Northwestern football is determined to become a program that doesn’t just shell out student athletes with outstanding academic credentials. Last season was the first time since 2012 that Northwestern had players taken in the NFL Draft, when the Cleveland Browns took Ibraheim Campbell in the 4th round and the Denver Broncos took Trevor Siemian in the 7th round.
This year, coming off their best regular season record since 2012 and best conference record since 2000, the Wildcats had two guys drawing a lot of attention from NFL scouts in Dean Lowry and Dan Vitale, this year’s duo who were fortunate enough to hear their names called on draft day – Lowry in the 4th round, 137th overall, by the Green Bay Packers, and Vitale in the 6th round, 197th overall, by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Lowry, a native of Rockford, IL and a Bears fan, should have no problem changing allegiances as a member of one of the elite franchises in the NFL. The Packers are an organization that values and develops their draft picks, with roughly 70% of their roster last season coming from their own pool of draft picks.
In his four years at Northwestern, the 6’6”, 255lbs defensive end had 134 tackles, 31.5 tackles-for-loss, 12.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and three interceptions. He has a lot of speed off the edge and is outstanding in the pass rush. With the retirement of B.J Raji, the Packers were looking to upgrade their defense in the draft and Lowry will be a great fit for Green Bay’s system, with an ideal frame to play 5-technique defensive end in the Packers’ 3-4 system. For now he’ll likely provide depth, but his football IQ and work ethic should have him ready to step in and be productive right away if given the opportunity.
In the case of Vitale it was unclear where he would fit in the pro game despite his size, athleticism and skill set – but if any franchise would be able to find a way to get the most out of the former “superback”, it is Tampa Bay. After all, this is the franchise that revolutionized the fullback position for a decade when they drafted Mike Alstott in 1996.
The physical similarities are there – Alstott was 6’1”, 248lbs, Vitale comes in at 6’1”, 239lbs. And while Vitale wasn’t used much out of the backfield as a rusher at Northwestern, his ability to pick up yards after the catch showed us he has the ability to both find holes and break tackles.
In his four-year college career, Vitale had 135 catches for 1,427 yards and 11 touchdowns. His size and hands should make him a valuable asset for Jameis Winston, a big target out of the backfield to hit when he’s forced outside of the pocket and nothing is available downfield, as well as a big back to spell Doug Martin in short yardage situations. If utilized, Vitale could come out of this draft as one of the big steals.
Minutes after the draft concluded on Saturday, a couple other members of last season’s great defensive unit found homes with NFL teams via free agency. Traveon Henry will join his fellow Wildcat Vitale as a member of the Buccaneers, while Deonte Gibson will have a chance to face-off with former teammate turned divisional foe Lowry as a member of the Detroit Lions. One player many expected to be picked was Nick VanHoose, who will still likely receive a camp invite, is still unclaimed as this story is being written.
With multiple players drafted in back-to-back drafts now, Northwestern is certainly on the path toward becoming a place to look for NFL talent again. The last time Northwestern had a player drafted before the 4th round was in 2005, when the San Diego Charges selected defensive end Louis Castillo with the 28th pick in the 1st round. But with the emergence of young players like Justin Jackson and Anthony Walker, it may only be a matter of time before we see Wildcats taken again on Day One.