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Mormons in the NFL in 2013: How they got here and how they are doing

Published: Monday, July 6 2015 1:47 a.m. MDT

Carolina Panthers Star Lotulelei (98) grabs Buffalo Bills C.J. Spiller (28) while fending off a block from Colin Brown (74) during a 24-23 loss to the Buffalo Bills in an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (Bill Wippert, ASSOCIATED PRESS) Carolina Panthers Star Lotulelei (98) grabs Buffalo Bills C.J. Spiller (28) while fending off a block from Colin Brown (74) during a 24-23 loss to the Buffalo Bills in an NFL football game, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (Bill Wippert, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Among the 28 Latter-day Saints who entered the 2013 season on NFL rosters, two rookies are so far justifying their status as first-round draft picks.

When Star Lotulelei was at the NFL combine last February, doctors reported he had a heart condition that prevented him from working out for NFL scouts and coaches. This raised concerns and the massive lineman from the University of Utah eventually fell to a middle first-round pick.

But Lotulelei has not disappointed the Panthers three games into the season. Thus far he has registered nine tackles, a sack and been a disruptive force for opponents, wrote ESPN insider Kevin Weidl.

"Lotulelei has been stout defending the run and has created disruption in the backfield while also showing impressive range," Weidl wrote.

In the article, Lotulelei is compared to another Latter-day Saint lineman — Baltimore's Haloti Ngata.

Washington Redskins linebacker Bryan Kehl puts his helmet on prior to the start of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Green Bay, Wis. (Matt Ludtke, AP) Washington Redskins linebacker Bryan Kehl puts his helmet on prior to the start of an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Green Bay, Wis. (Matt Ludtke, AP)

"Ngata was bigger and was about 25 pounds heavier coming out than Lotulelei. He also had exceptional athleticism," Weidl wrote. "Lotulelei does not have the same type of athleticism, versatility and has a long way to go to even be considered in the same conversation as Ngata. ... However, they shared a lot of similarities coming out of school."

Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah, the fifth overall pick in the draft out of BYU, is also turning heads in his rookie campaign. He has recorded 11 tackles — the most among Detroit defensive linemen — and a team-high 2.5 sacks, not to mention a handful of quarterback hits. The 6-foot-6, 270-pound defensive lineman from Ghana credits teammates Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley for his early success. He has impressed Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz, according to the Detroitnews.com.

“He makes plays whenever he goes in the game,” Schwartz told writer John Niyo. “I mean, he learns something new every week. He practices well. His technique continues to improve. But he just has that knack for being able to make a play on the field.”

San Diego Chargers free safety Eric Weddle (32) walks off the field at half time during a preseason NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks at Qualcomm Stadium Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013. in San Diego. (Denis Poroy, AP) San Diego Chargers free safety Eric Weddle (32) walks off the field at half time during a preseason NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks at Qualcomm Stadium Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013. in San Diego. (Denis Poroy, AP)

Add Paul Kruger to the list of Mormons playing on the defensive line for NFL teams. In an article posted on BaltimoreRavens.com, Kruger talked about returning to Baltimore — the team he just helped to win the Super Bowl — but now as a member of the Cleveland Browns.

“I was (in Baltimore) for four years and have so many friends and people over there that I still talk to,” Kruger said in the article. “But I’ve made this place a new home and (I’m) really loving it here. I’m really excited about what we have going on.”

After helping Baltimore to win Super Bowl XLVII, Kruger signed a five-year, $41 million deal with the Browns.

“It went smooth and I’m real happy with the outcome,” Kruger told BaltimoreRavens.com. “There’s no looking back.”

Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata watches the action from the sidelines during the second half of a NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns in Baltimore, Md., Sunday Sept. 15, 2013. The Ravens defeated the Browns, 14-6. (Nick Wass, AP) Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata watches the action from the sidelines during the second half of a NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns in Baltimore, Md., Sunday Sept. 15, 2013. The Ravens defeated the Browns, 14-6. (Nick Wass, AP)

Tevita Stevens signed as an undrafted free agent with the Washington Redskins after starting on Utah's offensive line for four years. Currently, the 6-3, 300-pound offensive lineman is on Washington's practice squad.

Stevens was recently featured in a lengthy blog post by Brian Skinnell. In the article he tells about his athletic family, serving a Spanish-speaking mission to New York and his playing days at the University of Utah.

As the center, Stevens said he lined up each day against future Carolina first-round draft pick Lotulelei, which was hard but made him a better player.

"Star and I went against each other every day in practice and he is definitely the best defensive lineman I have ever gone against," Stevens told Skinnell. "He was definitely worth the first-round selection. Going against him made me such a better player in many different ways."

Miami Dolphins long snapper John Denney (92) on the sidelines during the second half of an NFL preseason football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Wilfredo Lee, ASSOCIATED PRESS) Miami Dolphins long snapper John Denney (92) on the sidelines during the second half of an NFL preseason football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Wilfredo Lee, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Another returned missionary and practice-squad offensive lineman is Buffalo's Mark Asper. After anchoring Oregon's offensive line, Asper has been riding an NFL roller coaster. According to Buffalorumblings.com, Asper was drafted by the Bills in 2012, then released and claimed off waivers by Minnesota. The Vikings released him and he spent fall training camp with Jacksonville before being released again and coming back to Buffalo.

"(He) has now come back full circle where the Bills intended to have him all along," writes Brian Galliford. "Asper worked with the team as a center during Chan Gailey's last training camp, and he gives the team some flexibility behind injured reserve guard/center Doug Legursky."

Before he left Oregon for the NFL, Asper and his young family were featured in a 2011 video report by Nick Krupke of KVAL.com. The video introduces Asper's wife and two children and the impact they have on his life.

San Diego Chargers inside linebacker Manti Te'o (50) warms up before preseason NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. (Denis Poroy, AP) San Diego Chargers inside linebacker Manti Te'o (50) warms up before preseason NFL football game against the Seattle Seahawks at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. (Denis Poroy, AP)

Meanwhile, Eric Weddle, an LDS convert and former all-American safety at Utah, continues to be a leader for San Diego's defense. Weddle, a captain and three-time all-pro selection, was recently featured on Chargers.com.

First-year San Diego coach Mike McCoy said of Weddle: “He’s a crafty veteran that’s played a lot and has had a great career to this point and time. He is a great guy to learn from. Anytime you can play behind an experienced veteran, you’re crazy to not listen to everything they say or watch everything they do. Some guys are a little quieter than others, but you’ve got to watch what they do (and) how they do things. The way they study the game. The good players in this league, it’s not only on the field, it’s off the field. The way they take care of their bodies. It’s nutritionally. It’s the weight room. It’s the film room. It’s everything they do because they’re true pros. And that’s what Eric is.”

Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah (94) rushes the line during a game against the Minnesota Vikings at Ford Field in Detroit, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013. (Paul Sancya, AP) Detroit Lions defensive end Ezekiel Ansah (94) rushes the line during a game against the Minnesota Vikings at Ford Field in Detroit, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013. (Paul Sancya, AP)

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