Football: NFL future begins to crystallize for Vitale, Lowry, other Northwestern draft hopefuls


Daily file photo by Nathan Richards

Dean Lowry drags down the ball carrier. The defensive end has drawn interest for his ability to play in a 3-4 scheme.

Bobby Pillote and Alex Putterman


Superback Dan Vitale and defensive end Dean Lowry have each seen their draft stock rise recently, and certain NFL teams are starting to take notice.

The pair, along with several other Northwestern players aspiring for the NFL, participated in the Wildcats’ pro day Tuesday, doing workouts and running drills in front of scouts and executives from 31 of 32 NFL teams. Just one NU pro hopeful, cornerback Nick VanHoose, declined to participate due to personal reasons.

The pro day is typically a player’s last shot at making an impression to a broad professional audience, but Vitale and Lowry didn’t have much work to do in that regard. Each skipped the workout portion of the pro day after posting impressive numbers at the NFL Combine in February, instead focusing on field drills that better show off the skills Vitale and Lowry believe they offer to teams.

“I thought today went well,” Vitale said after his field drills. “There’s definitely some stuff I want to clean up, but for the most part I’m pretty happy. … I think I showed I can do things a lot of fullbacks can’t do, especially running routes.”

There aren’t any superbacks in the NFL, and Vitale is instead working out as a more traditional fullback or H-back, a type of tight end hybrid. A big part of that transition has been demonstrating ability as a lead blocker, which Vitale said he’s worked to address throughout his senior season and during the pre-draft process.

Measuring at 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, Vitale doesn’t scare anybody with his size but has few peers in the weight room. Vitale dominated nearly every drill at the Combine, leading all running backs with 30 reps on the bench press to lend legitimacy to his skills as a blocker, and thanks to the Cats’ run-heavy approach this season, Vitale also believes he has sufficient game tape to prove the point.

“Especially with how much we handed (sophomore running back Justin Jackson) the ball, it was actually a great thing for me, a blessing in disguise,” Vitale said, “being able to show that I could block like that specifically at the point of attack.”

Special teams is also a big part of the package for the versatile Vitale, and he said he’s sold it as part of his game to every NFL team he’s talked to.

Similarly, Lowry has focused on being able to play a multitude of roles for his potential NFL suitors. The lineman usually lined up on the edge as a defensive end in NU’s 4-3 base defense, but also slid inside to play as a nose tackle on passing downs and even saw action in the Cats’ occasional three-man fronts

“I think a lot of organizations are intrigued by Dean. He’s got a lot of position flexibility,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “He put on a great performance at 296 pounds at the Combine. Then you pop on his tape and see his motor. … I think he’s going to have a long career.”

Lowry said he’s focused much of his preparation on being a better “five-technique” player, football parlance for a 3-4 defensive end who lines up directly over the offensive tackle and is focused on stopping the run. He believes his quickness off the snap and ability to out-leverage offensive linemen make him a good fit for teams seeking five-technique players.

Vitale and Lowry have no doubt garnered interest from around the league, but one team has emerged as an intriguing draft option for both players: the New England Patriots. Director of player personnel Nick Caserio was personally present for NU’s pro day, possibly indicating a serious interest in at least one of the players present.

New England has no first round selection in this year’s draft but is expected to have up to 10 mid-round selections after compensatory picks are added, putting them in position to snag Vitale or Lowry somewhere in rounds four, five or six.

Offensively the Patriots have a history of piecing together a backfield by committee and also love to use tight ends, indicating Vitale could find a home at either position. The team has retained incumbent fullback James Develin for the upcoming season, but may yet carve out a complimentary role for Vitale.

Lowry also makes sense for New England given the team’s habit of varying its defensive fronts. His versatility makes him an ideal backup with the potential to see playing time in special defensive packages.

Vitale and Lowry remain the NU players most likely to be drafted, but wide receiver Miles Shuler made an argument to be added to that list with a strong pro day performance. The former four-star recruit barely contributed during his time as a Cat, but ran two 4.4-second 40-yard dashes and also broad jumped over 10 feet.

“I was trying to hit 4.2 (seconds), but I heard 4.3 today so it is what it is,” Shuler said. “Just need to be cleaner on my comebacks, and running the pro routes and getting prepared for that.”

His shot at the NFL is still an outside one at best, but athleticism alone should at least allow Shuler to nab a training camp invite.

Many of the other participants, such as safety Traveon Henry and defensive end Deonte Gibson, likely won’t proceed past a training camp invite in their pursuit of an NFL career, but Lowry said he and his NU teammates are trying to make the most of the experience.

“It’s pretty cool,” Lowry said. “It’s been a fun time so far, but it’s a process. Just need to be patient and keep working.”

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Twitter: @BobbyPillote

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Twitter: @AlexPutterman