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Next Level Rams: Which former CSU stars are poised for breakout NFL seasons?

Justin Michael Avatar
August 27, 2020

FORT COLLINS, Colo. — The fall of 2020 is going to be one of the weirdest stretches any Colorado State fan has ever experienced. 

Instead of singing the fight song, jumping when Comatose is fired*, and drinking a few too many cold ones on campus, Ram fans everywhere will be spending their Saturdays working on long-neglected home projects and attending weddings that they no longer have excuses to get out of. 

Quite honestly, for anyone that lives and breathes the sport of college football, this fall is going to be about as exciting as my Oceanography class was during freshman year.** 

Luckily, though, even if COVID-19 has stolen one of the more highly anticipated schedules the Rams have had in recent years, the faithful will still be able to get their fix of green and gold pride when former CSU stars suit up for their respective NFL squads. 

Like most things in life right now, the 2020 NFL season is shaping up to be a unique experience. We’ve already completely lost the preseason. And even when the season does officially kick off in a couple of weeks, there won’t be sellout crowds in the stands like we are used to seeing. 

Nevertheless it seems that the league believes it can successfully proceed — which for football fanatics like myself, is a huge relief. I have no other hobbies and things will be weird enough without the Rocky Mountain Showdown, Border War, CSU beating New Mexico, etc. 

With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at how some of the “Next Level Rams” have fared in recent years, and go over what their early projections are as we get closer to the season’s start in early September.

(*That cannon is so loud. Why am I not used to it yet? I know it’s coming and still gets me. Anyways…) 

(**To be honest, this one was my fault. I thought the class was going to be about whales and sharks. So it was pretty disappointing when the class only ended up being about tides and geology.)

Shaq Barrett

It was disappointing when the Broncos decided to let Shaq Barrett walk. After watching him prove all the naysayers wrong with his quality play during Denver’s 2015 Super Bowl run, it really felt like Barrett might become one of the foundational pieces of the Broncos defense for years to come. 

However, despite consistently producing when his name was called, the former CSU standout really got screwed over by the politics of NFL front offices. When Denver invested a first round pick in Bradley Chubb, rather than shoring up the offensive line by taking Quenton Nelson, it was clear that the Broncos felt Barrett was expendable. And as a result, Barrett ended up taking a prove-it deal with the Buccaneers.

That said, clearly Barrett was right to bet on himself. In 16 starts with the Buccaneers last season, Barrett led the league with 19.5 sacks and set personal bests for total tackles (58), tackles for loss (19), and hits on the quarterback (37). For his dominance, Barrett was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career. He also earned First-Team All-Pro recognition from Pro Football Weekly, as well as Second-Team All-Pro recognition from the Associated Press. Not bad for a former undrafted free agent out of the Mountain West. 

After breaking out with the Bucs, Barrett’s focus will now be building off his success and securing a long-term deal with the franchise. According to the reports coming out of Tampa Bay, Barrett has looked excellent in training camp so far — which hopefully is an indicator of the type of season “Moochie” will have in 2020. 

Regardless of what types of numbers Barrett puts up this season, though, Ram fans are already extremely proud of the 2013 New Mexico Bowl MVP and will always welcome him back “home” with open arms.

Rashard Higgins

Along with Shaq Barrett, Rashard “Hollywood” Higgins might be the easiest Ram to root for of all-time. Between his charismatic personality, his infectious moviestar smile, and just the general amount of joy that he always seems to bring to the football field, Higgins is the type of guy that immediately wins over an entire room. 

Honestly, to an extent, Higgins’ likability is a big reason he still has a role with the Cleveland Browns. Even after reportedly being passed over by Freddy Kitchens for petty reasons last year, Higgins was popular enough in the locker room for the new staff to keep him around for 2020. And now, with a fresh start, and a new group leading the way, it seems that No. 82 could be poised for a breakout year with the Browns. 

https://twitter.com/FredGreetham/status/1297946785965641729?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1297946785965641729%7Ctwgr%5E&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fthednvr.com%2Fwp-admin%2Fpost.php%3Fpost%3D489588action%3Dedit

Higgins has always had great chemistry with Baker Mayfield. Based on the way they interact on the field, Hollywood seems to really get along with OBJ and Jarvis Landry as well. When it comes to building a successful organization, you need guys like Higgins who are willing to happily serve their roles and produce when their number gets called. 

Given everything we have covered here, it really would not be surprising at all for Higgins to finally have a breakout season with Mayfield and the Browns. And if it happens, nobody will be more ecstatic for Hollywood than the folks that supported him from day one. 

Michael Gallup

The Dallas Cowboys have quite the stable of wide receivers. With Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and now CeeDee Lamb, Dak Prescott should have no shortage of open targets this season. 

If you religiously root for the Cowboys, you probably just look at this group of playmakers and think “money”. From a Ram fans’ perspective, though, one might worry that Gallup will be the forgotten man in the offense — especially when considering the draft capital invested in the other two receivers. 

These fears are rational. We just talked about how both Barrett and Higgins have been victims of NFL politics and roster decisions that were completely out of their control. So even after watching Gallup come on strong with 1,107 receiving yards and six touchdown catches in 2019, it still makes sense to worry about the former Ram getting overshadowed. 

Having said that, though, based on the recent comments from Mike McCarthy, Gallup has already made a great impression on the new staff. 

“Let’s make it clear: Michael Gallup’s a No. 1 receiver in my view,” McCarthy told reporters. “I think we’re very fortunate to have three players with that level of potential to go out and play at that level. I’ve been so impressed not only with what Michael’s done on film last year. He was definitely one of the players that really jumped off the video during the offseason study, because I didn’t know a whole lot about Michael until last year. He’s primed to take that next step.”

Obviously, it’s always a good sign when the head coach is raving about what he sees about you on film. But what’s even more encouraging is the fact that according to the Cowboys training camp reports, Gallup has come out as strong as ever this August. 

When also factoring in the fact that Lamb will not get the benefit of live game reps in a preseason setting, Ram fans should be able to relax about Gallup’s standing with the Cowboys. 

Bisi Johnson

Bisi Johnson continues to set the standard.

Since being drafted by Minnesota in the seventh round of the 2019 NFL Draft, the former Colorado State starter has quickly earned a solid reputation out in Vikings Country.

When Adam Thielen went down with an injury last fall, Johnson made the most of his chance to receive an increase in reps and put together a productive rookie season with 31 catches, 294 receiving yards and three touchdowns.

Now in his second professional season, Johnson is “making the leap” according to Vikings insider Will Ragatz. In a recent article on training camp, Ragatz said the following of the second-year pro:

Throughout the last week-plus of camp, Johnson has looked like a starting-caliber NFL receiver. His route-running, which he calls “the best part of my game,” has been consistently crisp and impressive. He knows Gary Kubiak’s offense, has a rapport with Kirk Cousins, and never appears to make any mental errors.

Johnson has been overlooked since high school. So it should surprise nobody that after starting as the seventh or eighth wide receiver on the roster in early 2019, Johnson quickly worked his way up the depth chart with the Vikings.

It should also surprise nobody that Johnson refuses to shy away from the competition.

After the Vikings drafted Justin Jefferson (LSU) this spring, most assumed it would be the former Tiger that assumes Stefon Diggs’ starting role. But with no preseason to help Jefferson get a feel for the pace of the NFL game, Johnson is really taking advantage, and reminding folks in Minnesota that he is nicknamed the ‘Standard’ for a reason.

Preston Williams

It’s never been a question whether Preston Williams was talented enough to play professional football. Since before Williams transferred from Tennessee to CSU, anyone that ever saw him play knew that he was an absolute baller.

It was, however, fair at one point to question whether Williams would have enough maturity and drive to succeed in the NFL. While at CSU, Williams was suspended from the team multiple times for violating team rules. And a troubled legal past resulted in him not being allowed to participate at the NFL Combine — which is what made it even more surprising when Williams dropped the ball at his pro day.

As a result of all the uncertainty surrounding Williams, the one-time No. 1 high school wide receiver in America ended up falling to Miami as an undrafted free agent. Since day one, though, it’s been clear that if he can stay on the right path, Williams has the potential of a first round pick.

In eight games last season, Williams recorded 32 receptions for 428 yards and three touchdowns before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Now, in year two, Williams is healthy and looks ready to build off his early success.

Just about every day there is a Dolphins beat reporter raving about a play that Williams made in training camp. And the charismatic wideout is frequently featured on the Dolphins social media platforms to boot.

If Williams can keep this up, he might just end up getting a nice payday, like fellow former UDFA Shaquil Barrett. Regardless, Williams definitely appears poised for a breakout sophomore campaign, and should be a fun player for the CSU diehards to follow this fall.

Other Rams in the league

Center | Weston Richburg (49ers)

Tackle | Ty Sambrailo (Titans)

Running Back | Dalyn Dawkins (Titans)

Linebacker | Josh Watson (Broncos)

Longsnapper | Trent Sieg (Oakland)

Free Agents

Punter | Hayden Hunt

Safety | Jamal Hicks

Offensive Guard | Zack Golditch

Offensive Guard | Trae Moxley

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