Former Bisons in the NFL

Oneymata, Gray find professional careers south of the border

Former Bison defensive lineman David Onyemata with the New Orleans Saints. Photo by Michael C. HebertFormer Bison defensive lineman David Onyemata with the New Orleans Saints. Photo by Michael C. Hebert

There was a pair of University of Manitoba products playing in the NFL ranks this season.

Former Bison defensive lineman David Onyemata has been in the NFL for two seasons, after the New Orleans Saints drafted him in the fourth round in 2016.

A different path has been taken by former Bison offensive lineman Geoff Gray, who was signed as a priority free agent by the Green Bay Packers in April but relegated to the practice squad. He later signed with the New York Jets before ending up with the Cleveland Browns, where he suited up for the last three games.

Onyemata made Bisons history in 2016 when he was drafted in the fourth round by the New Orleans Saints, becoming the first U of M product to be taken in an NFL Draft. The Saints sent two draft picks to Washington to move up in the draft and snag the Nigerian-born defensive tackle.

The move brought about confusion within the Saints fan base. Nobody had heard of this mysterious giant from Canada. Many analysts also suspected that with his relative inexperience – he had only been playing football four years when he was drafted – Onyemata would need time to grow before jumping into the league.

But this was not the case, and Onyemata suited up in all 16 Saints games in each of his two seasons with the club. The former Bison had 38 combined tackles in 2017 – 18 solo and 20 assisted – and two sacks. This put him 13th on his squad in solo tackles, but tied for third in assisted.

“It’s just building,” Onyemata said. “I’m just planning on building off this and just keep building every day, like as a group. Just to have the guys we have, we’re all really close I would say age-wise, so it’s just about building as a group.”

Onyemata’s first taste of NFL playoff action ended in spectacular fashion with a last-second loss to the Minnesota Vikings Jan. 14.

“It’s just what it was,” Onyemata said. “We came together in the second half and just, you know, did our jobs and our assignments and just played ball like Saints football.

“Even though it didn’t end the way we planned it, it’s the way it is you know. We still have the same group and we’re going to get better and just build off that.”

Onyemata had a tackle in the loss but played well and kept pressure on the Vikings offence. Late in the game he made a strong push forward and opened a gap that led to a blocked punt.

“It was just pressure up the middle,” he said. “Having the guys go and do their jobs and just make it easier for them, you know? That was really huge for the team.”

In his 2016 rookie campaign, the Saints finished with a 7-9 record. This season, they paced a strong NFC South division, going 11-5 to clinch a divisional title, largely due to an improved defence.

“Just together with the guys you play, once you play with people for a couple times you kind of understand everyone’s in and out,” Onyemata said. “We kind of complement each other.”

Onyemata’s former Bison teammate Geoff Gray spent time with three different clubs in his rookie season.

Gray started the season with the Green Bay Packers, signing on as a free agent after being passed over in the 2017 draft. Gray was picked by his hometown Winnipeg Blue Bombers with the eighth pick in the 2017 CFL draft, despite having expressed his intentions to play in the NFL.

Gray was among the players cut from the Packers active roster and sent to the practice squad.

Gray then signed on to the New York Jets practice roster. He bided his time in New York and received an early Christmas gift, signing with the Cleveland Browns on Dec. 14. He appeared in the final three games played by the lowly Browns, as they clattered to a dismal 0-16 finish.