Look back on former Illini selected in NFL Draft as event approaches
April 29, 2021
“With the first pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, the Jacksonville Jaguars select —”
Players work their entire lives for moments like these. The chance to play for teams you’ve watched your entire lives and play with players you’ve idolized for years is surreal, and it’s something few college athletes ever get the opportunity to experience.
While some of the top picks in this year’s draft are essentially locked with some generational talent, including a loaded quarterback and wide receiver class, a few former Illinois players are looking to hear their names called this year.
With the last pick out of Champaign coming in 2019 and the draft right around the corner, let’s take a look back at Illinois’ five most recent National Football League Draft picks.
Nick Allegretti: Kansas City Chiefs (2019, Round 7, Pick 2)
After coming to Champaign in 2014, Allegretti redshirted his first season before playing in all 12 games as a redshirt freshman, playing on the offensive line at both center and guard. His next three seasons, the Frankfort, Illinois native started all 36 games and went 9-27.
Despite the dismal record, Allegretti was a team captain his last two seasons and was an Academic All-Big Ten selection four years in a row. He also was named to the All-Big Ten Second Team by the media and Pro Football Focus.
It’s hard to imagine a better start to a professional career than winning a championship in your first season, but that’s exactly what happened with Allegretti in Kansas City after the Chiefs beat the 49ers to win the Super Bowl LIV.
After not starting a single game his rookie year, Allegretti got an opportunity to start last season after fellow offensive linemen got injured. He played in all 16 regular-season games and made nine starts before playing every Chiefs offensive snap in the playoffs, including the team’s Super Bowl loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Allegretti will return to the Chiefs for the 2021 season and compete for a starting spot on the offensive line.
Dawuane Smoot: Jacksonville Jaguars (2017, Round 3, Pick 4)
Despite being drafted back in 2017, Smoot is the second-most-recent draft pick out of Illinois. Smoot played four seasons on the defensive line in Champaign, joining back in 2013. In his first season, the Groveport, Ohio native played in seven games and recorded eight tackles and a sack.
It wasn’t until his junior year that he found his groove, starting every game in his final two seasons on the defensive line, including playing as a team captain his senior year. After a four-year career as an Illini, Smoot is tied for sixth in program history in tackles for loss (38.5) and eighth in sacks (16.5). He also was named to the All-Big Ten Third Team by the media and coaches after his senior season.
Smoot made an immediate impact in the NFL after being selected by the Jaguars in the third round of the 2017 draft, playing in all 16 games his rookie year; in his four seasons as a pro, he’s missed just eight games. Through four seasons, all with Jacksonville, Smoot has recorded 66 total tackles, 11.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
Smoot will be returning to Jacksonville for at least two more years, as the Jaguars re-signed him to a two-year, $14 million contract in mid-March.
Clayton Fejedelem: Cincinnati Bengals (2016, Round 7, Pick 24)
Unlike the other two players mentioned above, Fejedelem did not play in Champaign for four seasons; he transferred from Saint Xavier University in Chicago to Illinois for his junior and senior seasons.
After playing in all 13 games his junior season in 2014, the Lemont, Illinois native started all 12 games at free safety as a senior and led the Big Ten with 11.7 tackles per game. His team-best 140 tackles also was the most by an Illini since Jeremy Leman in 2006. Following the 2015 season, Fejedelem was named to the All-Big Ten Second Team by the media and was named Illinois’ Defensive Player of the Year.
Fejedelem was drafted in the seventh round of the 2016 NFL Draft by Cincinnati, where he spent four years and played in all 64 games before heading to Miami prior to the 2020 season. Through five seasons, he has made 127 tackles, forced two and recovered three fumbles and returned a fumble for a touchdown.
Fejedelem is returning to Miami for a second season next year.
Ted Karras: New England Patriots (2016, Round 6, Pick 46)
Taken one round before Fejedelem, Karras is the second offensive lineman mentioned on this list, though that list will almost certainly grow after next week (Kendrick Green, I’m talking about you).
After redshirting his freshman year, Karras made 43 career starts on the offensive line, including 12 in his freshman season in Champaign. The Indianapolis native was a three-time Academic All-Big Ten inclusion and made the media’s All-Big Ten Third Team his senior season.
Like Allegretti, Karras had a crazy start to his professional career, winning a Super Bowl in his rookie season with the New England Patriots. Though he didn’t start on the offensive line during the team’s 2016-17 championship run, Karras saw some time on special teams. Two seasons later, in 2018-19, he won a second championship with New England.
Through five years in the NFL, Karras has played in 76 games while making 36 starts, including starting all 16 games at center in Miami last season. After playing four seasons with the Patriots and one with the Dolphins, Karras will be heading back to New England on a one-year deal for the 2021 season.
Jihad Ward: Oakland Raiders (2016, Round 2, Pick 13)
After playing two seasons at a junior college on the east coast, Ward transferred to Illinois and made an immediate impact, starting every game on the defensive line his junior and senior seasons.
He made the All-Big Ten Honorable Mention list both years, notching 104 tackles, 4.5 sacks, five fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles during his two-year spell with the Illini. His four fumble recoveries his junior season were the second-most in all of college football.
After getting drafted by the Raiders in 2016, Ward spent two years in Oakland, making 14 starts and playing in 21 games while making 32 tackles and recovering a fumble. The Philadelphia native then went to Indianapolis, where he spent one full season and played in only six games, before being cut three games into his second year and signed by Baltimore. Ward spent the 2020 season with the Ravens, and he made 10 appearances and racked up 3.0 sacks and 16 tackles.
Ward will reunite with former Illini teammate Smoot in Jacksonville next season.