April 2016. Illini linebacker/safety Clayton Fejedelem wasn’t sure he’d be drafted. After waiting days for something that was far from guaranteed to happen, Fejedelem was selected in the 7th round of the 2016 NFL Draft, No. 245 overall by the Cincinnati Bengals of the AFC North.
Seventh-round picks seldom make 53-man NFL rosters. The odds were stacked against the then-22-year-old from Lamont, Illinois.
Fejedelem’s numbers his senior year at Illinois in 2015 were eye-popping. He led the Illini in tackles with 140 that season to go along with two interceptions. His standout career-game came when the Illini fell to Wisconsin 24-13 in Champaign. Fejedelem had 19 total tackles in that game. He had 16 tackles against Northwestern that season. He had another 15 against No. 2 Ohio State.
This was a player who made football plays time and time again against some of the best competition in the Big Ten. Forget NFL combine measureables. Forget things like height and weight and speed. Put on tape of Illinois in 2015, and it’s clear who one of the best defensive players on the team was — and he jumped off the screen. The Cincinnati Bengals saw that, took a chance and they haven’t looked back.
His rookie season in 2016, Fejedelem, as is the case with most 7th rounders who do make NFL rosters, was relegated to primarily a special teams role. With tackle numbers out of college like Fejedelem’s, just put him in a situation to make the most out of special teams opportunities, and he’ll hunt down punt and kick returners like he’s been doing it his entire life.
In 2017, Fejedelem again made the 53-man roster and started five games on defense as a strong safety. He appeared in all 16 games, recorded 22 tackles and even had an interception in a Bengals 31-7 win over the Cleveland Browns.
This upcoming 2018 Bengals season represents the third year of a four-year contract Fejedelem signed as a rookie. Again, Fejedelem faces an uphill battle to make the 53-man roster. In the cutthroat National Football League, with newer and younger players constantly in the mix and trying to take veterans’ positions in training camp, Fejedelem will have to rely on what he’s always relied on: Hard work and a backs-against-the-wall mentality to overcome challengers to maintain his not-so-secure spot on the Bengals roster.