Former Cougars caught in NFL frenzy

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There’s cramming, and then there’s this muddled situation.

With the NFL finally agreeing early last week to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement that will run through 2020, teams are scrambling to get ready for a quickly approaching season and players are trying to find a home. A free agency frenzy has ensued following a 4 1/2 month period of no NFL contact during the offseason.

This amount of uncertainty has created an intriguing training camp period and plenty of former BYU players are caught in the mix.

 

For players like John Beck and Dennis Pitta, there will be opportunities to show they can earn significant playing time. For Austin Collie, it’s returning to the game after a pair of concussions derailed a once-promising 2010 season. And for others like Brady Poppinga and Aaron Francisco, it’s about finding a place to play.

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Washington Redskins quarterback John Beck throws a pass during the NFL football team's training camp practice on Monday, Aug. 1, 2011, in Ashburn, Va.
Beck, who finished his BYU playing career in 2006, is fighting to become the starting quarterback in Washington. Following the first day of Redskins’ training camp last week, head coach Mike Shanahan told reporters he’d stake his reputation on his quarterback plan, which includes Beck and free agent Rex Grossman, who has yet to sign with Washington but is expected to. Grossman started the final three games for Washington last year.

“It means a lot to me because I work extremely hard to try to be the best that I can,” Beck told CSN Washington, about his coach’s confidence in him. “Over the past few years when everyone else saw me as just a guy, I was working hard so that I would be a guy that someone would notice, and that someone would say, ‘Hey, I believe this guy can do it.’ So to have him believe in me means a lot.”

Beck will have the leg up, as he is already practicing with Washington and taking all the first-team reps. Grossman and Kellen Clemens, a free agent signee for the Redskins last week, have to wait, like all other veteran free agents, until Thursday to practice, when the league’s new CBA will be ratified. That is, assuming Grossman signs by then.

Beck hasn’t started, or played, in an NFL regular season game since his 2007 rookie season, when he went 0-5 with a talent-stricken Miami Dolphins team that finished the year 1-15. After one more year in Miami, he moved on to Baltimore, where he never played in his two seasons there. Last year, he signed with the Redskins. Despite not playing in nearly four years in a significant game, Beck said he has learned a lot through the process.

“I got a chance to learn a lot because I got a chance to see a lot,” he said. “I saw different offenses, different coaching philosophies, different preparation methods by quarterbacks, different leadership skills portrayed by different quarterbacks.”

Beck also said his time with the Ravens organization was valuable, as it allowed him to see how a championship organization runs.

“I got a chance daily to go against Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, Terrell Suggs in practice every day and that’s why I took those reps so seriously,” he said. “I was not just a backup quarterback slinging it around for fun.”

Beck will also be playing with a number familiar to Cougar fans — his old No. 12, which he wore in BYU blue. According to CSN Washington, he will shed the No. 3 he has had with the Redskins after teammate Malcolm Kelly agreed to give up the No. 12.

Much like it will be for Beck, the preseason will be a proving ground for Pitta as well. The former Cougar tight end is likely to see increased opportunities to earn playing time after the Baltimore Ravens released Todd Heap in an effort to cut salary and Heap signed with Arizona. Now Pitta will be competing with fellow second-year tight end Ed Dickson for playing time in Baltimore.

Dickson appears to have the edge, after starting three games for the Ravens in 2010 and recording 11 receptions for 152 yards and a TD. Pitta, meanwhile, had just one catch for a single yard all year, before a Week 15 concussion landed him on the inactive list.

Baltimore wide receivers coach Jim Hostler, however, appears to have confidence in the abilities Pitta can bring to the field.

“I think Dennis is a skilled kid,” Hosler told baltimoreravens.com. “He had a great offseason last year and training camp. Obviously, last year he got limited opportunities because Todd [Heap] was here. This is a young kid that is going to shine. He is very similar to Todd. He has great body control and great hands. He can be a multiple position guy. He is very similar to Todd.”

Collie, now playing for the Indianapolis Colts, has returned to the field following a 2010 that began with promise and ended in uncertainty, after a pair of concussions knocked him out for the season. In the first six weeks of the year, Collie had started three games at wide receiver, at times led the NFL in receiving yards, had two 100-plus yard receiving games and had six touchdown grabs. In Week 15, he had eight grabs for 87 yards and two touchdowns in less than a half against Jacksonville before a concussion ended his year.

The former Cougar said on Monday, following a light first-day practice for the Colts, he was anxious to get back on the field.

“It’s good, it feels good,” Collie told colts.com. “It feels good to be back with the guys and make sure that we’re all on the same page to get going. … It was fun, just going through the plays and asking questions.  It feels good to be back with the team and be part of it again.”

Collie also sounded optimistic about the talents of his team, which made it to the Super Bowl just two years ago and is led by four-time league MVP, quarterback Peyton Manning.

“We’re a team that’s very good. We’ve got a lot of depth,” Collie said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who can make plays. (We’ve) got a lot of weapons on offense. We’ve got a lot of guys who can swarm to the ball and make plays on defense.”

The current free agent period in the NFL also has some former Cougars without a team to play for. While Chris Hoke, a nose tackle, resigned with the Pittsburgh Steelers to a one-year deal, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, several others are waiting to find a team.

Linebacker Brady Poppinga was released by the Green Bay Packers last week. According to the St. Louis Post Disptach, he was at the Rams’ facilities on Sunday, but he didn’t sign a contract and is still a free agent.

Fullback Fahu Tahi has played for the Minnesota Vikings since 2006 and blocked for one of the league’s top rushers in Adrian Peterson, but he is still on the free agent list. Safety Aaron Francisco, who has played twice in the Super Bowl and started 12 games for Indianapolis last year, is also unsigned.

Also on the free agent list is former Cougar offensive lineman Travis Bright, who has spent his NFL career as a practice squad member with the Dallas Cowboys.

 

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