Draft day success another sign of Gopher football’s ascension

Five Gophers were selected, the most in the modern draft era.

A Gophers football player watches from the sidelines during a game on Sept. 16, 2017.

Jack Rodgers, Daily File Photo

A Gophers football player watches from the sidelines during a game on Sept. 16, 2017.

Nick Jungheim

In the four NFL Drafts from 2016 through 2019, four Minnesota players heard their names called. Over the three-day event in 2020, teams selected five Gophers, the most in a single draft since 1990.

Since the modern draft era, when the NFL Draft reduced the number of rounds to seven in 1994, Minnesota had never managed to have more than four players selected in one year. That changed over the past weekend. For head coach P.J. Fleck, it is another indication that his program is on the rise.

“Huge not only for them, but for Gophers football,” Fleck said prior to the draft. “I think this kicks off the multi-player draft classes from the University of Minnesota from now on.”

The Gophers ended the 2019 season ranked No. 10 in the AP poll, their highest finish in 57 years. At this year’s draft, they once again stood among the nations’ best programs. Minnesota’s five players drafted tied for the 11th most of any team.

One significant feat no Gopher accomplished this year was getting selected in the first round. Since the New England Patriots drafted Laurence Maroney 21st overall in 2006, no Minnesota payer has been selected in the first 32 picks.

However, safety Antoine Winfield Jr. did become highest-drafted player since Ra’Shede Hageman went 37th overall in 2014. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked Winfield 45th overall, the 13th selection in the second round. 

“You look on ESPN yesterday and the headline, there were three people up there,” Fleck said. “And one of them was Antoine Winfield Jr. in the picture, talking about the NFL Draft on the main page of ESPN. I think that is awesome for our brand, awesome for the state of Minnesota, wonderful for Antoine and his teammates.”

The Buccaneers then took a second Gopher in round five, drafting wide receiver Tyler Johnson. Three more Minnesota defensive players were selected, beginning with linebacker Kamal Martin, who the Green Bay Packers selected with the 175th overall pick. In the final round, the New York Giants chose a pair of Gophers, drafting linebacker Carter Coughlin and cornerback Chris Williamson.

Afterwards, two more Minnesota players turned pro, joining teams as undrafted free agents. Running back Rodney Smith signed with the Carolina Panthers and defensive lineman Sam Renner went to the Los Angeles Rams.

For Fleck, it is no coincidence that Minnesota’s most successful draft in 30 years followed its first 11-win season since 1904. He says developing players into professional prospects is a sign of the program’s health and strong culture.

“It is going to propel us into the future,” Fleck said. “When you start to look at next year and the year after, not only are guys going to start getting drafted, they are going to start thinking about leaving early… That’s going to be really positive for our program.”

Moving forward, Fleck hopes that it becomes common place for Minnesota to send multiple players to the NFL. Expectations for Gophers football are significantly higher than in years prior. With key players returning for next season and strong recruiting classes on the horizon, there is Hucause for optimism that the program’s increased success in over the past 12 months will continue in the future.