Six former Illini signed with NFL as free agents



By Daniel Johnson

The end of the NFL draft marked the first time an Illinois player had been taken in the first round since 1996, but the time immediately following the selections may have been more eventful.

At time of press, six Illinois players have signed free-agent contracts with five NFL teams.

Place-kicker Jason Reda and safety Justin Harrison will become Cleveland Browns, defensive lineman Chris Norwell will depart for the New England Patriots, safety Kevin Mitchell will join former Illini Matt Sinclair with the Washington Redskins, offensive lineman Akim Millington signed with the New Orleans Saints and linebacker J Leman is now a Minnesota Viking.

Each player said he was hearing good things from his respective team throughout the time leading up to the draft, and they all attributed their quick signings to the constant communication.

“We’ve been in contact, pretty much, the last couple of weeks,” Norwell said. “They’ve been calling me every week, and they told me I’m one of the guys that they like as a free agent. I felt comfortable with them, and now I feel like I have a shot there to make the team.”

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The players were waiting anxiously as the latter rounds concluded, fielding calls from teams telling them they might be drafted or offered free-agent contracts.

“The past day has been kind of a toss-up, but I knew I would go late,” Mitchell said.

“The good thing was I knew I was going to be picked up by someone, whether it be late in the draft or right as the draft ended. I actually got a call from the ‘Skins, and they were talking about how they might draft me right then, so I got pretty nervous. But they were the best deal I ended up getting, so I went with them.”

The players endured the awkward waiting period as others were taken instead of them.

For Leman, it was understandably difficult to watch teams pass on him.

When asked if he felt that he was better than some of his drafted counterparts, Leman was frank.

“Oh, yeah,” he joked. “But, I’m biased toward myself.”

Reda and Harrison will have the luxury of knowing at least one other person on the Browns for the time being.

“It’s always great to see Jason’s face in the locker room, it will be comfortable seeing someone I’ve known for the past four years,” Harrison said.

Reda summed up the general mood of the five players that had signed – they want a shot.

“I was looking at teams that were going to give me an opportunity to prove myself,” Reda said.

“I feel like if I work as hard as I can and do what I have done in the past, that it will help me along. But I will need some things to go my way, as well.”