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Illini in the NFL: End of Season Grades

For those Illini alums who did not qualify for the playoffs, how did they perform in 2020?

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Las Vegas Raiders Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As it stands, six Illini alums in the NFL are on playoff teams: Nick Allegretti of the Kansas City Chiefs, James Crawford (practice squad) of the Baltimore Ravens, Justin Hardee of the New Orleans Saints, Del’Shawn Phillips (Injured Reserve) of the Buffalo Bills, Jihad Ward of the Ravens and Tavon Wilson of the Indianapolis Colts.

We’ll give all of those players a grade once the NFL playoffs are over. For now, let’s take a look back and give a grade to those Illini alums on teams who failed to make the playoffs cut in this wacky 2020 season.

Dallas Cowboys

Malik Turner: wide receiver/special teams

Grade: Incomplete

Illini fans fondly remember Turner as a 4-year receiver who caught 10 touchdown passes while amassing just over 1,800 yards through the air. For the Cowboys, Turner appeared in just six games and was on the field on offense for just two snaps. He was primarily a special teams player and was inactive for a majority of Dallas’ games. Ideally, Turner gets a chance with a team that’s weaker at wide receiver than the Cowboys so he’ll have more chances to see the field on offense. Dallas, especially if they keep their wide receivers next season, is probably the most loaded team at that position in the NFL.

Houston Texans

NFL: Houston Texans at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Corey Liuget: defensive tackle/special teams

Grade: C+

Liuget was a late addition to Houston’s team in Week 9. Playing in his 10th NFL season, he’s an old man by NFL standards. He appeared in 6 games, started 1, and had a sack against the Cleveland Browns back in November. He also had 2 tackles for loss. He gets a C+ because of the sack and because he played so few games. There’s a chance his NFL career is over, but we’ll see come this offseason.

Whitney Mercilus: defensive end

Grade: C+

Mercilus started 12 games this year, recording 21 tackles including 4 sacks. His 21 tackles were the lowest of his career — that’s not counting his 2017 injury-plagued season where he only played in five games. This is a player with a big contract and who played a ton for Houston this year (not counting the last 2 regular-season games because of Covid), and while 4 sacks are pretty good, there were a bunch of games where he was invisible. Standards were and are high for Mercilus given his experience and contract, and he’ll likely be the first to admit that this past season just wasn’t good enough.

Jacksonville Jaguars

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Baltimore Ravens Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Dawuane Smoot: defensive end

Grade: A-

Dawuane Smoot earned some serious money this offseason. Will that be from Jacksonville? Will it be from another team? We’ll soon find out. Smoot was a terror, wreaking havoc in the offensive backfield. He appeared in all 16 games, starting 7 of them. He forced 2 fumbles, had 25 tackles including 5 for loss. He had 17 QB hits and 2 sacks. There were a ton of times where Smoot’s aggressiveness and sheer power to get to the quarterback did not appear on the stat sheet. NFL GM’s are taking notice. In a league where arguably no position aside from quarterback is as coveted as the edge-rusher, Smoot will be a hot commodity.

Miami Dolphins

Clayton Fejedelem: safety/special teams:

Grade: A

Fej is going to have a long, long NFL career because of how good of a special teams player he is. He has great leadership skills and has shown he can make plays with the ball in his hands, as well. He was a special teams captain for the Cincinnati Bengals early on in his career and was a de-facto special teams captain for Miami this season as well. Is he the fastest safety and could he see regular playing time in a defensive rotation for a team? Probably not. Solely looking at him as a special teams player, he’s big time.

Ted Karras: center

Grade: A-

I’m not going to pretend I know enough about offensive linemen across the league to tell you whether Karras is the 10th best center in the league or the 21st best center in the league — my knowledge of offensive line play is not that deep. What I do know is Karras was an offensive captain for a Miami Dolphins team that went from 5-11 in 2019 to 10-6 in 2020. He started every game this season, and while he was credited for 2 fumbles against the LA Chargers in Week 10, he was a consistent anchor for one of the best stories in the NFL this season.

Minnesota Vikings

Hardy Nickerson: linebacker, special teams

Grade: B

The son of a former NFL great (and former Illinois defensive coordinator), Nickerson played in 14 games and started 1. Primarily a special teams player, he started the Vikings game versus the Saints on Christmas Day and had an interception against Drew Brees. His performance in that game likely earns him a spot at least on a team’s practice squad next year, if not on a 53-man roster.

New England Patriots

Akeem Spence: defensive tackle/special teams

Grade: C-

The 8-year vet played in just 6 games for the Patriots and had 9 tackles, none for loss. He was activated in Week 12, and much like the rest of his Patriots teammates, was largely ineffective. He had a bad offsides penalty against the LA Rams in Week 14.

New York Jets

Chase McLaughlin: kicker

Grade: Incomplete

McLaughlin was active for two teams this season and played in 4 games for the Jets and Jaguars. 4 games is hardly enough to judge a kicker. He was 5 for 6 on his extra-point attempts and 4 of 5 on field goals. At this level, a missed extra-point is a heinous crime, but McLaughlin’s powerful leg should be enough to generate enough interest from teams this offseason. Illini fans would love to see him get a full 16 games in 2021.