The Arizona football program has produced a number of successful professionals in the last decade, most notably recent Super Bowl winners Rob Gronkowski of the New England Patriots and Philadelphia’s very own miracle worker Nick Foles.
Gronkowski notched his 500th career reception during week six of the 2018 NFL regular season, becoming the 17th tight end to ever do so.
Foles returned to his behind-the-scenes role for the Eagles after leading the defending Super Bowl champs to a 1-1 record while franchise quarterback Carson Wentz finished rehab from his ACL injury suffered late last season.
Foles and Gronkowski have evolved into the face of Arizona football at the next level, but they’re not the only Wildcats that have carved out respectable careers in the NFL.
Arizona doesn’t necessarily have the strongest track record of producing draft picks, but there is still a pride of Wildcats in the pros.
Antoine Cason — cornerback
Hometown: Long Beach, Calif.
Played at Arizona 2004-07
Selected in the first round (No. 27) of the 2008 NFL draft by the San Diego Chargers
Career Stats: 110 games played, 364 combined tackles, eight forced fumbles, 16 interceptions, 63 pass deflections, two touchdowns.
Cason briefly suited up for the Ravens in 2014 before entering free agency. He later announced that he would have season-ending foot surgery ahead of the 2015 season – he hasn’t played a down in the NFL since. Cason’s final noteworthy contributions on the gridiron came in Carolina earlier in the 2014 season, but his professional career will largely be remembered for his five-year stretch with the Chargers.
After receiving the Jim Thorpe Award in 2007, being honored as college football’s best defensive back, Cason was expected to help San Diego’s defensive secondary.
The ball-hawking cornerback ended up playing in all 16 games during each season of his stay on the west coast. Although he never evolved into the All-Pro type of player that some scouts and fans anticipated, Cason was a vital piece of the Chargers secondary for half a decade.
Earl Mitchell — Defensive tackle
Hometown: Houston, Texas
Played at Arizona 2006-09
Selected in the third round (No. 81) of the 2010 NFL draft by the Houston Texans
Career Stats: 123 games played, 256 combined tackles, 6.5 sacks, 24 TFLs, nine pass deflections
Currently in his ninth season, Mitchell has developed into a consistent cog in his team’s defensive front. After playing on both sides of the ball in college, catching passes as a slimmed down tight end alongside Gronkowski, Mitchell clearly developed a knack for playing in the opposition’s backfield.
After spending four years with the Texans and three in Miami, the former Wildcat returned to the west coast with the San Francisco 49ers. Mitchell may not garner the most glorious of stats, often times serving as a one- or three-technique defensive tackle, but his large frame eats up blockers, creating opportunities for his teammates to make plays. Mitchell is currently in the second year of a four-year, $16 million contract.
Brooks Reed — linebacker
Hometown: Tucson, Ariz.
Played at Arizona 2007-10
Selected in the second round (No. 42) of the 2011 NFL draft by the Houston Texans
Career Stats: 110 games played, 262 combined tackles, 21.5 sacks, 35 TFLs, 11 pass deflections
Reed started his NFL career in Houston alongside former Arizona teammate Earl Mitchell. The quick-twitch, aggressive defensive end spent four years wreaking havoc upon AFC South quarterbacks.
In 2015, Reed found a new home in Atlanta, eventually making his debut for the Falcons against his former team. Despite dealing with groin injuries throughout his career, Reed has maintained his production off the edge.
His burst off the ball as a 3-4 outside linebacker sets himself up for success against larger offensive lines and elusive quarterbacks.
After watching Reed pummel opponents in college as a prototypical hand-in-the-dirt defensive end, it’s no surprise to see his athleticism and strength continue to give him an upper hand in the NFL.
Reed is currently in the fourth year of a 5-year, $22 million contract that includes a $1 million bonus pending an invite to the Pro Bowl.
Here are three more Wildcats currently striving to earn more playing time and expanded roles on their respective teams:
Dane Cruikshank — Safety
Hometown: Chino Hills, Calif.
Played at Arizona 2015-17
Selected in the fifth round (No. 152) of the 2018 NFL draft by the Tennessee Titans
Cruikshank scored his first career touchdown against the Houston Texans in week two via a 66-yard catch and run on a fake punt signaled at the line of scrimmage. He started five games in 2017, tallying 51 combined tackles, four pass deflections and one interception.
Reggie Gilbert — Linebacker
Hometown: Laveen, Ariz.
Played at Arizona 2011-15
Gilbert was signed by Green Bay as an undrafted free agent following the conclusion of the 2016 NFL Draft. He spent his first two years on the practice squad but has since joined the active roster and contributed in six straight games for the Packers.
Will Parks — Safety
Hometown: Philadelphia, Pa.
Played at Arizona 2012-15
Parks was selected in the sixth round (No. 219) of the 2016 draft by the Denver Broncos and started five games in 2017, tallying 51 combined tackles, four pass deflections and one interception.
Follow Rob Kleifield on Twitter