Former Cats will have to work hard to make NFL rosters

Kentucky Wildcats wide receiver La'Rod King (16) catches a 38 yard touchdown pass during the second half of the University of Kentucky football game against Ole Miss at Commonwealth Stadium in Lexington, Ky., on 11/5/11. Uk won the game 30-13. Photo by Mike Weaver | Staff

By Zack Hodge | @KyKernelSports

sports@kykernel.com

Larry Warford was the only UK player selected in the 2013 National Football League Draft when the Detroit Lions took him in the third round with the 65th overall pick. But a familiar face could be on the sidelines with Warford this fall.

Three former Cats signed NFL contracts as free agents: center Matt Smith (Atlanta Falcons), defensive end Collins Ukwu (Minnesota Vikings) and safety Martavius Neloms (Detroit Lions). Wide receiver La’Rod King worked out with New Orleans this week and hopes to sign a free agent contract as well.

Warford, Smith, Ukwu, Neloms and King were some of UK’s key players in 2012. But this is the NFL. Nothing is guaranteed. Yes, Warford was drafted reasonably high, but even he will have to earn his spot.

The NFL preseason camps are rigorous. For rookies, the stress is insurmountable, the training is more demanding than ever and the competition is world class.

The 2013 draft pool featured 2,444 names, 10.3 percent of those names received a call during the draft, and only a handful signed as a free agent. Needless to say, making a squad is hard.

The NFL allows each team an 80-man roster to start camp. By the regular season that number must be 53. Who from UK will make the cut as a rookie?

I’ll go ahead and give Warford the nod. The third-team Associated Press All-American accumulated 48 knock-downs, zero sacks and was an All-Southeastern Conference selection for the third straight year.

Center Matt Smith has the next best shot at the 53-man roster. Todd McClure, the Falcons’ center for 13 years, retired late March. That made Joe Hawley the only center on Atlanta’s roster. And most teams, if not all, have two centers.

Smith is strong, smart and hardworking. He bench-pressed 225-pounds 28 times and was a three-time Southeastern Conference All-Academic selection.

At 6-foot-4, 295-pounds, Smith has the pro body. If he works hard during mini-camp and makes plays during pre-season, he’ll stick with the Falcons.

Ukwu, Neloms and King will have a tougher time than Smith and Warford. Ukwu signed with the Minnesota Vikings, a team that rotates defensive linemen frequently.

But Minnesota returns all five defensive ends and added at least three defensive tackles. Ukwu must have a better camp than defensive end George Johnson, who signed with the Vikings late last season.

Neloms joined Warford in Detroit but will have an even tougher time than Ukwu making a roster. Neloms was a cornerback-turned-safety at UK, but joins a safety-heavy roster in Detroit.

Neloms is hardnosed, fast and physical. However, the only way he’ll prove his value is by making plays during camp; forcing fumbles and getting to the ball.

King still hasn’t signed but does have an opportunity to play in the NFL. The former Cat has workouts scheduled with the New Orleans Saints this week. And similar to Neloms, King will have to make plays.

King was known to drop balls at UK and definitely can’t do that now. King has the size and speed that NFL coaches salivate over, but he needs to take advantage of his opportunities and catch everything thrown his way.

UK has 17 former players in the NFL. Will the number rise to 20? Maybe. But the likely number is 19. This offseason, the trend has been the addition of offensive linemen. Warford and Smith will add to the trend.