[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on our partner site WVUPros.com]
The NFL regular season opens tonight with the Cowboys vs. Giants. After various cuts and injuries, there will be thirteen Mountaineers playing during this opening weekend in the NFL. You will notice a distinct defensive theme with this Top 5. There could be an offensive shift here next season with the likes of Geno Smith and Tavon Austin entering the NFL Draft.
Two of the five players on this list did not play last season. Another played sparingly. These three players in particular worked very hard during the last year to get on to NFL football fields.
1. Bruce Irvin
With the Seahawks picking Irvin with the 15th overall pick in April’s NFL Draft, they will be heavily scrutinized to make sure he performs well. After a quiet three Preseason games, Irvin showed why Seattle thought so highly of him in the finale against Oakland. He had 1.5 sacks, 4 tackles, and a forced fumble on a punt return.
Peter King of Sports Illustrated predicts Irvin will win the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.
Seahawks veteran defensive lineman, Red Bryant, tells us why Bruce Irvin will be a success:
"I believe Bruce is going to be special, and the reason I believe that is, first, he listens," Bryant said.
2. Ryan Mundy
Ryan Mundy will start in the season opener in place of Ryan Clark in Denver on Sunday night because of his sickle-cell condition. Over the past three seasons, Mundy has seen his workload increase for the Steelers.
He arrived to training camp in phenomenal shape after spending the summer with former Mountaineer strength coach Mike Barwis. Mundy had 14 total tackles during the Preseason and started the last game in place of Clark. Mundy plays on special teams as well.
Mundy plays both safety positions backing up Troy Polamalu and Clark.
"It’s tough but probably the best thing that happened in my career, watching those two guys play, learning from them not only on the field but off the field," Mundy said. "They’re two great guys, two great family men. Just to be able to learn from them and how to be a professional on and off the field, not many people in the NFL get an opportunity to do that.
"You have to have that edge as a player, a competitor," Mundy said. "You always want to be better, always seeking an opportunity especially in my position; I don’t know when that opportunity will come."
Mundy was a restricted free-agent this past offseason, but quickly signed their 1-year tender. After this season, Mundy will be an unrestricted free-agent. He knows he needs a big year if he wants the opportunity to start.
His opportunity could come soon.
"If you look at his production last year during the regular season I thought he was very dependable," Steelers’ secondary coach Carnell Lake said. "He made some plays for us, some crucial plays."
3. Darius Reynaud
Reynaud came out of nowhere during Week 1 of the NFL Preseason, and made headlines by scoring two touchdowns on consecutive touches against the Seahawks for the Titans.
He sat out last season with a hamstring injury after the Giants cut him. The Titans offered Reynaud a contract and switched him from wide receiver to running back. Reynaud played running back in high school but switched to receiver when he came to WVU. The move from receiver during the offseason with the Titans paid off.
During the four exhibitions, Reynaud led the NFL in punt return average and was 4th in total yards. Now, with the likes of Chris Johnson and Javon Ringer playing ahead of him in the backfield Reynaud’s time on the field will diminish.
He will be their primary kick returner after Marc Mariani broke his leg and will miss the entire season. On top of the punt return for a TD against Seattle, Reynaud nearly broke a few more in the following weeks.
Reynaud’s quick feet and shiftiness could provide the Titans with some game-breaking plays throughout the season.
4. Ellis Lankster
Lankster came into Jets’ camp as the fourth-string cornerback. In the opening two weeks of practice, many observers thought Lankster was not only the most-improved player in camp, but the best player overall.
During Week 2 against the Giants, Lankster injured his leg, slowing his progress.
Before that, he had moved up to #3 on the depth chart behind Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie.
Lankster will also be one of the Jets’ primary players on special teams.
5. J.T. Thomas
Thomas is the wildcard on this list. He did not play last season as the Bears put him on injured reserve.
This season, the Bears expect Thomas to be one of their best special teams’ players, and he will be Nick Roach’s backup at OLB. He was of the Bears leaders in tackles during the Preseason with 15.
In those games, he flashed the ability to get behind the offensive line and cause trouble for running backs and pressure quarterbacks.
We keep our ears tuned to the Bears local media concerning Thomas. Unlike the national pundits, these members of the media watch the Bears on a daily basis. As the Preseason progressed, we saw Thomas’ name pop up as a potential future starter for the team. This season, he will provide depth at LB and be a featured player on special teams.
If the linebackers cannot stay healthy, Thomas could see himself in an audition for his future in Chicago.
How do you think these players will fare this season? Is there anyone you would add to this list? Feel free to discuss in the comments section below.