Bulldog football watching NFL draft

NFL fans suffering from post-Super Bowl withdrawal will receive a much-needed injection of football this weekend when league owners, coaches and fans descend upon New York for the league’s annual draft.

Unlike most years, however, three Bulldogs will be watching this weekend’s draft particularly intently. Bulldog wide receiver Eric Johnson ’01, running back Rashad Bartholomew ’01 and strong safety Than Merrill ’01 all have high hopes of being tapped by an NFL team Saturday or Sunday.

Johnson, Bartholomew and Merrill have worked out with a number of NFL teams, both collectively and on an individual basis. Still, only time will tell the results of their efforts.

“The interesting thing about the draft is that you do not need 32 teams to think you are the answer. You only need one,” Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki said. “After all the measureables, you still have to be a productive football player.”

Of the three Bulldogs, Johnson has made the biggest changes in preparation for the draft. The holder of every major receiving record at Yale, Johnson hauled in 86 passes for 1,007 yards and 14 touchdowns en route to a first-team All-Ivy selection this fall. “EJ” will be most remembered for his unbelievably soft hands, which allowed him to make stunning, game-changing catches against Harvard each of the last two years.

In the six months since the season ended, however, Johnson has beefed up to 255 pounds — 25 pounds more than his playing weight during the season — and has changed his position to tight end. The position change compensates for his lack of speed at wide receiver but leaves him slightly undersized and inexperienced at tight end.

“My greatest strength is my pass-catching ability, and because I have been trained as a wide receiver I know how to run routes,” Johnson said. “Since I’ve moved to tight end I’ve been working hard at learning to block in a line, but I’d say my greatest weakness is still inexperience at the tight end position.”

The Giants, Patriots, Redskins and Broncos have all shown direct interest in Johnson over the past week, and the senior has also worked out for the Jets, Bears, Packers and Ravens since the end of the college season. Johnson is known as an extremely smart, hard-working player, but the overriding question is whether he will be able to make the transition to tight end at the professional level.

“With EJ now being projected as a tight end or H-back instead of wide receiver, he has gone from having good size for his position but not great speed to running well enough but being a little undersized,” Siedlecki said. “He is up to 250 pounds, so he is definitely working on it.”

CBS SportsLine currently has him ranked 38th out of 60 eligible tight ends. ESPN.com gave him a 4.75 rating, meaning that he “has a slightly less than a 50-50 chance to make a roster or practice squad.”

Merrill, who made 56 tackles and two interceptions this year despite a nagging ankle injury, has also worked out for a number of teams this week. The Giants, Patriots, Buccaneers and Vikings have all shown direct interest in Merrill, while he also worked out with Johnson for the Jets, Bears, Packers and Ravens. The Buccaneers flew Merrill down to Tampa Bay last weekend, where he met the coaching staff and scouts. Merrill said most teams are looking at him as a safety, while the Vikings are considering him as a situational linebacker and special teams player.

“I think my main strengths are my aggressiveness and my ability to play special teams,” Merrill said. “If you can’t play special teams you’re not going to make it if you’re in this situation.”

Bartholomew, a second-team All-Ivy selection, came into this month the most highly rated of the Yale players, but a hamstring injury several weeks ago has prevented him from working out for anyone recently.

Siedlecki said the injury reduces the tailback’s exposure, but added that Bartholomew has NFL speed and size.

Bartholomew put up 1,232 yards and 11 touchdowns this season and surpassed Dick Jauron ’73 as Yale’s all-time leading rusher in his final game against Harvard. After the win Bartholomew proclaimed himself “one of the best backs in [Division] I-AA.”

Pro Football Weekly currently has him ranked 18th among eligible running backs, while CBS SportsLine lists him 25th.

According to Pro Football Weekly scouts, Bartholomew strengths are his quickness, balance and explosive running style. The report also cited Bartholomew’s lack of experience catching the ball out of the backfield and short schedule as negatives.

Bartholomew, who graduated in December, is currently living in Branford, Conn., but could not be reached for comment.

Regardless of whether any of the three Bulldogs get drafted, Siedlecki says their consideration will make an impact on the program.

“It is great for our football program and recruiting to have professional teams in here looking at our players,” Siedlecki said. “The Ivy League has several players in the NFL now, and the publicity will help us get looked at by high school prospects.”

Other Ivy League prospects include Division I-AA All-American Brown wide receiver Stephen Campbell and three offensive linemen — Harvard’s Mike Clare, Dartmouth’s Caleb Moore and Princeton’s Dennis Norman.

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