giants, 6th Round) – Jackson was slowed by nagging injuries during his senior season for Notre Dame that while not causing him to miss any time did limit his effectiveness. His rookie season in the NFL wasn’t as kind. Jackson spent the first six weeks of the season on the practice squad before a MRI revealed he needed microfracture surgery in October. The surgery was a success and Jackson is expected to be ready for mini-camp in April but microfracture surgery is one of the toughest surgeries for a football player to come back from.
TJ Jones (Detroit LIons, 6th Round) – Like Jackson, injuries marred Jones’s rookie season. Jones underwent shoulder surgery in June due to nerve damage from an old college injury reportedly (one that didn’t seem to impact him much in 2013). As a result, Jones ended up spending his entire rookie season on the PUP (Physically Unable to Participate) list. When healthy, Jones will have a chance to compete for playing time in a loaded wide receiving corps that includes Notre Dame great Golden Tate. Tate, in his first season with the Lions, had his breakout NFL season with 99 catches for 1,331 yards.
George Atkinson (Oakland Raiders, Undrafted) – Atkinson left Notre Dame early and ended up not being drafted. Things still worked out reasonably well for him though considering he wasn’t drafted. Atkinson signed an undrafted free agent deal with the Raiders, made their practice squad, and then was promoted to the active roster in late November. Atkinson played in each of the last five games of the season returning seven kicks for 134 yards with a long of 28 yards. He did not record a single rushing attempt or catch, but for an undrafted free agent, making an active roster for five games is an accomplishment. Where he fits into the long term plans of the Raiders is still up in the air though – especially with another new coaching staff on the way to Oakland.
A few other Notre Dame players were signed as undrafted free agents, but none stuck with any team for the entire season. Dan Fox was on the practice squad for the Giants but was released in October. Carlo Calabrese had a try out with the Browns before the season but never caught on to any roster.
Overall it looks as though at least three of the eight drafted players are already well on their way to productive NFL careers – Martin, Tuitt, and Watt. For the other five, injuries were the common theme as to why they didn’t have much of an impact as rookies. Niklas, Nix, Jones, and Jackson all need to spend their off-seasons getting healthy and ready to impress in off-season drills and training camp. The window of opportunity to impress and stick around is very narrow these days making the next few months crucial for them all.