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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
The Observer

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Six Notre Dame players picked in final two NFL draft days

Fisher’s second-round selection leads group of newly turned professionals

The last six rounds of the 2024 National Football League draft played out on Friday and Saturday in Detroit. Six former Irish players found their professional homes through selections, while four more either signed as free agents or received a minicamp invitation.

Blake Fisher, Offensive Tackle — Houston Texans

After left tackle Joe Alt went to the Los Angeles Chargers with the fifth overall pick, Fisher landed in the Space City in the second round. The Texans used the 59th pick on the Irish right tackle, giving Notre Dame its first Friday draft pick. 

Over the past two seasons, Fisher started 25 games in a Notre Dame uniform, earning Joe Moore Award semifinalist status in 2023. Standing at 6-foot-6 and weighing in at 310 pounds, he entered the draft with a 6.26 prospect grade, as NFL.com believes he will eventually become an average starter. Fisher rates well with his explosive athleticism and agility, but he sometimes struggles to leave his stance quickly and open his outside hip. One AFC personnel executive called him the more naturally talented of Notre Dame’s two drafted tackles.

With his selection, Fisher became the second Irish offensive lineman drafted by the Texans in the last two years. Center Jarrett Patterson landed in H-Town as a sixth-rounder in the 2023 draft. Fisher enters the Texans organization as a solid insurance policy for current right tackle Tytus Howard, who has a significant history of injuries. At Notre Dame, Fisher started his first game as a true freshman in 2021, so Fisher will be ready should the Texans call on him early.

Marist Liufau, Linebacker — Dallas Cowboys 

After having minimal playing time his first two years and getting injured his junior year, Liufau had some major impact plays during his last two seasons. During his senior year, he finished third on the team with 51 tackles, 4.5 TFLs and half a sack, in addition to an interception against Syracuse. This past year, he had slightly fewer tackles but increased his sack production and caused a fumble while recovering another one.

After running a 4.64 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, Liufau was ranked the 133rd-best prospect and 10th-best linebacker in the draft by ESPN. Liufau plays with strong football awareness and does a good job diagnosing plays. However, he often arrives as the second or third tackler rather than the primary stopper, according to NFL Draft analyst Lance Zierlein.

As one of the newest members of the Cowboys, being selected 87th overall, Liufau is currently projected to start for Dallas by ESPN. The Cowboy defense will look pretty different this year under new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who historically expects his linebackers to really make an impact in the game.

Following Leighton Vander Esch’s medical retirement, the Cowboys turned to the draft to find his replacement and bolster their linebacker depth. They also brought in Eric Kendricks during the offseason, who will be going into his 10th season in the league this year. Kendricks could be a good mentor for Liufau, as he spent several years with Zimmer in Minnesota. Liufau also has other ties to the NFL. His cousin is Puka Nacua, who had a breakout season last year with the Rams as a wide receiver. 

Liufau will likely draw comparisons to fellow Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, who was drafted 34th overall by the Cowboys in 2016. Of course, Liufau is not returning from an ACL tear, so the Cowboys will want to see him involved in the defense and making big plays soon.

Cam Hart, Cornerback — Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers turned back to Notre Dame for help at cornerback, selecting Hart with the 140th overall pick. The five-year college corner became the eighth former Irish player to be selected by the Chargers in the last 11 years, joining left tackle Joe Alt among this year’s picks.

At Notre Dame, Hart played 47 games, starting 32 of them. He started at least 10 games in each of his last three seasons, posting a career year with 42 tackles and nine passes defended in 2021. This past fall, he recorded 21 tackles with four passes defended and a career-high three forced fumbles. Hart entered the draft with a prospect grade of 6.16, which estimates him as a good backup with starting potential down the road. He brings unique size and athleticism to the professional ranks but will need to attack and take the football away more to play above his fifth-round status.

Hart played his best game last season against fourth overall pick Marvin Harrison Jr. and Ohio State, increasing optimism about his matchup capabilities in the NFL. He also joins a system under defensive coordinator Jesse Minter that favors lengthy cornerbacks on the outside. Perhaps most notably, he’ll work closely with safeties coach Chris O’Leary, who oversaw Hart at Notre Dame from 2018 to 2023.

JD Bertrand, Linebacker — Atlanta Falcons

Bertrand has been a leader for Notre Dame for years. He’s been starting games since his junior year, was a two-year captain and led the team in tackles the last two seasons. 

Projected to be a special teams player, Bertrand has produced good, consistent play and can jump between linemen to make the tackle but angles toward the runner rather than running right at them. Though he scored high on athleticism rankings (6th among linebackers according to Next Gen Stats), experts are concerned about Bertrand’s ability to play linebacker in the NFL. 

The Atlanta Falcons selected Bertrand with the 143rd pick in the draft, and ESPN currently has him listed as second on the depth chart for right inside linebacker. In front of him is Troy Andersen, who was selected by Atlanta in the second round out of Montana State in 2022. Anderson got injured last year after only appearing in two games, which significantly hurt the Atlanta defense. He’s still currently listed as questionable after having surgery in the fall but is expected to start this season. 

After surprising everyone by taking Michael Penix Jr. eighth overall, the Falcons selected four straight defensive players (Bertrand being the fourth) in an attempt to improve a defense that last year was 27th in yards allowed per game.

Audric Estime, Running Back — Denver Broncos

Notre Dame’s offensive player of the year and rated by many as a Second Team All-American, Audric Estime is considered to be the 10th-best running back and 157th-best prospect in the draft. Estime’s resume at Notre Dame was impressive — he led the team in rushing yards the last two years and now has the fifth most rushing yards in program history after only three years on the team, including his freshman season when he amassed 60 yards on limited carries. 

Next Gen Stats gave him the highest production score among running backs at the combine, but his athleticism score brought his overall score down. In a year where a new 40-yard dash record was set (4.21 seconds), Estime ran a 4.71. While strength over speed is what Estime is known for, that did probably limit the teams who would be interested in drafting him. His combine profile also pointed out his ability to jump over obstacles on the field and the difficulty with which defenders have in bringing him down. 

The Denver Broncos selected Estime 147th overall, making him the 12th running back selected in this draft. While this was an offense-focused draft, Jonathon Brooks, the first running back selected, wasn’t chosen until the middle of the second round. 

Denver is another team that is in transition, so it will be interesting to see how Estime fits into this team. Going into head coach Sean Peyton’s second year with the Broncos, Denver was one of the six teams that drafted a quarterback in the first round of the draft. Though not the most surprising pick of the night, more than a few people will be curious to see how former Oregon quarterback Bo Nix fits in with Peyton’s vision for the offense. 

Estime is currently listed third on Denver’s depth chart behind Javonte Williams and Samaje Perine. Williams, who is going into his fourth season after being selected in the second round out of North Carolina, finished 28th in the league in rushing yards last year with only 774 — which was less than some back-ups — after appearing in 16 games. Perine only had 238 yards on the ground while appearing in all 17 contests. A lot will be different about Denver this year but with a likely quarterback battle and a similar-looking offensive line, it could be a struggle. 

Estime will likely be a short-yardage situation back, especially near the end zone because he is such a powerful runner. Denver was 20th last season in red zone scoring, barely making it above the 50% threshold. Plugging Estime in this spot could be great for his development and could even make him relevant for larger fantasy football leagues later in the season. 

Javontae Jean-Baptiste, Defensive Line — Washington Commanders

After graduating from Ohio State with a degree in human development and family studies and playing in 45 games, Jean-Baptiste traveled west and joined Marcus Freeman’s squad, where he made impacts on and off the field. Baptiste finished the season as a Captain at the Tony the Tiger Bowl. He finished the season leading the team in TFLs (10.5) and sacks (5). He caused and recovered a fumble, blocked a field goal against Wake Forest and recovered another blocked field goal and returned it for a touchdown against Stanford. 

The Commanders are getting a player who can make some serious splash plays. Jean-Baptiste can slip off blockers and work his way towards the runner to stop the play. The scouting report on him out of the NFL was a desire to increase his strength and speed out of his initial stance. Strength is something that can be increased while with an NFL team, making him pretty coachable. He was considered the 19th-best player at his position and the 212th-best prospect available to be drafted this weekend by CBS Sports. 

In terms of fitting in with the Commanders, Jean-Baptiste will pair well with new head coach Dan Quinn, whose defensive schemes down in Dallas were incredibly successful over the last few years. Currently listed as third on the Commander’s depth chart, Jean-Baptiste will have the opportunity to learn from Dorance Armstrong and Dante Fowler Jr., both of whom came over from Dallas to follow Quinn. 

Hartman headlines post-draft signings

The Notre Dame student body caught Hartman fever, famously confusing Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson, but will it spread to the NFL? 

Hartman was ranked as the 315th-best prospect and the 13th-best quarterback prospect by ESPN. The analysts agreed that he can make some great, improvised throws and takes hits well. However, his turnover production was a concern in college (as a result of his high-risk, high-reward improvised throws) and continues to be a concern for scouts and coaches in the NFL. 

In an offense and quarterback-focused draft, Hartman signed as an undrafted free agent with the Washington Commanders. The Commanders took LSU quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Jayden Daniels second overall in this year’s draft, so developing and working with quarterbacks is a top priority for the organization, a fact that could benefit Hartman in the long run. 

Hartman will be the fifth quarterback on the Commanders’ roster after Daniels, former Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, Jeff Driskel and Jake Fromm. 

Nickelback Thomas Harper, who spent the 2023 season at Notre Dame after transferring from Oklahoma State, signed with the Chargers as an undrafted free agent. He finished among the nation’s best tacklers a season ago but must stay healthier to have a shot at seeing the field.

Another one-year rental, kicker Spencer Shrader, signed with the nearby Indianapolis Colts after the draft concluded. Shrader showed off his big leg time and time again last year, breaking the Notre Dame record for longest-made field goal just three weeks into his Irish career. However, he struggled with his accuracy, missing four of his 12 attempts from inside 50 yards.

Staying in special teams, long snapper Michael Vinson received an invite to the Colts rookie minicamp.

As one of the newest members of the Cowboys, being selected 87th overall, Liufau is currently projected to start for Dallas by ESPN. The Cowboy defense will look pretty different this year under new defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who historically expects his linebackers to really make an impact in the game.

Following Leighton Vander Esch’s medical retirement, the Cowboys turned to the draft to find his replacement and bolster their linebacker depth. They also brought in Eric Kendricks during the offseason, who will be going into his 10th season in the league this year. Kendricks could be a good mentor for Liufau, as he spent several years with Zimmer in Minnesota. Liufau also has other ties to the NFL. His cousin is Puka Nacua, who had a breakout season last year with the Rams as a wide receiver. 

Liufau will likely draw comparisons to fellow Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, who was drafted 34th overall by the Cowboys in 2016. Of course, Liufau is not returning from an ACL tear, so the Cowboys will want to see him involved in the defense and making big plays soon.

Cam Hart, Cornerback — Los Angeles Chargers

The Chargers turned back to Notre Dame for help at cornerback, selecting Hart with the 140th overall pick. The five-year college corner became the eighth former Irish player to be selected by the Chargers in the last 11 years, joining left tackle Joe Alt among this year’s picks.

At Notre Dame, Hart played 47 games, starting 32 of them. He started at least 10 games in each of his last three seasons, posting a career year with 42 tackles and nine passes defended in 2021. This past fall, he recorded 21 tackles with four passes defended and a career-high three forced fumbles. Hart entered the draft with a prospect grade of 6.16, which estimates him as a good backup with starting potential down the road. He brings unique size and athleticism to the professional ranks but will need to attack and take the football away more to play above his fifth-round status.

Hart played his best game last season against fourth overall pick Marvin Harrison Jr. and Ohio State, increasing optimism about his matchup capabilities in the NFL. He also joins a system under defensive coordinator Jesse Minter that favors lengthy cornerbacks on the outside. Perhaps most notably, he’ll work closely with safeties coach Chris O’Leary, who oversaw Hart at Notre Dame from 2018 to 2023.

JD Bertrand, Linebacker — Atlanta Falcons

Bertrand has been a leader for Notre Dame for years. He’s been starting games since his junior year, was a two-year captain and led the team in tackles the last two seasons. 

Projected to be a special teams player, Bertrand has produced good, consistent play and can jump between linemen to make the tackle but angles toward the runner rather than running right at them. Though he scored high on athleticism rankings (6th among linebackers according to Next Gen Stats), experts are concerned about Bertrand’s ability to play linebacker in the NFL. 

The Atlanta Falcons selected Bertrand with the 143rd pick in the draft, and ESPN currently has him listed as second on the depth chart for right inside linebacker. In front of him is Troy Andersen, who was selected by Atlanta in the second round out of Montana State in 2022. Anderson got injured last year after only appearing in two games, which significantly hurt the Atlanta defense. He’s still currently listed as questionable after having surgery in the fall but is expected to start this season. 

After surprising everyone by taking Michael Penix Jr. eighth overall, the Falcons selected four straight defensive players (Bertrand being the fourth) in an attempt to improve a defense that last year was 27th in yards allowed per game.

Audric Estime, Running Back — Denver Broncos

Notre Dame’s offensive player of the year and rated by many as a Second Team All-American, Audric Estime is considered to be the 10th-best running back and 157th-best prospect in the draft. Estime’s resume at Notre Dame was impressive — he led the team in rushing yards the last two years and now has the fifth most rushing yards in program history after only three years on the team, including his freshman season when he amassed 60 yards on limited carries. 

Next Gen Stats gave him the highest production score among running backs at the combine, but his athleticism score brought his overall score down. In a year where a new 40-yard dash record was set (4.21 seconds), Estime ran a 4.71. While strength over speed is what Estime is known for, that did probably limit the teams who would be interested in drafting him. His combine profile also pointed out his ability to jump over obstacles on the field and the difficulty with which defenders have in bringing him down. 

The Denver Broncos selected Estime 147th overall, making him the 12th running back selected in this draft. While this was an offense-focused draft, Jonathon Brooks, the first running back selected, wasn’t chosen until the middle of the second round. 

Denver is another team that is in transition, so it will be interesting to see how Estime fits into this team. Going into head coach Sean Peyton’s second year with the Broncos, Denver was one of the six teams that drafted a quarterback in the first round of the draft. Though not the most surprising pick of the night, more than a few people will be curious to see how former Oregon quarterback Bo Nix fits in with Peyton’s vision for the offense. 

Estime is currently listed third on Denver’s depth chart behind Javonte Williams and Samaje Perine. Williams, who is going into his fourth season after being selected in the second round out of North Carolina, finished 28th in the league in rushing yards last year with only 774 — which was less than some back-ups — after appearing in 16 games. Perine only had 238 yards on the ground while appearing in all 17 contests. A lot will be different about Denver this year but with a likely quarterback battle and a similar-looking offensive line, it could be a struggle. 

Estime will likely be a short-yardage situation back, especially near the end zone because he is such a powerful runner. Denver was 20th last season in red zone scoring, barely making it above the 50% threshold. Plugging Estime in this spot could be great for his development and could even make him relevant for larger fantasy football leagues later in the season. 

Javontae Jean-Baptiste, Defensive Line — Washington Commanders

After graduating from Ohio State with a degree in human development and family studies and playing in 45 games, Jean-Baptiste traveled west and joined Marcus Freeman’s squad, where he made impacts on and off the field. Baptiste finished the season as a Captain at the Tony the Tiger Bowl. He finished the season leading the team in TFLs (10.5) and sacks (5). He caused and recovered a fumble, blocked a field goal against Wake Forest and recovered another blocked field goal and returned it for a touchdown against Stanford. 

The Commanders are getting a player who can make some serious splash plays. Jean-Baptiste can slip off blockers and work his way towards the runner to stop the play. The scouting report on him out of the NFL was a desire to increase his strength and speed out of his initial stance. Strength is something that can be increased while with an NFL team, making him pretty coachable. He was considered the 19th-best player at his position and the 212th-best prospect available to be drafted this weekend by CBS Sports. 

In terms of fitting in with the Commanders, Jean-Baptiste will pair well with new head coach Dan Quinn, whose defensive schemes down in Dallas were incredibly successful over the last few years. Currently listed as third on the Commander’s depth chart, Jean-Baptiste will have the opportunity to learn from Dorance Armstrong and Dante Fowler Jr., both of whom came over from Dallas to follow Quinn. 

Hartman headlines post-draft signings

The Notre Dame student body caught Hartman fever, famously confusing Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson, but will it spread to the NFL? 

Hartman was ranked as the 315th-best prospect and the 13th-best quarterback prospect by ESPN. The analysts agreed that he can make some great, improvised throws and takes hits well. However, his turnover production was a concern in college (as a result of his high-risk, high-reward improvised throws) and continues to be a concern for scouts and coaches in the NFL. 

In an offense and quarterback-focused draft, Hartman signed as an undrafted free agent with the Washington Commanders. The Commanders took LSU quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Jayden Daniels second overall in this year’s draft, so developing and working with quarterbacks is a top priority for the organization, a fact that could benefit Hartman in the long run. 

Hartman will be the fifth quarterback on the Commanders’ roster after Daniels, former Heisman winner Marcus Mariota, Jeff Driskel and Jake Fromm. 

Nickelback Thomas Harper, who spent the 2023 season at Notre Dame after transferring from Oklahoma State, signed with the Chargers as an undrafted free agent. He finished among the nation’s best tacklers a season ago but must stay healthier to have a shot at seeing the field.

Another one-year rental, kicker Spencer Shrader, signed with the nearby Indianapolis Colts after the draft concluded. Shrader showed off his big leg time and time again last year, breaking the Notre Dame record for longest-made field goal just three weeks into his Irish career. However, he struggled with his accuracy, missing four of his 12 attempts from inside 50 yards.

Staying in special teams, long snapper Michael Vinson received an invite to the Colts rookie minicamp.