As Penn athletes continue to wait to see when they will be able to suit up for the Red and Blue again in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, four former Quakers are making their mark in the NFL.
With the NFL regular season officially being one-eighth of the way finished, we take a look at how the Penn alums are playing through two weeks, as well as how former Penn player Kevin Stefanski is faring in his new position as an NFL head coach.
Justin Watson — Wide Receiver, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After an exciting finish to his second season with the Bucs last year, the legendary Penn pass catcher was set to make an even bigger impact this season with Tom Brady in town. However, Watson lost the third receiver battle to Scotty Miller, which resulted in him playing only 11 snaps in Tampa Bay’s Week 1 loss to New Orleans, finishing with only one catch for six yards.
In Week 2, Pro Bowl receiver Chris Godwin was out with a concussion, so Watson was elevated one spot in the depth chart. He ended up playing 89% of the Bucs’ snaps and finished with two catches for 48 yards, including one bomb on a flea flicker from Brady.
Whether or not Watson is able to stay in the third receiver role, he will be a consistent contributor for a team that is looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
Brandon Copeland — Outside Linebacker, New England Patriots
Since entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent from Penn in 2013, Copeland has carved out a solid, unspectacular career. After playing 28 games for the New York Jets over the last two seasons, Copeland joined the division rival Patriots on a one-year deal this offseason.
Despite starting in Week 1, Copeland saw limited action, although he did finish the game with four tackles. The next week against the Seahawks, Copeland started again and saw his playing time increase, finishing with six tackles in a Sunday night loss.
Copeland should expect to see a sizable role throughout the season as he fills the void created by longtime Patriot Donta’ Hightower, who opted out of the season due to COVID-19 concerns.
Greg Van Roten — Guard, New York Jets
When one Quaker leaves, another one joins.
After bouncing around the league for five seasons after going undrafted in 2012, Van Roten made a name for himself with the Carolina Panthers over the last two seasons, being named the team’s most improved player by Pro Football Focus. For his impressive play, the Jets rewarded him with a three year contract worth as much as $14.25 million.
Van Roten joins a revamped offensive line that is tasked with protecting quarterback Sam Darnold and running back Le’Veon Bell. His team is off to a dismal start, not putting up much fight against either of its opponents so far.
If the first two games are any indication, Van Roten may be in for a long season.
Kevin Stefanski — Coach, Cleveland Browns
Stefanski, a defensive back at Penn who was the team’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2000, was named coach of the Browns this offseason at the age of 38 after 14 years in other NFL roles.
Although he was joining a team that has been among the least successful over the last 25 years, the Browns were expected to be competitive because of their young talent and slew of big names on both sides of the ball.
In Week 1, Stefanski and the Browns were steamrolled by the Ravens and defending NFL MVP Lamar Jackson. The following week, Stefanski got his team back on track with a close win over the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday Night Football. Stefanski received praise for the success of his team’s rushing attack, which finished with 215 yards.
Going forward, Stefanski will look to lead this team into the future, and as long as the Browns remain competitive, he should fare better than his predecessor, Freddie Kitchens, who was relieved of his duties after just one season.