Seven Panthers find post-draft NFL opportunities


Victor Wu

Dewayne Hendrix, pictured here sacking Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley in 2017, was signed by the Miami Dolphins as an undrafted free agent. (Photo by Wenhao Wu / Assistant Visual Editor)

By Trent Leonard, Sports Editor

Pitt football saw minimal representation during last weekend’s NFL Draft, as only one of its former players, running back Qadree Ollison, was selected by the Atlanta Falcons in the fifth round with the 152nd overall pick.

But shortly following the draft, six Panthers — fullback George Aston, running back Darrin Hall, defensive ends James Folston Jr. and Dewayne Hendrix, linebacker Elijah Zeise and offensive lineman Mike Herndon — were signed by NFL teams as undrafted free agents. Offensive lineman Alex Bookser also received invitations to minicamp from two NFL teams.

The Denver Broncos signed Aston to their early roster on Saturday evening. At Pitt, Aston broke through as a sophomore in 2016. He finished second on the team with 10 touchdowns while showing a surprising amount of pass-catching talent for a 6-foot, 240-pound fullback, snagging 22 passes for 179 yards and five receiving touchdowns.

Aston missed nearly all of the 2017 season due to injury before returning as a senior in 2018. Although his yardage and scoring productions didn’t reach the same levels as his 2016 campaign, Aston was an instrumental part of Pitt’s 16th-ranked rushing attack, garnering a reputation as a bruising lead blocker.

Aston faced an uphill battle coming into the draft, as the NFL’s ever-increasing passing trend has seen fullbacks become all but extinct in recent years. More teams than ever run their offense from spread sets rather than the traditional I formation that calls for a lead-blocking fullback. But Aston still managed to get his name in professional circles due to his pass-catching resume, reputation as an extremely hard worker, sheer strength — he did 29 bench presses of 225 pounds at Pitt’s pro day — and notorious neck muscles.

Hall, meanwhile, signed with an organization not highly regarded by Pittsburgh fans — the Cleveland Browns. Still, Panther fans will wish him the best after his outstanding career at Pitt. Hall broke through to earn the starting job as a junior, leading the team in 2017 with 628 yards and nine touchdowns. Sharing the backfield with Ollison as a senior in 2018, Hall only saw his numbers increase, rushing for 1,144 yards and 10 touchdowns. His 7.48 yards per carry also shattered Tony Dorsett’s program record of 6.6 yards per carry from 1975.

Had Hall been signed to an NFL team lacking backfield depth, his outlook to make the 53-man roster might be more optimistic. But considering the Browns already have ample options at the running back position, including incumbent starter Nick Chubb, former Pro Bowler Kareem Hunt and change-of-pace specialist Duke Johnson Jr., Hall projects more of a practice squad player for this current organization, who could certainly benefit from a change of scenery down the line.

Herndon, who started all 14 games at right guard in 2018, was signed by the New Orleans Saints. He was considered a pillar of Pitt’s successful rushing attack, and was awarded third team All-ACC for his efforts. The 6-foot-4, 310-pound Herndon is a sound blocker with no glaring holes in his game, but may struggle to break through on a Saints’ roster whose offensive line is consistently among the game’s best.

Zeise found out he was being signed by the Los Angeles Chargers while waiting in line to receive his Pitt diploma. A Pittsburgh native, Zeise emerged to start 23 of 26 games at Money linebacker in his junior and senior seasons, compiling 97 total tackles over that span.

Hendrix signed his undrafted free agent deal with the Miami Dolphins. The 6-foot-4, 265-pound edge rusher certainly has the physical profile to perform at the next level. After transferring from Tennessee and dealing with injuries, Hendrix broke through as a junior with 21 tackles, five tackles for loss and three sacks. He upped his performance as a senior, recording 29 tackles, five tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks.

Unlike Herndon and Hall, who may struggle to make their teams’ respective rosters in a deep position group, Hendrix could have a better chance at seeing the field. Miami is set to be one of the worst teams in the NFL, losing several players at key positions. The Dolphins ranked 29th in the NFL in sacks last season, and they lost their top two defensive ends — Cameron Wake and Robert Quinn — in the offseason. If Hendrix impresses at minicamp, the path to playing time is certainly there.

Folston Jr. was signed by the Arizona Cardinals, who could definitely use some help defensively after going 3-13 and allowing 26.6 points per game in 2018. That being said, Folston Jr. will be more of a project at the next level, as his production at Pitt was nothing to write home about. He started five out of 26 games in his final two seasons, totaling 36 combined tackles, two tackles for loss and one sack.

Although he didn’t sign a free agent deal, Bookser was invited to minicamp by both the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions. These minicamps will serve as a sort of tryout opportunity for him to earn an NFL contract. At Pitt, Bookser had a fairly illustrious career, playing in 50 games and starting 39, earning Honorable Mention All-ACC honors his sophomore through senior years.

The future is often uncertain for undrafted free agents, but if last year’s group of Pitt signees is any indication, then a few will likely stick around on NFL rosters. Last year also saw seven Panthers find NFL homes after the draft. A year later, four of them — Dolphins’ lineman Jaryd Jones-Smith, Houston Texans’ receiver Jester Weah, New York Jets’ receiver Quadree Henderson and Washington Redskins’ tight end Matt Flanagan — have an NFL roster spot heading into 2019.