Panthers in the Pros: Old and new carry football legacy to NFL

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Wally Skalij, Los Angeles Times | TNS

Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald signs autographs during the first day of training camp in Irvine, California, on July 29.

By Dominic Campbell, Senior Staff Writer

While Pitt football is struggling to gain national recognition, the program is still producing NFL players at a frequency and quality that rivals some of the nation’s top programs.

Over the years, the Panthers have produced several Pro Football Hall of Famers including Mike Ditka, Tony Dorsett and Dan Marino. In fact, Pitt — with its eight Hall of Famers — is tied for fourth best of any school in the country. But Pitt’s NFL legacy doesn’t exist solely in the past. This season, there are still former Panthers performing at the top of their game, others that are steady in their positions and yet more just starting to take off.

Holding the title of best former Pitt player currently active is Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who left Pitt for the NFL in 2014. The two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year has seen a decrease in sack and tackle totals so far this year, but don’t let the stats fool you. Donald has been double-teamed by blockers more than anyone else in the league, 71% of the time.

Recently, Donald also moved up to third place on the Rams’ All-Time sack list after his fourth of the season in a 37-10 win over the Falcons last Sunday. The ultimate goal for Donald this year will be a victorious return to the Superbowl after falling 13-3 to the New England Patriots last year.

Following close behind is long-time veteran wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals, Larry Fitzgerald, who withdrew from Pitt in 2004 to pursue an NFL career. Fitzgerald has benefited from the play of rookie quarterback, first overall draft pick and Heisman winner Kyler Murray. He has recorded five catches or more in all five games he’s played in this season, proving that he is still a threat at the age of 36.

In the fourth game of the season, Fitzgerald continued to cement his status as one of the best wide receivers ever, passing Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez with his 1,326th reception, reaching second in the NFL’s all-time record books.

Despite being one of the few players to reach the 10,000-yard rushing mark, six-time Pro-Bowl running back LeSean McCoy, who left Pitt after his sophomore year in 2009, hasn’t enjoyed the same kind of success of his youth, despite reuniting with his former head coach Andy Reid in Kansas City. As a Chief, McCoy has seen limited touches, with 12 carries last week, counting for the most he’s gotten in a single game all year. This is mainly due to the high caliber quarterback play of 2018 MVP Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City.

Still, “Shady” McCoy is the Chiefs leading rusher this season. After Mahomes suffered an ankle injury this past Sunday that could sideline him for three to six weeks, McCoy will have to step up and play like he did as a Philadelphia Eagle or a Buffalo Bill.

Sticking in the backfield, Tennessee Titans running back Dion Lewis left Pitt in 2011 after two outstanding seasons. But these days, he has seen little action after a solid season in 2018 as Derrick Henry’s backup, rushing for 517 yards. His role has been reduced through the first seven games to just 17 rushes for 57 yards, as he becomes less and less used in the Titans system.

But as the older backs are phased out, the next generation of Pitt in the NFL rises. Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner is the most well known of the latest generation of Pitt stars to make the NFL, but has struggled to follow up his Pro Bowl campaign after departing from Pitt after his junior season in 2017.

Conner had a less-than-ideal start to this season after a Pro Bowl season last year. He rushed 74 times for 235 yards through his first six games. That averages out to about 39.2 yards a game, much lower than his 74.8 last season.

Conner’s AFC North rival, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd, has had to suffer through an even worse year than Conner after leaving a year earlier than him in 2016. Boyd has been one of the most targeted receivers in the NFL, especially with the injury to star wide receiver A.J. Green. With those targets, Boyd has failed to perform — his 73 targets being only 45 catches for 471 yards. But Boyd may not deserve the entirety of the blame for his performance with Andy Dalton as his quarterback.

Cornerback K’Waun Williams, a 2014 graduate of Pitt and current corner for the San Francisco 49ers, has been a consistent player this year for the NFC West frontrunner. Entering last week’s game against Washington, Williams was ranked the No. 9 cornerback in the league this year by Pro Football Focus pass coverage grades.

He has also collected two interceptions, the most in a season of his career, he has only allowed 50% of passes thrown his way to be completed and his opponents’ quarterbacks are only posting an average passer rating of 51.5. In a 9-0 win over the Washington Redskins, he made three tackles and only allowed 16 yards receiving on five targets.

Two more defensive Pitt alums who have seen limited playing time this season are Indianapolis Colts defensive end Jabaal Sheard, who left Pitt in 2011, and Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Avonte Maddox, a 2017 graduate from Pitt. Sheard missed the first three games of the season due to a knee injury, but in his last three games, he has a total of nine tackles and 1.5 sacks. Maddox was healthy at the beginning of the season, but a big collision in week four against the Green Bay Packers has kept him sidelined.

In just his second season, Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle Brian O’Neill, who left in 2016 for the NFL draft, has still not given up a sack and is helping an offensive line that is a big part of the recent three game winning streak that has the Vikings at 5-2.

The older generation of Pitt greats, like McCoy and Fitzgerald, are reaching the twilight of their careers. Now it’s on the next generation of stars like Boyd, Conner and Donald to carry the torch until their successors arrive.

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