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Penn football alumnus Justin Watson will look to play a bigger role for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season. | Photo courtesy of The Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Football is almost back for the Red and Blue. 

Although the Quakers won’t start their season until Sept. 21, three former Penn football players will be looking to make an impact on the NFL stage: Brandon Copeland, Justin Watson, and Greg Van Roten.

After an impressive 2018-2019 campaign, New York Jets linebacker Brandon Copeland will have to start this season on the sidelines after being suspended four games without pay for violating the League's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Despite claims that the drug use was unintentional, Copeland will not be able to return to the Jets’ roster until Oct. 7, the day after they play the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 5.

"This offseason, I began taking a supplement AFTER multiple verifications that it was safe for me to use. Unfortunately, this supplement was contaminated with a banned substance — NOT on its label,” Copeland wrote in an Instagram post.

After recording a career-high 24 solo tackles and five sacks in 10 starts during the 2018-2019 season, Copeland re-signed with New York for a one-year, $1.75 million deal. Copeland was seen as a significant role player and rotational linebacker for the Jets. He will look to work his way back into the starting lineup in Week 6 when the Jets take on the Dallas Cowboys.

For Justin Watson, the 2019-2020 NFL season will allow the second-year Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver the opportunity to climb the depth chart at a very competitive position. 

The 2018 fifth-round draft pick saw limited playing time during his rookie year, recording only one catch for five yards. He made most of his impact on special teams, where he had seven tackles. 

However, the Buccaneers lost two starting receivers, Adam Humphries and DeSean Jackson, to free agency in the offseason, creating additional opportunity for Watson. The addition of Breshaud Perriman and sixth-round pick Scotty Miller provide additional competition, but Watson, now with a year under his belt, seems poised to make a jump in his sophomore season.

Watson has already earned significant playing time during this year’s preseason, accounting for eight catches in the first three exhibition games. As the regular season approaches, Watson will most likely be in the midst of a battle for a role as a depth receiver with versatility in both the slot and out wide. He will likely be the team's fourth receiver to start the season. 

Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez/Panthers

In contrast to Watson and Copeland, Carolina Panthers offensive lineman Greg Van Roten started all 16 games last season at left guard. After going undrafted in 2012 and bouncing from team to team, Van Roten became the only player on the team to have played every offensive snap: all 1,058 of them. 

That role is in jeopardy however, as the Panthers signed a litany of new offensive lineman entering 2019. Most observers have pegged Van Roten for a reserve role, but the Penn alumnus isn't going to give up his starting role without a fight. One characteristic that benefits him is his versatility: Van Roten has played multiple positions on the line, including center. Van Roten played with the starters in the Panthers' third preseason game. 

These former Quakers will look to pick up where they left off and make another leap in their NFL careers this season.

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