Since we probably aren’t going be witnessing any Big Ten or Fighting Illini football in the near future, we’ll have to settle for the next best thing — cheering on our former Illini on Thursdays, Sundays, and Mondays. The National Football League kicks off its 101st season this week, and Illinois has a dozen* players dotting NFL rosters.
Let’s meet the rest, in alphabetical order of their teams.
Jihad Ward, defensive end: A second-round draft choice in 2016, Ward is already on his fourth NFL team. After playing all 16 games as a rookie with the Raiders, Ward played in just five in 2017. Ward was then traded to the Dallas Cowboys, but waived prior to the start of the season. Ward was picked up by the Indianapolis Colts, but missed most of 2018 due to injury. He signed with Baltimore last October and recorded two fumble recoveries and a quarterback sack in 11 games.
Ward inked a new deal with the Ravens back in March and should be a key contributor on one of the league’s top defenses. Baltimore hosts the Cleveland Browns this Sunday at 12 p.m.
Del’Shawn Phillips, linebacker: An undrafted free agent in 2019, Phillips cracked a 53-man roster for the first time. He’ll join a Bills team that has reached the playoffs two of the past three seasons and may be the top threat to ending New England’s nearly two-decade-long run atop the AFC East.
Buffalo opens its season at home against the division rival New York Jets (9/13, 12 p.m.)
Malik Turner, wide receiver/special teams: The Springfield native finished top ten in both receiving yards (1,804) and catches (143) with the Fighting Illini. Turner signed with the Seattle Seahwaks as an undrafted free agent in 2018. In two seasons Turner tallied 17 grabs for 265 yards and was also on the receiving end of one of the top trick plays of last season.
Dallas heads to Los Angeles to face the Rams on Sunday Night Football (7:20 p.m., NBC).
Whitney Mercilus, outside linebacker: The 26th overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft, Mercilus enters his ninth season in Houston with 324 career tackles, 50 sacks and 13 forced fumbles. Mercilus started all 16 contests (and two playoff games) for the Texans last season, tallying 48 total tackles, 7.5 sacks, four forced fumbles & two interceptions.
He shows no signs of slowing down, and the reliable Mercilus was rewarded in December with a four-year contract extension worth a reported $53.5 million.
Tavon Wilson, safety: Wilson has put together a solid career since being drafted as a second-rounder by New England in 2012. Wilson won a Super Bowl as a member of the Patriots, then spent four seasons with the Detroit Lions before signing with Indianapolis this summer.
Wilson hopes to build on a stellar 2019 in which he played all 16 games and recorded a career-best 92 tackles.
The Colts begin their 2020 season on the road against the division rival Jacksonville Jaguars this Sunday at noon. Speaking of which...
Dawuane Smoot, defensive line: Jacksonville selected Smoot in the third round of the 2017 draft, and that pick finally appears to be paying dividends.
Smoot finished with six sacks in 2019, after failing to record a sack in his first two seasons. The 6-foot-3, 265-pounder could be in for a big year after the Jags traded a pair of Pro Bowl defensive linemen, Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngakoue.
Jacksonville hosts Indianapolis this Sunday.
Nick Allegretti, guard: Who wouldn’t want to help protect the game’s best quarterback? Ted Karras got to do it in New England, now it’s Nick Allegretti’s turn.
Allegretti — a teammate of Karras at Illinois — was a seventh-round draft pick in 2019 and played seven games as backup guard and center for the Chiefs during their Super Bowl run last season.
He’s still a depth player at this point in his career, but his versatility, intelligence, durability, and work ethic should keep Allegretti in the league for years to come. Playing alongside Patrick Mahomes ain’t too bad of a gig, either.
As the reigning Super Bowl champions, Kansas City will host the aforementioned Houston Texans at Arrowhead Stadium to begin the regular season Thursday night.
Clayton Fejedelem, free safety/special teams: “Fej” is one of the Illini’s best rags-to-riches stories. He joined the Illini as a walk-on following two seasons at NAIA St. Xavier. He went on to become a team captain at Illinois and led the Big Ten with 140 tackles in 2015.
The Chicagoland native was a 7th-round pick of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2016 and quickly became one the top special teams players in the league. Fejedelem signed a three-year deal with Miami in March and was named one of the Dolphins’ captains at the end of camp.
Ted Karras, center: A sixth-round selection in the 2016 NFL draft, Karras began his pro career by appearing in three consecutive Super Bowls as a member of the New England Patriots, winning two. Not too shabby. In Karras’ fourth season he converted to center full-time and started 15 games.
Karras has now moved on to AFC East rival Miami, where he’ll be snapping to starting QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (and maybe Tua Tagovailoa by season’s end). Like Fejedelem, Karras was named a team captain for 2020.
The Dolphins visit the Patriots in Week 1 this Sunday (12 p.m., CBS).
Justin Hardee, cornerback/special teams: A wide receiver at Illinois, Hardee converted to defensive back after signing with the Saints as a UFA in 2017. Hardee doesn’t see much playing time at corner, but — like former teammate Clayton Fejedelem — he’s found a home on special teams, finishing with 11 tackles in 16 games last year.
Hardee signed a one-year contract this offseason to stay in New Orleans.
The Saints host the new-look Tampa (Tom-pa?) Bay Buccaneers on Sunday afternoon (3:25 p.m., FOX).
Good luck and good health to all of the former Illini taking the field this season.