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Saturday, June 22, 2024
The Observer

Three Irish players selected in NFL Draft, seven sign as free agents

The 2023 NFL Draft took place from Thursday-Saturday in Kansas City. Three Irish players were taken in the seven-round process, with seven more signing shortly after the draft’s conclusion as undrafted free agents.

TE Michael Mayer (Drafted No. 35 by Las Vegas Raiders)

After a curious slip out of the first round, Notre Dame’s record-setting tight end landed in a strong situation in Las Vegas. The Raiders traded starter Darren Waller this offseason and signed veterans Austin Hooper and O.J. Howard. Mayer should compete for the starting role and the chance to become a top target for new quarterback Jimmy Garropolo. 

Mayer set just about every Notre Dame tight end record while in South Bend, including the single-season and career marks for receiving yards, receptions and touchdowns. He led the Irish in receiving yards the past two seasons, notching 67 catches for 809 yards and nine touchdowns this past season.

Mayer’s best game of the 2022 season actually came at the Raiders’ Allegiant Stadium, when he collected 11 passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns in Notre Dame’s Shamrock Series win over BYU in Las Vegas. Despite his many accolades and being ranked the top tight end in the class by many ranking services, Mayer was the third player drafted at his position, slipping to 35th overall. Utah’s Dalton Kincaid (25th overall) and Iowa’s Sam Laporta (34th overall) heard their names called prior to Mayer.

DL Isaiah Foskey (Drafted No. 40 by New Orleans Saints)

After Irish fans had to wait until the second night of the draft to hear Mayer’s name called, they didn’t have to wait much longer for the second Irish player to be selected. Just a few picks later, defensive end Isaiah Foskey went to the New Orleans Saints with the 40th overall pick.

Foskey could easily have turned pro after his junior year, and was long projected to be a first-round selection after leading the team with 10 sacks to go along with 52 tackles in 2021. He elected to stay for his senior year, however in large part because of Marcus Freeman’s promotion to head coach. 

He originally joined the Irish as a four-star recruit from De La Salle high school in California. Foskey played sparingly as a freshman, appearing in just three games and notching five total tackles. His playing time increased substantially as a sophomore, collecting 20 total tackles including five sacks on the year, before bursting onto the national scene as a junior. 

Some pundits thought Foskey took a step back this year, but he still racked up 10.5 sacks to lead the team by a wide margin once again. He’ll have a chance to be a difference-maker on a Saints team that desperately needs pass-rush help. Outside of aging star Cameron Jordan, the depth chart is thin at defensive end for the Saints. Foskey will have a great chance to make an impact in his first season in the Superdome. 

OL Jarrett Patterson (Drafted No. 201 by Houston Texans)

On Saturday, offensive lineman Jarett Patterson became the third former Irish player off the board in the 2023 NFL Draft. The Houston Texans selected him 201st overall in the sixth round. In five seasons at Notre Dame, big number 55 played in 49 games, starting 46. Patterson served as a team captain in each of the last two seasons, transitioning from center to left guard in 2022. Finishing his college career without a sack allowed, Patterson collected American Football Coaches Association Second Team All-American honors after last season. With his selection, NFL teams have now drafted 10 Irish offensive linemen in the last ten years.

Looking to restock the offensive line, the rebuilding Texans also nabbed Penn State center Juice Scruggs in the second round. They also took their potential franchise quarterback, Ohio State man C.J. Stroud, at second overall. His protection will be key as Houston looks to add a new name to the already long list of young, star-studded AFC signal-callers. In H-Town, Patterson will work with new offensive line coach Chris Strausser. He spent the past four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts and former Irish star guard Quenton Nelson.

DL Jayson Ademilola (UFA to the Jacksonville Jaguars)

Ademilola joined the Irish in 2018, along with his twin brother Justin, and was an impact player on the interior defensive line for the next five seasons. The New Jersey native was a day-one contributor at Notre Dame, recording 17 tackles and helping the Irish reach the College Football Playoff as a true freshman. He continued to serve as a key rotation player over the next two seasons, combining for 36 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss.

That production led to him becoming a full-time starter in 2021, a position he would hold for his final two seasons in South Bend. Ademilola took full advantage of his new role, posting 78 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks across his senior and graduate seasons. He was a standout in Notre Dame’s 2021 Shamrock Series win over Wisconsin, finishing with two tackles for loss along with a sack and a forced fumble.

After signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars as an undrafted free agent, Ademilola has the opportunity to secure a roster spot on an exciting team that reached the playoffs last season and appears to be on the rise. Defensive line was an area of need for the Jaguars, and the high-end quickness and explosiveness that made him an effective pass rusher with the Irish gives him a chance to carve out a similar role at the next level in Jacksonville.

S Brandon Joseph (UFA to Detroit Lions)

Though Joseph went through the draft without hearing his name called, the safety was quickly snatched up by the Detroit Lions. Joseph, who spent his first three years at Northwestern before transferring to Notre Dame played 32 games in his collegiate career. He amassed 10 interceptions and had one sack, according to College Football Reference. Joseph was ranked the 19th overall safety by ESPN, and the 224th prospect in the draft.

The Northwestern-Notre Dame product will not be the only rookie to join the Lions secondary. Detroit also took Alabama Safety Brian Branch early in the second round. 

Both Branch and Joseph join a strong Lions secondary. Featured on the depth chart is SS C.J. Gardner-Johnson had a productive season with the Eagles, netting six interceptions. Returning to the FS Lions is Tracy Walker III. Walker III only played three games before tearing his Achilles against the Vikings. 

Also returning to Detroit for his third season is CB Ifeatu Melifonwu, who played in ten games last year. 

While Joseph will likely not start for the Lions, he is a solid backup and should expect to play throughout the season, while learning from veteran players ahead of him on the depth chart. 

OL Josh Lugg (UFA to the Chicago Bears)

The Chicago Bears offered Lugg, a versatile and important part of Notre Dame’s defensive line, a rookie mini-camp invitation. The invitation came shortly after Lugg went undrafted in the 2023 NFL Draft. Lugg spent 6 years with the Fighting Irish, joining the team in 2017. He did not appear in any games his freshman year, and appeared in 13 games on special teams during his sophomore season. He started 5 times his junior year, and made nine appearances (but only 3 starts) in a senior season that saw Notre Dame go to the College Football Playoff. 

After 4 years of changing roles, Lugg blossomed at right tackle in his final two graduate seasons with the Irish. He started at right tackle in all 12 games he played in 2021, and did the same for all 13 games in 2022. Like Justin Ademilola, Lugg will face a strong challenge trying to make the Bears out of mini-camp. The mini-camp invitation does not guarantee him a contract, though it is an opportunity to make an impression.

DL Justin Ademilola (UFA to the Green Bay Packers)

Ademilola declined a potential additional year in college to enter the NFL draft process with his brother and was rewarded with a post-draft deal in Green Bay. Ademilola was a constant rotational piece on the Irish line this year, often swapping in for Isaiah Foskey at the vyper position.

Despite not receiving the same consistent reps as other members along the Notre Dame front seven, Ademilola finished third on the team in quarterback pressures in 2022. Over the course of his five-year career he accumulated 9.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, and 108 tackles. Most of that production came in Ademilola’s final two years with the program, when he cracked the rotation full-time and played in 12 or more games each season. Prior to 2021, Ademilola had never ended a season with more than 15 tackles. He more than doubled that number each of his final two seasons.

LB Bo Bauer (UFA to the Seattle Seahawks)

Bauer’s Notre Dame career came to an unfortunate and unexpected end in October when he suffered a season-ending knee injury at practice days after the Shamrock Series, a game in which he made a critical fourth-and-goal stand. A captain on the 2022 team and a member of last year’s National Football Foundation Hampshire Honor Society and Notre Dame Father Lange Iron Cross Award winner, Bauer was a solid, reliable presence in the Irish linebacking core dating back to 2018.

Bauer was the rare Irish player to receive consistent playing time from the beginning of his collegiate career. He made double-digit appearances in each season he played in except for his injury-shortened 2022 campaign. He led last year’s team with 47 tackles, also recording four TFLs, 1.5 sacks and an interception. Seattle also took a linebacker in the second round, drafting Auburn’s Derick Hall 37th overall.

DL Chris Smith (UFA to the Detroit Lions)

A 2021 First Team All-Ivy Leaguer at Harvard, Smith was solid but not spectacular in his lone season with the Irish. Smith appeared in all 13 games, making five starts. He finished with 17 tackles, 10 solo and a forced fumble. That being said, Detroit is an intriguing place for Smith to go. The Lions are a team on the rise but finished last year with one of the league’s poorer defenses. Their d-line was not a positive exception to this rule, ranking 26th in the NFL per Pro Football Focus. It does include some intriguing pieces, such as former Irish star Julian Okwara and 2022 No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson.

K Blake Grupe (UFA to the New Orleans Saints)

Like Smith, Grupe also spent one season in South Bend, arriving after an incredible career at Arkansas State. Grupe too had a good but not great year with the Irish, making 14 of 19 field goals (73.7%), as well as all 49 of his PATs. He was 6-10 on 40-49 yard field goals, with his longest kick coming from 47 yards out. The Irish have not produced a consistently solid NFL kicker in recent years, so Grupe will try to be the exception to the rule. The Saints’ kicker last year, Will Lutz, had the second-worst success percentage of all NFL kickers last year (min. 20 attempts), so there’s at least a chance the six-year Saint and 2019 Pro Bowler could lose his grip on the starting job. Whether Grupe is the one to take it from him is another story.