After an unprecedented 2020 NFL season, we take a look at how the Ivy League talent performed.
Football and the Ivy League have been married since the beginning of the game itself. From Yale’s Walter Camp, known as the “father of American football," to players who have made it to the NFL, the Ancient Eight has had enormous success in educating and guiding some of the most successful athletes in the world. Although the league was not formally created until the mid-1950s (and had only taken the “Ivy” moniker 20 years prior), all eight of the schools have a rich tradition of football.
However, as the younger football conferences have seen their programs grow enormously in the second half of the 20th century, much of that rich tradition has been overshadowed. Still, many of the Ivy League programs have persisted, grown, and continued sending players to the professional leagues. Currently, there are 13 active Ivy League alumni in the NFL, hailing from Harvard, Penn, Yale, Princeton, and Cornell.
Brandon Copeland — Outside Linebacker, New England Patriots
Copeland went undrafted out of Penn in 2013. After stints on the practice squads of the Baltimore Ravens and Tennessee Titans, he cemented a place with the Detroit Lions in 2015. After leaving the Lions and then the New York Jets, Copeland signed with the Patriots in 2020. He became a strong part of the Patriots' defense, starting four of his first six games and logging 12 combined tackles in 2020, one of which was for a loss. However, a ripped pectoral muscle in Week 7 ended his season early.
Justin Watson — Wide Receiver, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Penn’s record holder for receptions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, and all-purpose yards was drafted in the fifth round of the 2018 Draft by the Buccaneers. After the signing of Tom Brady along with Antonio Brown and Rob Gronkowski, Watson saw his productivity dip this season. He received half as many targets as he did the previous season and garnered only 94 yards with zero touchdowns. However, despite this decrease, he has been a valuable blocker in the slot, has contributed on special teams, and will compete in Super Bowl 55 in less than two weeks.
Greg Van Roten — Guard, New York Jets
Another Penn product, Van Roten started his career with the Green Bay Packers as a free agent in 2012. After bouncing between the CFL and back to the NFL, he eventually found his rhythm, and signed a long-term deal with the Jets before last season. After starting his first 12 games with the Jets, a foot injury sent him to the injured reserve list until the last game of the season.
JC Tretter — Center, Cleveland Browns
Out of current active Ivy League NFL players, Tretter was selected highest in the NFL draft, going in the fourth round by the Packers. After completing a few solid early seasons with the Packers, Tretter signed with the Cleveland Browns and recently minted a three-year, $32.5 million extension. He has become a mainstay in Cleveland, starting all 16 games in 2020. In addition to success on the field, Tretter is the current president of the NFL Player’s Association, having been elected in March 2020.
Ryan Fitzpatrick — Quarterback, Miami Dolphins
Despite being 38 years old, Fitzpatrick still does have some magic left. Arguably the most notable of the active Ivy League players, the Miami Dolphins quarterback played well this year, throwing for over 2,000 yards and 13 touchdowns. Fitzpatrick also had the role of mentoring Tua Tagovailoa, the fifth pick overall in the 2020 Draft and the probable future of the organization. Going into free agency, Fitzpatrick is arguably the best backup available and will certainly be fought over. Hardly anybody would surprised if he ended up starting at least a few games wherever he is next season.
Cameron Brate — Tight End, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Brate, a former NFL teammate of fellow Crimson Fitzpatrick, is now a teammate of former Quaker Justin Watson. However, Brate has had a more prolific season than his Ivy League brethren, recording 28 catches for 282 yards and a pair of touchdowns for the Super Bowl-bound Bucs. Brate, undrafted in 2014, has become an NFL regular, accumulating a total of 29 touchdowns over his career thus far. Next week, Brady will rely on him to make a few more key plays to bring the Lombardi Trophy back to Tampa.
Kyle Juszczyk — Fullback, San Francisco 49ers
After being drafted in 2013, Juszczyk played his rookie contract out with the Ravens before signing with the 49ers. Despite being a fullback, Juszczyk has been an exceptionally reliable receiver throughout his career. Throughout the 2020 season, the Harvard product started 16 games, scoring two rushing and four receiving touchdowns. As he enters free agency, his multidimensional talents will surely be sought after.
Anthony Firkser — Tight End, Tennessee Titans
Firkser is one of the younger Ivy League players. After going undrafted in 2017, he bounced around practice squads, eventually earning a spot on the Titans' active roster. The 2020 season has been his most productive. Logging 337 yards and one touchdown, his ability to connect with quarterback Ryan Tannehill has helped his game enormously. This combination also led to his first 100-yard game, which was against the Houston Texans this season.
Nick Easton — Center, New Orleans Saints
Easton went undrafted in 2015, eventually signing with the Ravens. After bouncing around for a while, he eventually established himself as a solid contributor on the Minnesota Vikings. Finding himself in a consistent starter role, Easton recently signed a four-year contract with the Saints as their starting center but was placed on injured reserve due to multiple concussions. Overall, his play has been excellent and he will continue to anchor the Saints offensive line for the foreseeable future.
Tyler Ott — Long Snapper, Seattle Seahawks
After playing both tight end and long snapper for the Crimson, Ott entered the NFL only doing the latter. After signing with the Patriots as a free agent in 2014, he bounced around for a few years (noticing a trend?) before finding his footing with the Seahawks in 2017. Ott was named to his first career Pro Bowl after this season, although the game will not occur in person due to COVID-19. Rather, it will be played virtually on Madden.
Stephen Carlson — Tight End, Cleveland Browns
Carlson started in the NFL as a practice squad player, going undrafted in 2019. Having been cut and re-signed, he continued to stick around for the Browns and eventually signed on a full-time basis. Although he has not had immense production with only 62 career receiving yards, he has started seven of his overall 25 games and has proven to be a valuable blocker.
Jaeden Graham — Tight End, Atlanta Falcons
Graham went undrafted in 2018, working his way up the Falcon’s depth chart. He played as a reliable backup for starting tight end Hayden Hurst and garnered 25 receiving yards for a Falcons team that struggled in 2020.
Foyesade Oluokun — Linebacker, Atlanta Falcons
Oluokun was a product of the 2018 Draft, being selected by the Falcons. He has been a bright spot for a generally weak Falcons defense, recording 78 solo tackles and 3 sacks in 2020. As the Falcons look to become competitive again in a packed NFC South Conference, Oluokun will definitely be an anchor for that team.
Overall, the Ivy League has created some strong NFL players that have left lasting marks on both their collegiate programs and their professional clubs. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see the next generation of NFL-bound Ivy League Players.
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