As Sunday’s NFL draft neared its usually anticlimactic conclusion, it appeared that the Ancient Eight was going to get ignored again. Then, without warning, three straight teams dipped into the Ivy League pool.
With the 23rd pick of the seventh and final round, or the 223rd overall pick, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers chose Yale strong safety Than Merrill ’01. A pick later, the San Francisco 49ers selected Bulldog wide receiver turned tight end Eric Johnson ’01. On Monday, the Tennessee Titans signed running back Rashad Bartholomew ’01.
The Seattle Seahawks chose Princeton offensive lineman Dennis Norman with the 222nd overall pick, just before Merrill was selected.
Merrill was the first Bulldog grabbed in the NFL draft since Curt Grieve ’81 went to the Philadelphia Eagles. Linebacker Jeff Rohrer ’81 and running back Rich Diana ’81 also made it to the NFL from Carm Cozza’s Bulldogs that season.
Two decades later, Merrill, Johnson and Bartholomew comprise a similar triumvirate for current head coach Jack Siedlecki.
“It’s great for them as individuals, and it’s great for all the publicity it brings to the program,” Siedlecki said. “They are all deserving players who worked really hard throughout the whole process.”
Merrill had flown to Tampa Bay the week before the draft to work out for Buccaneers defensive and special teams coaches. The Bucs were impressed by his size and agility and considered him a potentially strong special teams player. On defense, Tampa Bay also considered using him as a situational linebacker as well as a traditional safety, Merrill said.
Merrill has already drawn comparisons to current Buccaneer All-Pro safety John Lynch, who played quarterback and safety for Stanford in the early 1990s. Merrill also played quarterback and safety for the Cardinal before transferring to Yale three years ago.
A few minutes after Merrill was drafted, Johnson got a call from 49ers general manager and Hall of Famer Bill Walsh.
“He called to tell me that they were probably going to take me with their last pick,” Johnson said. “It was amazing. I didn’t expect to get drafted, but I knew I had a chance. To have it actually happen was more than I thought it was going to be.”
Walsh, who is retiring at the end of the season, has been involved with the 49ers offense for nearly 20 years and favors a pass-catching tight end. The Niners currently have three tight ends on the team, but they are all blocking specialists, Johnson said.
Although he had not spoken to Walsh until just moments before he was selected, Johnson apparently made quite an impression on the San Francisco offensive guru.
Several major Bay Area newspapers, including the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News, reported that the Niners’ front office had taken to calling Johnson “Walsh’s son,” because of the GM’s preoccupation with the tight end. Walsh had been urging team officials to draft Johnson several rounds earlier, the Mercury News reported.
With Merrill and Johnson drafted by Sunday evening, Bartholomew — Yale’s all-time leading rusher — remained the only Yale hopeful without a team. The Titans fixed that when they signed him as a free agent early Monday.
Now that each is attached to a team, making the roster is the next challenge for the three Bulldogs. They will embark on that journey this weekend, as all three report to rookie camp for their respective teams.
As actual draft picks, Merrill and Johnson probably have the best chances of earning roster spots, Siedlecki said.
“The fact that they got drafted enhances their chances,” Siedlecki said. “It’s no different than recruiting at the college level. It’s a little harder as a walk-on [in college], and it’s a little harder as a free agent [in the NFL].”
Making a good showing at the intensive, weekend-long camp will be crucial to making the team.
“My attitude is just to go in there and work very hard and really try to learn a lot of new things,” said Johnson, who has been working on the transition from wide receiver to tight end over the past several months. “It’s going to be intense, and it’s important for me to try to stay calm and confident.”
In addition to confidence and poise, staying healthy is essential to making a good impression on a new team, Siedlecki said.
“The old saying is ‘you can’t make the club in the tub.’ There’s a lot of truth to that,” Siedlecki said.
Bartholomew has been plagued recently by a hamstring injury, but Merrill and Johnson will report to camp in good shape.