When there are no more Hotty Toddys to be sung and the Grove empties for the final time each November, the men of the Ole Miss football program are faced with an arduous decision: Hang up the cleats or pursue football on the world’s largest stage. For the overwhelming majority of collegiate athletes, the former prevails. Only 1.6 percent of college football players land in the NFL, and a significantly smaller portion carve out careers playing professionally.
As the first snap of the 2018 NFL season passes through the center’s legs, 24 former Rebels will suit up on active NFL rosters. Of the 24, six are NFL rookies that will suit up for the first time, while the elder statesman of Rebel football, Eli Manning, is entering his 15th season as the New York Giants’ signal-caller.
Having NFL Rebels is an immensely important recruiting pitch. If a recruit strolls through the Manning Center and can visualize himself starting at corner for the Steelers or catching touchdowns from Andrew Luck, then Matt Luke’s job becomes substantially easier. Let’s take a look at how a few of the Rebels’ recent standouts are faring in their new digs.
Engram, the most prolific tight end in Ole Miss history, took no time adjusting to the professional game. Catching passes from fellow alumnus Eli Manning, Engram earned All-Rookie First Team honors by hauling in six touchdowns on 64 catches for 722 yards. However, Engram benefitted from Odell Beckham Jr.’s absence, and with Beckham Jr. healthy and $95 million richer, expect Engram’s production to take a hit. Though Engram’s targets may diminish, a healthy receiving corps should open up the middle for easier connections to fly Engram’s way, just like they did in his four years in Oxford.
Since being picked 13th overall in the 2016 NFL Draft, Laremy Tunsil has led a pedestrian NFL career. Though he has started in all but three possible games, he has not lived up to the physically imposing left tackle reputation that he earned during his time at Ole Miss. Tunsil ranked No. 2 on the Dolphins’ O-line in sacks allowed in 2017, but head coach Adam Gase still believes in his 6-foot-5 quarterback protector. Gase sung Tunsil’s praises throughout the spring and training camp and expects Tunsil to turn expectation into reality this fall.
Donte Moncrief, a genuine terror for defensive backs during his time as a Rebel, is settling into his new home in Jacksonville this season. After four years in Indianapolis, the fifth-year man from Raleigh, Mississippi, gets a fresh start in the Sunshine State. The Jaguars expect big things from Moncrief, and the team’s top brass announced Tuesday that he sits atop the receiver depth chart. Moncrief produced solid numbers as a Colt, snagging 18 touchdowns and nearly 2,000 yards over the span of four injury-plagued years. If the Jaguars want to build on the momentum of their 2017 AFC Championship trip, Blake Bortles must take a page from Bo Wallace and feed this man.
Treadwell’s first two years in Minnesota have been, for the most part, unimpressive. He hauled in 20 catches for 200 yards during his 2017 campaign, following a rookie season in which he only caught one pass for 15 yards. Despite appearing in all 16 games last year, Treadwell has fought an uphill depth-chart battle. However, he has solidified himself as the No. 3 receiver for the 2018 season on a Vikings offense that analysts project will explode this year. Treadwell should see an increase in targets this year, and if Diggs or Thielen succumbs to injury, Treadwell will take over as Minnesota’s new deep threat.
Though Mike Hilton is the only player on this list who entered the league undrafted, a legitimate argument may be made that he had the most fruitful rookie season among all the NFL Rebels. The 5-foot-9 slot corner recorded 64 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions, despite starting in only four games. Hilton is quickly becoming a staple in Pittsburgh, where he will begin this season as the Steelers’ starting nickelback.
Chad Kelly, Ole Miss’ prodigal son, is back. The baby-blue-sweatsuit-wearing, Soundcloud-rapping, G-Wagon-driving gunslinger has catapulted himself from the last pick of the 2017 NFL Draft to No. 2 on the Denver Broncos’ quarterback depth chart. A strong preseason showing from Kelly landed him there, ahead of the 26th overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, Paxton Lynch, whom the Broncos just cut. If Case Keenum does typical Case Keenum things, look for head coach Vance Joseph to try out the second-year signal-caller. Maybe an infusion of swag is just what the Broncos’ offense needs.