From new homes to increased roles, there was a lot of change that happened for local players in the NFL this offseason.
With the 2018 season set to kick off Thursday night, we're about to find out just how much these locals will be involved in their teams' plans.
Whether it's watching how Alex Smith performs in his new Washington surroundings or seeing if Jamaal Williams can excel in a more prominent role in Green Bay, there will be plenty of reasons to watch Utah ties in the NFL during the 2018 season. Here's 10 reasons to tune in.
Mr. Smith goes to Washington
Smith was traded this offseason to the Washington Redskins, signaling a new chapter in the long NFL career for the former Utah quarterback. He takes over a franchise looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
Smith comes to Washington after leading the Kansas City Chiefs to the playoffs in all but one of his five seasons in Kansas City. Like the Redskins, though, Smith struggled to move past the postseason's divisional round.
Can he take Washington to the next level after replacing Kirk Cousins, who's off to Minnesota?
“When Alex has a bad play, it won’t affect him for the next play,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden told The Washington Post. “If he has a great game, it won’t affect him for the next game. He’s always going to be the same guy day in and day out — willing to work and be coached. He’s still learning a lot in his 14 years (in the NFL), even though he’s been through a lot."
Starting job for Jamaal
Heading into his second pro season, former BYU running back Jamaal Williams is expected to be the starting back for the Green Bay Packers. It's a promotion after he shared carries with Aaron Jones and Ty Montgomery in 2017.
Right now, Williams and Montgomery are the only two running backs on the Packers' active roster, as Jones serves a two-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. It gives Williams an edge to take carries away from Jones, who like Williams is a second-year pro, when he returns.
“Jamaal was a heck of a player for us last year as a rookie,” Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy told the team's website. “Like most rookies, he goes through the offseason, gets a chance to catch his breath … and now you see the way he’s developed physically, he’s really poised to have a big year.”
Second-year safety Marcus Williams has had an impressive offseason, leading many to believe the former Ute and New Orleans Saints' starter at free safety could have a Pro Bowl-type year in 2018. Throughout training camp, Williams was causing headaches for All Pro quarterback Drew Brees, intercepting the veteran several times.
What's the potential this season for Williams, who's looking to put a gaffe that allowed Minnesota to score the winning touchdown in a 2017 playoff game against the Saints in the past? He's ready to show he's mentally tough to take the next step.
“I’m strong-willed,” Williams told USA Today Sports. “I’m strong-minded. I don’t think about anything else but the next play, the next game. So that’s how I feel about that.”
The best chance for a rookie to make an impact this year is former BYU linebacker Fred Warner, a third-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers. Warner missed the team's preseason opener with a chest injury but impressed during the next two exhibition games before sitting the final one last week, an indication he could be in line to start Week 1 for the 49ers against Minnesota.
“They told me that I would sit this game. I guess that means that they saw enough of me and maybe they need to see some other guys out there," Warner told The Athletic. "Just making sure I’m healthy going into the year is the biggest thing I’m worried about.”
San Francisco will be without starting linebacker Reuben Foster as he sits the first two regular-season games after violating the NFL's conduct and substance-abuse policies. That could open a door for Warner.
“I think there’s a real good chance,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said of Warner possibly starting the opener, according to The Athletic.
What about Devontae?
On Monday, Denver Broncos coach Vance Joseph said rookie running back Royce Freeman would be the team's starting running back. What does that mean for former Utah back Devontae Booker as he heads into his third pro season and appeared to have the inside track on the starting job?
"Royce is our leading runner, but on third downs you’ll probably see Booker and obviously having a package for Phillip (Lindsay)’s going to be important to each game plan we have each week,” Joseph said, according to the team's website.
In two seasons, Booker has rushed for 911 yards and five touchdowns while adding 540 receiving yards and another score.
Other second-year stories
The Class of 2017 was full of Utah ties headed to the NFL, as 10 locals were taken in the draft and more than two dozen signed undrafted free-agent deals.
One storyline to follow this season is how second-year left tackle Garett Bolles progresses after a successful rookie campaign that saw him start every game. The former Utah, Snow College and Westlake High product earned All-Rookie honors from the Pro Football Writers Association, and it will be noteworthy to see if he can improve his game.
Also, it will be interesting to see what happens with former BYU quarterback Taysom Hill in New Orleans. Hill had the opportunity to win the backup QB job for the Saints before the team recently signed veteran Teddy Bridgewater; now Hill will be a special teams ace after playing on special teams in the final five games of the 2017 and making a name for himself there.
Looking to get back in the limelight
Right now, 14 local players are on practice squads. That includes former BYU and Timpview High defensive end Bronson Kaufusi signing to the New York Jets practice squad and former Utah players like guard Isaac Asiata (with Miami), cornerback Brian Allen (Pittsburgh) and linebacker Pita Taumoepenu (San Francisco) hoping to earn their way back to the 53-man active roster. The same goes for former Utah State safety Marwin Evans in Green Bay.
Former Utah wide receiver Kaelin Clay is on a new team altogether, after the New York Giants claimed him off waivers from Buffalo. It's Clay's sixth team in his fourth NFL season, and he'll try to stick on as a receiver/returner.
It's worth keeping an eye out for any of these players as they look to move up from the practice squad or make an impact with their new team.
Where will those without a team land?
Even after all of the transactions of the past few days, there are a few noteworthy local players still looking for a team to play for.
Former Utah and Highland High defensive end Nate Orchard was released by Cleveland after three seasons, but according to NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport, he met with Buffalo on Tuesday and is set to visit the New York Jets on Wednesday.
Former BYU safety Kai Nacua and former Southern Utah and Davis High edge rusher James Cowser are also looking for a team after being waived by Baltimore and Oakland, respectively. So, too, is former Utah State wide receiver Hunter Sharp after the Giants released him, but according to ESPN's Mike Rodak, he worked out for Buffalo on Tuesday.
Could a local win a Super Bowl title?
There were no locals who took home a ring when the Philadelphia Eagles beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII in February. Who are the top candidates among Utah ties to win the Super Bowl this year?
The Patriots are always contenders and have former BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy and former Utah cornerback Eric Rowe on their roster; plus, those two earned a ring in Super Bowl LI with New England. The defending champion Eagles added Highland High's Haloti Ngata during the offseason. Other strong candidates could include Marcus Williams and Hill with the Saints, as well as former Utah defensive end Derrick Shelby with the Atlanta Falcons, who reached the Super Bowl two years ago.
Top local matchups
Each week in the NFL, there is the potential for players from the same Utah school or college rivals to face each other on the football field. This year provides a few games that could be fun to watch locals battle on the gridiron.
In Week 9, Green Bay travels to face New England on Nov. 4, a matchup that will include Van Noy and Rowe on the Patriots' side and Jamaal Williams on the Packers' side. Two former Utes — Smith and Marcus Williams — will face each other in Week 5 when the Saints host the Redskins on Oct. 8. And the first week of the season, former Utah State linebacker Bobby Wagner will take on a slew of Utes in Booker, Bolles and wide receiver Tim Patrick when Seattle travels to Denver on Sept. 9.
Locals on active rosters
- Derrick Shelby, DE, Utah
- Eric Weddle, S, Utah
- Taron Johnson, CB, Weber State
- Star Lotulelei, DT, Utah, Snow College and Bingham High
- Tyler Larsen, C/OG, Utah State and Jordan High
- Jared Norris, LB, Utah
- Kylie Fitts, OLB, Utah
- Patrick Scales, LS, Utah State and Weber High
- Nick Vigil, LB, Utah State and Fremont High
- Dalton Schultz, TE, Bingham High
- Garett Bolles, OT, Utah, Snow College and Westlake High
- Devontae Booker, RB, Utah
- Tim Patrick, WR, Utah
- Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU
- Miles Killebrew, S/LB, Southern Utah
- Nevin Lawson, CB, Utah State
Green Bay Packers
- Kyler Fackrell, LB, Utah State
- Jamaal Williams, RB, BYU
Kansas City Chiefs
- Jordan Devey, OL, Snow College and American Fork High
- Marcus Kemp, WR, Layton High
Los Angeles Chargers
- Michael Davis, CB, BYU
- Sam Tevi, OL, Utah
- John Denney, LS, BYU
- Luke Falk, QB, Logan High
New England Patriots
- Eric Rowe, CB, Utah
- Kyle Van Noy, LB, BYU
New Orleans Saints
- Taysom Hill, QB, BYU
- Marcus Williams, S, Utah
New York Giants
- Kaelin Clay, WR/Ret., Utah
- Donald Penn, OT, Utah State
- Haloti Ngata, DL, Highland High
San Francisco 49ers
- Fred Warner, LB, BYU
- Bobby Wagner, MLB, Utah State
- LeShaun Sims, CB, Southern Utah
- Tony Bergstrom, OL, Utah and Skyline High
- Alex Smith, QB, Utah
- Zach Vigil, LB, Utah State and Clearfield High
Locals on reserve/suspended by commissioner list
- Robert Turbin, RB, Utah State
Locals on practice squads
- Pasoni Tasini, DT, Utah
- Andrew Vollert, TE, Weber State
- Robertson Daniel, DB, BYU
- De’Ondre Wesley, OL, BYU
- Dres Anderson, WR, Utah
Green Bay Packers
- Marwin Evans, S, Utah State
Los Angeles Rams
- Dominique Hatfield, CB, Utah
- Isaac Asiata, OL, Utah and Spanish Fork High
- Jalen Davis, CB, Utah State
New York Jets4 comments on this story
- Bronson Kaufusi, DE, BYU and Timpview High
- Dallin Leavitt, S, Utah State and BYU
- Brian Allen, CB, Utah
San Francisco 49ers
- Pita Taumoepenu, LB, Utah and Timpview High
- Kapri Bibbs, RB, Snow College
Locals on injured reserve
- J.J. Dielman, OL, Utah
Green Bay Packers
- Devante Mays, RB, Utah State
Kansas City Chiefs
- Tejan Koroma, C, BYU
- Daniel Sorensen, S, BYU
Los Angeles Rams
- Kendal Thompson, WR, Utah
- Ricky Ali’ifua, DE, Utah State