Former Pitt football players make impact in NFL playoffs


AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Arizona Cardinals running back James Conner (6) runs for a touchdown during the second half of an NFL playoff football game against the Los Angeles Rams in Inglewood, California, Monday, Jan. 17.

By Jermaine Sykes, Staff Writer

This year’s NFL playoffs have been one of the wildest in league history with a total of eight former Panthers shining at the highest level this postseason. Outside of Oakland and all across the NFL, Pitt alumni have been difference makers this season and in early playoff rounds.

Arizona Cardinals punter Andy Lee took big steps in improving his game in 2021. Lee played for Pitt from 2000-03 and ranks third all time in school history in punts and punt yardage. Lee has played in the NFL for 18 years and is currently third all time in NFL history in punting yardage. Lee upped his punting average this season from 44.8 in 2020 to 49 this year — good enough for No. 4 in the NFL.

Lee’s teammate, running back James Conner, also stepped up for the Cardinals. Conner played at Pitt from 2013-16 and experienced a great deal of success in his time with the Panthers. While he had impressive production on the field — breaking the ACC record for touchdowns in a career — he became a national success story when he beat Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Conner started at running back for the Cardinals in 2021 — scoring 15 touchdowns in the regular season and adding another in the team’s lone playoff game.

Bills teammates and defensive backs Damar Hamlin and Dane Jackson also played together at Pitt for three seasons. Hamlin finished his career as a Panther with 290 total tackles and six interceptions. Jackson racked up 148 tackles, four interceptions and four forced fumbles during his time at Pitt.

Hamlin and Jackson are a part of a Bills defensive unit that allowed the least amount of passing yards in the NFL in 2021. In an overtime loss against the Kansas City Chiefs, Jackson tallied seven tackles including one for loss. Despite the loss, the Bills are poised to build on this season and have a pair of young former Panthers in their secondary moving forward.

Pittsburgh native and safety Jordan Whitehead stayed in his hometown and played at Pitt from 2015-17. Whitehead, the No. 1 high school prospect in Pennsylvania coming out of high school, finished his three-season career at Pitt with 234 tackles, three interceptions and three forced fumbles.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Whitehead in 2018, and he had his most productive seasons in 2020 and 2021. Across the two seasons, Whitehead made 147 tackles and intercepted four passes.

Whitehead won the Super Bowl with the Buccaneers in 2020. While the 2021 season was less successful for the Buccaneers, Whitehead tallied 13 tackles in two playoff games.

Star wide receiver Tyler Boyd — Pitt’s all time receiving yard leader — finds himself on a Cincinnati Bengals team that is preparing to play in the AFC Championship Game this weekend. The Bengals drafted Boyd in 2015, and he has spent all six seasons of his career in Cincinnati.

Boyd caught 67 passes for 828 yards and five touchdowns in 2021. This is Boyd’s fourth season in a row catching more than 800 yards. Boyd has continued his production when it matters most, catching six passes for 43 yards and a touchdown in Cincinnati’s two playoff games. 

San Francisco 49ers cornerback K’Waun Williams played four seasons from 2010-13 as a Panther. William tallied 161 tackles and seven interceptions in 48 career games. Williams has spent his seven year career primarily as a backup and nickel cornerback, but in 2021 Williams stepped up as a playmaker for the San Francisco 49ers.

In 14 games, Williams made 47 tackles while also tallying a sack, an interception and a forced fumble. The 49ers are making a run as the No. 6 seed in the playoffs with upsets over the No. 3 seed Dallas Cowboys and the No. 1 seed Green Bay Packers. In the game against the Cowboys, Williams intercepted quarterback Dak Prescott, a comeback player of the year candidate.

Defensive tackle Aaron Donald has also had plenty of success in his football career. Starting at Pitt, Donald, a Pittsburgh native, wreaked havoc on his opponents. In 51 career games, Donald finished with 181 tackles — 66 of them for loss. Donald also sacked opposing quarterbacks 29 times.

Donald’s professional career, if it continues at this rate, will put him among the greatest defensive players of all time. Donald owns 441 tackles and 98 sacks in just eight seasons with the Los Angeles Rams.

Donald also excelled in the Rams’ two playoff games against the Arizona Cardinals and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Donald has one-and-a-half sacks and six tackles in the playoff run so far, as the Rams will play in the NFC championship this weekend with a shot at booking a trip to Super Bowl LVI.

Pitt fans can catch a glimpse of Boyd, Williams and Donald this Sunday. Boyd and the Bengals play at the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game at 3:05 p.m. and air on CBS. Meanwhile, Williams and the 49ers travel to SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles to face Donald and the Rams for the NFC Championship Game at 6:40 p.m. and air on CBS.