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NFL notes: Season begins with 20 Cardinal alums on pro rosters

As the NFL regular season kicks off tonight, an eventful summer and preseason for former Stanford players concludes. After the final cuts, 20 former Stanford players made a 53-man roster across 14 different NFL franchises, including four players with Indianapolis and two each with Seattle, Arizona and Cincinnati. In addition, four players (Thomas Keiser, Matthew Masifilo, Chris Owusu and Michael Thomas) were cut but now currently reside on practice squads.

A two-way player at Stanford, fullback Owen Marecic may be reuniting with former Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco. (DON FERIA/StanfordPhoto.com)

A two-way player at Stanford, fullback Owen Marecic may be reuniting with former Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco. (DON FERIA/StanfordPhoto.com)

Among those who made a 53-man roster, five players (Andrew Luck, David DeCastro, Jonathan Martin, Richard Sherman and Erik Lorig) are expected to start. Likewise, another five (Zach Ertz, Coby Fleener, Doug Baldwin, Stepfan Taylor and Toby Gerhart) should see significant playing time at their respective positions even though they are not listed as the No. 1 option on the depth chart.

The other 10 players (Levine Toilolo, Johnson Bademosi, Jim Dray, Delano Howell, Konrad Reuland, Alex Smith, Jeremy Stewart, Will Svitek, Griff Whalen and Ryan Whalen) will see the field mostly on special teams, but could earn more playing time if they perform well.

Unfortunately, nine former Cardinal players failed to make a practice squad at the end of training camp. 2012 Stanford standout Chase Thomas was first released by New Orleans and later by Oakland after earning a second chance with the Raiders, while Trent Edwards, who was cut by the Eagles in April after losing the backup QB battle to former Pac-12 players Nick Foles and Matt Barkley, was released by the Bears last week. And though Terrence Stephens left his impact on the Bengals on more than just the football field, he wasn’t kept by Cincinnati.

Pannel Egboh, Sione Fua, Matt Kopa, Owen Marecic, Terrence Brown and Alex Debniak were the other former Cardinal players injured or released during training camp and not added to a practice squad.

***

Former Cardinal head coach and current 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh dealt with several Stanford alums throughout the course of training camp. Harbaugh cut safety Michael Thomas in trimming the roster from 75 to 53, but did add him to the 8-man practice squad.

After Owen Marecic was cut by the Browns, Harbaugh expressed interest in signing him to a contract. Although no deal has been struck yet, Harbaugh called Marecic his favorite player back at Stanford and would love to bring his versatility — Marecic played on both sides of the ball at Stanford — to the 49ers.

Harbaugh also tried out a player built in a similar mold as Marecic, former Cardinal linebacker Alex Debniak. Debniak played as an inside linebacker in Stanford’s 3-4 scheme and joined the 49ers roster as a fullback, but was waived before suffering a season-ending ACL injury. He is still with the 49ers, on injured reserve.

***

After a brilliant rookie season which saw him set the rookie record for passing yards and turn the Colts from a 2-win team to an 11-win team, Andrew Luck continued to shine in the preseason. He played in the first three games, finishing 29-for-44 for 322 yards with four touchdown passes and an interception. His most impressive performance came in a victory over the Giants. He finished the game with two touchdown passes — one, a SportsCenter Top 10 highlight, may have been a little lucky — and a 133.7 quarterback rating.

Former Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck has answered critics' questions in his second NFL preseason in Indianapolis. (DON FERIA/isiphotos.com)

Former Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck has answered critics’ questions in his second NFL preseason in Indianapolis. (DON FERIA/isiphotos.com)

Despite Luck’s Pro Bowl appearance in 2012, his critics pointed out his poor completion percentage (54.1) and large number of interceptions (18). This preseason, Luck dispelled doubts about his accuracy and decision-making by improving significantly in both areas, including a 65.9 percent completion rate. With a year of experience under his belt and several talented weapons around him in Reggie Wayne, T.Y Hilton and new running back Ahmad Bradshaw, Luck should be in position to improve upon those areas of concern this year.

Another Colt and Stanford alum, Coby Fleener, didn’t have quite the same level of success this preseason. Dealing with a concussion and a minor knee sprain, Fleener caught just two passes for a total of 37 yards and was targeted only five times. A disappointing preseason following an slightly underwhelming rookie season has Fleener slated as the No. 2 tight end on the Colts roster behind Dwyane Allen.

***

The 2013 Cardinal rookies taken in the draft had mixed results this preseason. Zach Ertz, taken in the second round by the Eagles, caught six passes for 63 yards and may well be the best receiving tight end on the Eagles roster. On former Oregon Ducks head coach Chip Kelly’s squad, those receiving abilities will earn Ertz some action on the field. However, his liabilities in the blocking scheme may limit his playing time, with Brent Celek and James Casey already on the roster.

On the other hand, Stepfan Taylor, taken in the fifth round by the Cardinals, improved his standing on the team with an impressive performance this preseason. Taylor totaled 145 yards on 39 carries and added one touchdown, also finishing two of the four preseason games as the Cardinals’ leading rusher. This display, plus several quality plays on special teams, has Taylor in position to see playing time in his rookie season despite his late-round selection.

Levine Toilolo, the other member of the Cardinal 2013 draft class, only registered one catch for eight yards in his limited playing time with the Atlanta Falcons. With proven (albeit aging) star Tony Gonzalez on the roster, Toilolo might not see much action this season.

***

Despite the performances of Luck and Taylor and the overall success of Stanford alums in the pros this preseason, Seattle’s Richard Sherman managed to be the most talked about Cardinal player in the NFL this offseason. An appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated may have been the high note of his summer, but several controversial moments stole the spotlight.

Seattle corner Richard Sherman (left) and San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh (right), who have a history at Stanford, clashed in the media this offseason. (JOHN TODD/StanfordPhoto.com)

Seattle corner Richard Sherman (left) and San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh (right), who have a history at Stanford, clashed in the media this offseason. (JOHN TODD/StanfordPhoto.com)

After playing under Harbaugh for four years at Stanford, Sherman told the NFL Network that “Harbaugh is not my coach” in an interview, adding that he “doesn’t have a relationship with [Harbaugh].” Sherman reacted strongly after Harbaugh informed the 49ers that he would not tolerate any use of performance-enhancing drugs, responding to the suspension of several Seahawks players for using banned substances. (Sherman was among the violators, but had his suspension overturned on appeal last December.)

In addition to the drama surrounding Sherman and Harbaugh, Sherman stirred up even more controversy after his appearance on ESPN First Take. Sherman blasted co-host Skip Bayless, and while he is not the first athlete to do so, Sherman directly targeted Bayless and claimed that he was “better at life.”

“Whenever you address me, address me as All-Pro Stanford graduate,” Sherman told Bayless, “because those are some accomplishments you will aspire to but never accomplish. You have never accomplished anything.”

An email thread from Sherman’s freshman year dorm at Stanford also surfaced, revealing an email that blasted his peers for their reactions to a Valentine’s Day tradition on campus. Sherman’s language, both explicit and poorly worded, only served to further his image as an infamous trash-talker.

Contact Michael Peterson at mrpeters “at” stanford.edu.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the number of players on 53-man rosters, and number of franchises they play for. As Alex Debniak is on injured reserve and not on a 53-man roster, there are currently 20 Stanford alums on 14 NFL franchises’ rosters.

About Michael Peterson

Michael Peterson is a sports desk editor at The Stanford Daily. He has served as a beat reporter for football, baseball and men’s soccer and also does play-by-play broadcasting of baseball and men’s soccer for KZSU. Michael is a sophomore from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. majoring in computer science. To contact him, please email him at mrpeters ‘at’ stanford.edu.
  • Paul

    Great article! One minor quibble – Luck’s improved passing percentage likely has more to do with his team’s change in offensive scheme (fewer long passes) than simply his being more experienced. Whatever the reason though Luck looks poised for a great season!