Thursday, June 22, 2017

Friday Column: WVUPros in the NFL – Irvin, Joseph, Kwiatkoski, Riddick and Smallwood

Bring it here for the latest offseason news on Smallwood, Irvin, Joseph, Riddick, Smith and Kwiatkoski in my weekly WVUPros in the NFL column.

Wendell Smallwood, Eagles – While many Mountaineer fans bemoaned Smallwood’s early exit from WVU, the rookie RB may have found himself in a good place to start his career. Philadelphia drafted Smallwood in the 4th round of the NFL Draft because of his versatility.

The team lost DeMarco Murray to Tennessee in free-agency and starting back, Ryan Matthews, is currently recovering from hernia surgery. Backup RB Darren Sproles skipped voluntary team activities this week, leaving Smallwood as the feature back. So far, the team likes what they’re seeing out of the Mountaineer.

“Here is a guy [Smallwood] that I think can be explosive, has shown some explosiveness,” head coach Doug Pederson said. “I really like the fact how he catches the ball out of the backfield. I think that is something that is just a gift that he has. He’s a natural pass catcher. I like that part of him.”

For his part, Smallwood is ready to do what it takes to contribute in his rookie season and sees these early practices as building blocks to his career.

“I love catching the ball,” Smallwood said this week. “I take pride in doing that. They ask me how good my hands are all the time and I say, ‘Great.’ I don’t back down from it. It’s a challenge that a lot of running backs can’t do, or are not willing to do. But I’m willing to do anything to make the team better. So I definitely think me running routes and lining up at receiver or in the slot definitely helps my game and my value.”

Bruce Irvin, Raiders – One of the big names to switch teams in free-agency this spring was none other than WVU’s Bruce Irvin. Paul Gutierrez of ESPN tabbed the athletic pass-rushing OLB as Oakland’s biggest offseason addition.

Irvin was not only the Raiders’ best offseason acquisition — they see him as a bookend pass-rusher to complement All-Pro Khalil Mack — but Irvin also took on the pseudonym of “Baby Reggie” as a recruiter for the Raiders during free agency, as in a smaller version of Oakland general manager Reggie McKenzie. If Irvin is half as successful on the field as he is prolific on social media, he will be the best offseason acquisition by a long shot. — Paul Gutierrez

Karl Joseph, Raiders – Another big acquisition by Oakland was the hard-hitting Joseph. The team drafted him in the middle of the first round with the knowledge that it will take some time for his ACL to fully heal. As the team took to the practice field this week, Joseph could only watch. And learn.

”It’s tough, just not being able to go out there and practice and learn the stuff, but I am still learning in meeting rooms,” Joseph said. ”Right now, I am just focusing on rehabbing and getting healthy.”

The team believes that he will be completely healthy for his rookie season.

Shaq Riddick, Cardinals – Riddick’s rookie season was marred by a nagging hamstring injury. He was only active for the last game of the season, but did not see the field. With Arizona getting together for their first team activities this spring, he is healthy and ready to contribute.

“Once I was hurt all of training camp, that pretty much shot my chances of touching the field as a rookie,” Riddick said. “I tried my hardest (in the regular season). I busted my tail every practice to show I wanted to play.”

Headed into the summer, Riddick will be buried on the depth chart. As a 4th round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, he holds value to the team, and he will get his chance to prove he can be an asset in his second year. How can he do that?

“I just have to show them that I understand the defense, understand the terminology, understand all the drops and coverages,” Riddick said. “All the stuff that comes with being an outside ’backer – not just rushing the quarterback. And show them that I’m mature and ready.

“I had a year where I basically did nothing. I’m not going through that again. I’m going to show them that I’m ready.”

Geno Smith, Jets – While negotiations with free-agent QB Ryan Fitzpatrick seem to be at a stalemate, the Jets are moving on with Geno Smith penciled in as their starting signal caller. He played in only one game last season, against Oakland. What OC Chan Gailey saw in that game from Smith and during practice had him saying good things about the WVU product during a recent golf tournament.

“He’s learned so much in one year,” said Gailey. “The one game he played in last year [in Oakland], I thought he did very well. There’s always room for improvement, but I thought he did very well. And I think he’s made giant steps. I think he’s right on track for where I’d like him to be.”

Smith’s often shaky decision-making during games is one factor that led to him moving to a backup role last season. Smith started as a rookie, and had little time to prepare himself mentally for the speed and shifty opposing defenses, leading to turnovers. Gailey says Smith has benefited from having a season to sit back and watch.

“Just understanding offense, defense, fronts, coverages, how they go together, thought processes about where to go with the ball,” Gailey said. “Probably part of it is getting used to our offense, how we call things. He was in a different offense the first two years, so this is his second year in the same offense.

“You can tell he’s got a little bit more of a comfort level from that. You have to make sure you don’t just say it’s [that] he’s gained a bunch of knowledge. The comfort level is a big part of that, too. He could always make the throws. It’s how he’s developed mentally.”

Nick Kwiatkoski, Bears – The newest “Monster of the Midway” has the tools that DC Vic Fangio looks for in a linebacker.

“The No. 1 trait when you’re looking for in a linebacker is instincts. You can’t coach that,” Bears general manager Ryan Pace said after the draft. “He just reacts so quickly and he attacks downhill. I think instincts transfer to whatever level you’re playing at.”



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