In April, Than Merrill ’01 and Eric Johnson ’01 became the first Yale graduates to be chosen in the NFL draft in nearly two decades. That was the easy part.
After four months filled with intense workouts and practices, not to mention nerve-racking rounds of personnel cuts, both former Bulldogs have earned roster spots in the NFL.
Merrill, a safety, was claimed off waivers by the Chicago Bears Monday to fill out their 53-man roster. The 6-foot-3, 250 pound Johnson made the San Francisco 49ers roster as a tight end. When the season kicks off Sunday, both will join Carolina fullback Chris Hetherington ’95 as the only former Elis currently playing in the NFL.
Taken by San Francisco with the 224th pick in this year’s draft, Johnson had to switch positions just to have a shot at making a pro team.
Johnson, who holds virtually all of Yale’s receiving records, including career catches, yards and touchdowns, lacks the speed to play wide receiver at the next level. In a bid to make an NFL team, he gained over 20 pounds trying to crack a roster at the tight end spot.
“It is kind of funny that I waited until the NFL to switch positions, but it is something that I have been working hard at,” Johnson said. “The first time just getting down into the stance and firing off and hitting someone was something I wasn’t used to.”
San Francisco tight ends coach Tom Batta said Johnson is showing improvements each week as he gets acclimated to his new position. The main difference for Johnson is he needs to take on an important blocking role as a tight end.
“He came in here with a great attitude,” Batta said. “He worked real hard at it knowing that he had never been called on to be a blocker in the Yale system.”
Greg Clark, San Francisco’s starting tight end, has missed the entire preseason recovering from hamstring surgery and could miss up to four weeks, Batta said. Clark’s absence opened the door for Johnson to get extensive playing time in the preseason. He notched six receptions for 55 yards in four games while sharing time with third-year player Justin Swift.
“Give him a couple of years in the weight room, a couple of years to learn what they are doing — he could be something special,” Yale head coach Jack Siedlecki said of his former standout.
Starting lineups for this weekend’s game have not been set, but Swift seems likely to get the starting nod for the 49ers. Johnson should see playing time, alternating on offensive series with Swift as they have done in previous preseason games.
Johnson’s former teammate Merrill is not as likely to play this coming weekend.
The safety, claimed off waivers Monday by the Chicago Bears, will use this week to get acclimated to the organization. Depending on his performance in practice, he could play in special teams situations Sunday, Chicago defensive backs coach Vance Bedford said.
Merrill spent the entire preseason with Tampa Bay, who made him the 223rd selection in this year’s draft. He was then released by the team last Sunday. Merrill expected to join the Bucs’ practice squad in the coming weeks, but then the Bears came calling Monday and he was in Chicago by Tuesday.
“It will be a thrill” to play in a regular season NFL game finally, Merrill said. “I kind of got a taste of it playing in four preseason games. It’s sort of a dream come true.”
Bedford said the Bears picked up Merrill to help replace Frankie Smith, a veteran safety who suffered a fractured right shoulder blade in the Bears’ final preseason game and is likely out for the season.
“We are looking for bigger, stronger, faster safeties,” Bedford said. “[Merrill] was a perfect fit.”
If both Merrill and Johnson earn regular playing time, the two former Elis will reunite on opposite sides of the ball when their two teams clash October 28th in Chicago.