Football is back for the Quakers … almost.
Though Penn football won't take the field until at least January 2021, four Penn football alumni have been making their mark in the NFL this season: Justin Watson, Brandon Copeland, Greg Van Roten, and Kevin Stefanski.
Justin Watson — wide receiver, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
For Justin Watson, the 2020-2021 NFL season will allow the third-year Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver the opportunity to climb the depth chart at a very competitive position. Watson finished last season on a high note, posting 14 catches and two touchdowns in weeks 14-17. In the offseason, the Buccaneers brought in former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Brady is an immediate upgrade over Watson's signal-caller last year, Jameis Winston, but Watson will also have to compete with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Scotty Miller for snaps at wide receiver.
In preseason, Miller won the slot receiver job, and Watson didn't see much playing time in Week 1. However, toward the end of the end of the team's season opener, starting wide receiver Chris Godwin suffered a concussion, and Watson started at wide receiver in Week 2. He posted two catches for 48 yards on three targets. He then missed Week 3 with a shoulder injury before returning in Week 4 with a four-catch performance as a starter.
Watson graduated from Penn in 2018 as the program's all-time leader in receiving yards, receptions, receiving touchdowns, and all-purpose yards. Unlike Copeland and Van Roten, Watson was an NFL draft pick — the first Penn player to be drafted since Jeff Hatch in 2002.
These former Quakers will strive to keep up their strong play and make another leap in their NFL careers this season.
Brandon Copeland — outside linebacker, New England Patriots
After racking up 77 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and 13 starts in two seasons with the New York Jets, Copeland left New York and agreed to terms with the New England Patriots in the offseason on a one-year deal. The fifth-year veteran started the first three games of the season for the Patriots, but he's played mostly on special teams so far.
Copeland didn't see the field in the Patriots' Week 4 matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs as Bill Belichick opted to put six defensive backs in the starting lineup to combat the offensive threat of last year's most valuable player, Patrick Mahomes. He still figures to have a niche role in this new-look Patriots roster as New England looks to defend its AFC East title.
Greg Van Roten — guard, New York Jets
Van Roten, on the other hand, joined the New York Jets this offseason on a three-year deal. He spent the past three years with the Carolina Panthers, where he started 27 games at guard in the last two seasons and accrued just one penalty. This season, Van Roten has played every single snap for the Jets and allowed just one sack, but with Gang Green winless this season, coach Adam Gase could possibly change things up.
Kevin Stefanski — coach, Cleveland Browns
During an illustrious playing career at Penn, Kevin Stefanski leveraged his savvy mind as a defensive back on his way to winning Rookie of the Year in 2000 in addition to two All-Ivy selections. However, his ceiling on the field was severely limited by nagging injuries, commencing with an ACL tear in his sophomore season.
Stefanski hardly let these difficulties deter him from his love of football, plunging straight into a now 14-year long career on various coaching staffs, which has led Stefanski to his current position as head coach of the Cleveland Browns.
Following a crushing defeat in Week 1 to the Baltimore Ravens, Stefanski and his stacked offensive lineup are clearly finding their mojo. The Browns have posted over 30 points in three straight games, including their most recent dismantling of the Dallas Cowboys' defensive unit in a 49-38 victory.
Though piling up 49 points in a win is surely sweet, the Browns arguably suffered an even larger loss when running back Nick Chubb went down and was diagnosed with an MCL strain that will sideline him for several weeks.
However, Stefanski quickly adapted and turned to his depth on offense, leaning on former ROTY Kareem Hunt and budding talent D’Ernest Johnson to pick up the slack in the ground game. Hunt and Johnson did just that, totaling 168 yards and two touchdowns.
"I’m a man on a mission,'' said Hunt. "Now I’m ready to take the journey.''
The offensive show also featured wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr’s. breakout performance in a Browns uniform. Beckham showcased his explosiveness, scoring three touchdowns while combining for 154 yards receiving and running on only seven touches.
Though Stefanski has only held the reins for a few games as coach, he is certainly harnessing the abilities of his offensive talent and highlighting the team’s potential in comparison to their disappointing campaign in 2019. The team is currently first in the NFL for both 5.9 yards per carry and 204.5 rushing yards per game.
The Browns will face a tougher test than the Cowboys’ defense in their Week 5 matchup against the Indianapolis Colts. However, the Browns will need to muster up some wins against strong opponents if they hope to seek a playoff berth in AFC North, which also features the undefeated Steelers and 3-1 Ravens.
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