Another fresh start for Alex Smith at age 34 and a promotion for Jamaal Williams in his second pro season will make them two of the most intriguing NFL players with Utah ties this season.
Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner of Utah State is widely considered the best player from a Utah school, but the new job descriptions for Smith and Williams create another element for them this season. Their teams are expecting a lot from them and they’re closely followed by fans of their college teams, with Smith having posted a 21-1 record as Utah’s starting quarterback and Williams completing his BYU career as the school’s all-time leading rusher.
Traded to Washington as Kansas City made room for second-year QB Patrick Mahomes, Smith is entering his 14th pro season. “I still feel like I am a young 34-year-old and I have a lot of ball ahead of me,” Smith recently told reporters. “I am excited to keep pushing that ceiling. I still feel like I haven’t reached it.”
Smith recorded some career-best passing numbers in Kansas City last season, and now he’s being asked to lead Washington’s challenge of Philadelphia and Dallas in the NFC East. Williams will be Green Bay’s lead back as the Packers try to overtake Minnesota in the NFC North.
“He’s really poised to have a big year,” coach Mike McCarthy told ESPN. “Clearly without playing a game yet, I think we’ll be talking about him at the end of the season as a second-year player that’s made the jump.”
Williams gained 556 yards last season, when he replaced an injured Ty Montgomery. Green Bay kept only those two running backs this weekend, when NFL teams cut their rosters from 90 to 53 for opening day, reaching an injury settlement with former Utah State back Devante Mays. The team may add another back this week, media reports said.
Most surprising cuts
Cleveland’s waiving Nate Orchard, a defensive end from Highland High School and Utah, may have been Saturday’s biggest surprise among players with Utah ties. Orchard, remembered as the leader of the Utes’ “Sack Lake City” defense in 2014, was a second-round draft pick who lasted three seasons with the Browns and was featured during the HBO “Hard Knocks” series during training camp this summer.
Other players who overcame the odds to make teams in recent seasons after being undrafted also were cut Saturday. Linebackers Harvey Langi (Bingham/BYU) of New England and James Cowser (Davis/Southern Utah) of Oakland fit that description. Veteran safety Marwin Evans (Utah State) was cut by Green Bay and second-year running back Joe Williams (Utah) failed to make San Francisco’s roster.
Former Ute receiver/kick returner Kaelin Clay was cut by Buffalo, but claimed by the New York Giants. To make room for Clay, the Giants waived ex-Utah State receiver Hunter Sharp.
Thanks to injuries, Kylie Fitts had a fairly frustrating career as a Utah defensive end, although he made an impact when healthy. Drafted in the sixth round, Fitts made Chicago’s roster as a linebacker.
Former Weber State cornerback Taron Johnson, a fourth-rounder, gives the Wildcats an NFL presence again as Buffalo kept him. Even after Cowser was cut, Southern Utah has linebacker Miles Killebrew in Detroit and cornerback LeShaun Sims in Tennessee from the Thunderbirds’ remarkable 2015 defense.
Zach Vigil (Washington) and Nick Vigil (Cincinnati) played together at Utah State, after the brothers attended different high schools. They’re among 11 Utah high school graduates who made NFL rosters, including four who attended out-of-state colleges.
The list includes two Kansas City players: offensive lineman Jordan Devey, who played the tuba in American Fork’s band and never played football for the Cavemen, and Marcus Kemp, a receiver from Layton who caught 73 passes for 1,100 yards as a Hawaii senior in 2016. Kemp was cut by the Chiefs last summer, but stuck this time. Devey is with his third NFL team in five years, having gone to the Super Bowl with New England as a rookie.