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NFL Midway Point: A mix of veteran, young HBCU players excelling

Some of the greatest players that ever played in the National Football League are alums of HBCUs.

That’s a fact.

We must not forget that once upon a time, Black players could not play at white schools.  That is not the case today and most of the top Black high school players don’t choose HBCUs.  But there are some who choose to go to Black colleges, play football and after their playing days are still able to make it to the NFL.

And excel.

We take a look at some of those who are currently excelling with respective teams at the NFL’s midway point.

Terron Armstead, Tackle, New Orleans Saints
The former third-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft out of Arkansas-Pine Bluff is probably one you think about least.  He plays on the offensive line where players don’t get a ton of glory.  Yet, he is the richest of all the HBCU players and one of the richest offensive linemen in the league after signing a five-year, $65 million contract in the offseason with $38 million guaranteed.

He was extremely underrated in college, only being named second team All-SWAC as a senior.  He posted the fastest time ever by an offensive lineman at the NFL Combine by running a 4.71/40.

After sitting for most of his rookie season, Armstead played left tackle in the last six Saints games, starting the last two.  He has started every game he has played since then.  He is extremely valuable to protecting quarterback Drew Brees and he and the Saints offensive line has only allowed 11 sacks this year.

Armstead was a Pro Bowl alternate last year, but has been slowed by a knee injury, playing and starting in only four games so far this year.  Last year he ranked third in the Pro Football Focus tackle rankings.

Isaiah Crowell, Running Back, Cleveland Browns
Talk about being underrated, Crowell is definitely that.  The former BOXTOROW All-American went undrafted in 2014 after spending two years at Alabama State, having spent his freshman year at Georgia.  He made an immediate impact as a rookie starting in all eight games he played in, rushing for 607 yards, 4.1 yards per carry and eight touchdowns.

Crowell rushed for more yards in his second season (706) but for less yards per carry (3.8) and just four touchdowns. He is currently having a good season on a bad Browns team who is winless.  He is 12th in the league in rushing (524), is averaging 4.9 yards per carry and has already rushed for five touchdowns.  He has two games which he has rushed for over 100 yards.  He’s also a receiving threat, catching 14 passes for 141 yards.

Marquette King, Punter, Oakland Raiders
A former wide receiver turned punter while at Fort Valley State, King is currently fifth in the NFL in punt average (49.0), second in punts downed inside the 20 (19) and eighth in net average (42.0).  He is clearly having his best season, his fourth year in the league.

He had many people talking last month when, on a bad snap, he showed some speed running for 27 yards and a first down.  The Raiders scored on that drive and ultimately beat Jacksonville.

The former BOXTOROW All-American continues to make strides as he did in his rookie season.  Undrafted during the 2012 NFL Draft, King signed a free agent contract, a three-year deal at that.  He impressed the Raiders so much they placed him on injured reserve.  In 2013 the Raiders brought in veteran Chris Kluwe who they cut at the end of the preseason giving the job to King.

In the offseason, King signed a five-year $16.5 million contract.

Veterans continue to shine

Robert Mathis, Defensive End, Indianapolis Colts
Mathis is one of two current HBCU players that has a Super Bowl ring.  The former Alabama A&M star has put together a stellar 14-year career that has included 120 sacks, 521 tackles and 50 forced fumbles.  In 2013 the former fifth-round pick was named AFC Defensive Player of the Year after recording 19.5 sacks, 55 tackles (44 solo) and eight forced fumbles.  He shows no signs of slowing down as he has started all eight games registering 14 tackles, two sacks a forced fumble and a scoop and score.  Mathis went to six-straight Pro Bowls (2008-13).

Chris Baker, Defensive Tackle, Washington Redskins
Like quite a few current HBCU players, Baker went undrafted in the 2010 NFL Draft.  But that did not deter the former Hampton star and after a couple of years of bouncing around, he has become a main staple on the Redskins defensive line.  This season he has 25 tackles (15 solo), two sacks and two forced fumbles.  “Swaggy” was offered a one-year tender by the Redskins in 2013 and after a really good season signed a three-year, $12 million deal.

Antoine Bethea, Safety, San Francisco 49ers
Bethea was a sixth-round draft choice from Howard in the 2006 NFL Draft by the Indy Colts and has had a good 11-year career, which includes a Super Bowl with the Colts as a rookie.  He has started every game he has played in and up until last season, had started 146-straight games before going down with a pectoral injury.  In his second-year of a four-year, $23 million contract with the 49ers, he continues to play at a high level, registering 47 tackles (44 solo), three pass breakups, an interception and a forced fumble.  Bethea is a three-time pro bowler

Justin Durant, Linebacker, Dallas Cowboys
Durant almost did not return for his 10th season in the league, having contemplated retirement. But with linebacker Rolando McClain having to serve a 10-game suspension, the Cowboys called on Durant.  Jacksonville’s former second round pick in the 2007 NFL Draft from Hampton made a game-saving play knocking down a Kirk Cousins pass inside of two minutes remaining in the game and preserving the Cowboys 27-23 victory over the Redskins. He has played in all seven games and has 24 tackles.  Durant has 622 career tackles.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Cornerback, New York Giants
This is DRC’s third year in New York and the former first-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft from Tennessee State is still one of the better corners in the league.  He was named to the Pro Bowl last year after picking off three passes, one of which he returned for a touchdown, breaking up 13 passes and forcing two fumbles.  He has two interceptions and nine pass breakups so far this year.  DRC played in the 2009 Super Bowl as a rookie and was an integral part of the Cardinals making it to the Super Bowl with some key interceptions in the playoffs.  The next year he was named to his first Pro Bowl after a career-high six interceptions.  DRC has 26 career interceptions, six of which he has returned for touchdowns.

Freshman Class
Javon Hargrave, Defensive Tackles, Pittsburgh Steelers

A lot of times, the so-called experts and even scouts will try to marginalize how good HBCU football players are and can be.  And folks did try to do that with Hargrave, mostly pointing to the fact that he played in the MEAC/FCS.  The fact is that not only did he dominate his competition, when playing against bigger programs like Clemson, he did the same thing.  He dominated at the all-star games and did well at the NFL Combine.  The two-time BOXTOROW Willie Davis Defensive Player of the Year was drafted in the third round by the Steelers this year and that was probably low.  He has played in seven games and started five and his play upfront has allowed for the Steelers linebackers to make a lot of plays.  His future is extremely bright.

Chester Rogers, Wide Receiver, Indianapolis Colts
An undrafted rookie, the former Grambling star is getting better and seeing more playing time each week.  He wasn’t really highly touted coming out of college, but has put in the work and it’s paying off.  The Colts needed to only fill one wide receiver spot in the offseason and Rogers’ hard work and special teams play won him the job.  He is being targeted more by quarterback Andrew Luck and had a four-week stretch where he caught 11 passes for 156 yards, averaging 14.2 yards per receptions.  The Colts have one of the best young receiving corps in the league led by T.Y. Hilton.  Expect to see more from him as the season progresses.