Gators in the NFL: 2018 Training Camp Primer

Back when I first started writing this blog, when believe-it-or-not Double-A baseball All-Star Tim Tebow played in the National Football League, I was a fan only. For a year and a half now, I’ve covered the NFL on a regular basis and seen many of the Florida alums in action. I’ve picked the brains of reporters who cover them and former players I work with. Not to say that makes this column any more interesting, but hopefully it gives a little more insight into each player’s situation. The format of the yearly post has changed a little over the years too. I used to do these rankings at the end of the year based on performance during the season. Last year I decided to move it to right before training camp as a season preview. This year, I wanted to get a little evaluation of camp in so I moved it back again until mid-August. That allowed me to see some training camp and some preseason games. My hope is if you come across NFL Network and a game is on, you’ll have an idea of which former Gators are playing and what their situations are.

Please don’t check out who was #1 back on that original list in 2012. Or the following year. Nope, let’s just move on. It is interesting that there has been a new #1 every year. That continues once again this year. It hasn’t been by design. As I’ve mentioned many times, I should just put Reggie Nelson on top until he retires. Especially now that he’s doing the Gator chomp with Johnny Townsend after learning about his induction into the UF Athletic Hall of Fame.

https://twitter.com/johnnytownsend1/status/1029223004658524161

These rankings reflect only those with NFL connections. If you had any sort of workout or contract with an NFL team since August of last year, you were included. Or at least I tried to include you. Every year, I re-read the previous year’s column and frustratingly find guys that I missed. It is damn hard keeping track of everyone because there really isn’t a definitive database to check for this stuff. Pro-Football Reference is close, but it isn’t foolproof. That’s why I put so much work into this blog post every year, hoping it will be the most thorough reference point for checking out former Gators in the National Football League.

Professional football isn’t just limited to the NFL. There are a handful of ex-Gators keeping the dream alive in Canada playing for the Canadian Football League. Marcus Roberson (Toronto) and Matt Elam (Saskatchewon) were recent signees, while Chris Rainey (BC) and Loucheiz Purifoy (Saskatchewon) are seasoned CFL vets. Will Hill played in the CFL last season but is joining Leon Orr as former Gators giving it a go in the new Alliance of American Football (coached by none other than Steve Spurrier!). I’m sure there are others out there, but that’s not a rabbit hole I was willing to go too far down.

As always, Florida continues to be one of the largest producers of NFL talent. At the end of last season, there were 38 former Gators on active rosters, fifth among schools. That doesn’t include transfers or guys on practice squads or injured reserve. By my count, 50 ex-Gators played in the league, made a practice squad, or spent the year on injured reserve. A few of those 50 have played their last snap in the NFL, but nine rookies are looking to take make the leap this year.

DRAFT PICKS

TAVEN BRYAN
Position: DL
Team: Jacksonville Jaguars
Draft: 1st Round, 29th overall
It was a bit of a surprise to see the Jaguars take Bryan given the strength of their defensive line. It will be hard for him to crack the regular rotation although young, fresh legs are always needed on the line. Expect a modest rookie campaign as Bryan adjusts to the NFL speed and size. He’s expected to make his preseason debut this week.

DUKE DAWSON
Position: DB
Team: New England Patriots
Draft: 2nd round, 56th overall
Dawson is slowed by a hamstring injury right now, but early in camp he made a good impression on the Pats and Bill Belichick. Dawson has a chance to fill the nickel corner role if he can get back on the field quickly.

ANTONIO CALLAWAY
Position: WR
Team: Cleveland Browns
Draft: 4th round, 105th overall
What a week for Callaway last week. Arrest to start it, huge game to end it. We saw plenty of both at Florida. If Callaway can’t get his life in order off the field, he’ll be out of the league before his career even begins. The immense talent is there and the Brows desperately need it. He’ll be given a reprieve by the team even if the league suspends him, as evidenced by his teammates heartfelt reaction in Hard Knocks this week. None of that matters, though, if Callaway can’t grow up.

JOHNNY TOWNSEND
Position: P
Team: Oakland Raiders
Draft: 5th round, 173rd overall
It’s rare for punters to be drafted so when the Raiders selected the SEC’s all-time leader in punting average, you figured they were sold. The fact that Townsend is the only punter in training camp tells you all you need to know. He had three 40+ yard punts in his preseason debut and the other two kicks were pin jobs inside the 20. I can’t recall being excited to watch a NFL punter, but Townsend was basically the Gators MVP for a few seasons so Gator Nation will be cheering him on in the pros.

MARCELL HARRIS
Position: S
Team: San Francisco 49ers
Draft: 6th round, 184th overall
Harris’ rehab from the Achilles injury that stole his final season at Florida is getting closer to completion. He was removed from the non-football injury list a couple of weeks ago. He still hasn’t participated in team drills and is a ways from playing in a preseason game too. That means Harris is likely to start the season on the physically unable to perform list or injured reserve. If he gets back healthy before the season begins, a practice squad spot might be the place.

UNDRAFTED FREE AGENTS

EDDY PINEIRO
Position: PK
Team: Oakland Raiders
It is not a understatement to say that I was shocked when Pineiro wasn’t selected in this year’s draft. His hometown team, the Miami Dolphins, needed a kicker and had worked him out. It appeared destiny… until they took a guy named Jason Sanders who made just over 70 percent of his kicks in college. As a Dolphins fan I can tell you that pick fits right in with the long list of head-scratching selections they’ve made over the years. The Raiders benefitted from the mistakes of others and snatched Pineiro up with a $25,000 signing bonus, unheard of for an undrafted kicker. After seeing Pineiro up close, they knew he was their guy and cut loose Giorgio Tevecchio, last season’s kicker. That move was made in part to help Pineiro’s Florida and now Oakland teammate Johnny Townsend as the holder. They didn’t want Townsend switching between a left and right-footed kicker, especially since they knew Pineiro was going to be the guy. As we saw over and over in orange and blue, Pineiro lived up to the hype by drilling three field goals in his first preseason game, including a 48-yarder as time expired in the first half. Draft Pineiro on those fantasy teams now.

Pineiro and Townsend have been inseparable at Raiders training camp.

DEANDRE GOOLSBY
Position: TE
Team: Jacksonville Jaguars
After getting waived by the Lions after minicamp in May, Goolsby was hoping someone else would give him a chance. He has it in Jacksonville. He’s the seventh tight end in camp and realistically only has a shot at making the practice squad, but that’s better than nothing. And as you’ll read, there are many Gators who have made fine careers out of just such situations.

BRANDON POWELL
Position: WR
Team: Detroit Lions
Powell is getting a long look in Detroit after impressing the new coaching staff early in training camp. His quickness and toughness are well-suited to a slot receiver role behind Golden Tate. Matt Patricia rewarded Powell’s practice efforts with a lot of action in the first preseason game and he didn’t disappoint, leading the Lions with five catches for 34 yards. The odds are still against Powell making the 53-man roster, but he’s giving it everything he has.

Powell getting the rookie initiation treatment of carrying Marvin Jones pads off the field.

MARK THOMPSON
Position: RB
Team: Baltimore Ravens
The longest of the longshots among the UDFA Gators class is Thompson. He had a better second preseason game with two catches for 43 yards and six rushes for 14 but he’s still buried on the Ravens’ depth chart.

NICK WASHINGTON
JOSEPH PUTU
Undrafted DBs Washington and Putu were both minicamp cuts by the Raiders and Falcons, respectively. Perhaps their future lies in one of those other professional leagues as well.

RETIRED (EVEN IF THEY DON’T KNOW IT YET)

This next group all played multiple seasons in the NFL but now face the prospect of moving on to their second careers.

JAYE HOWARD
Position: DT
Team: Free Agent
2017: DNP
Years in the NFL: 5
Howard had a couple of excellent seasons with the Chiefs in 2014 and 2015 but fell off fast. He was in camp with the Bears last year, but after a year away from football, it appears he’s moved on. He joined the football coaching staff at Eustis High School this summer.

SHARRIF FLOYD
Position: DT
Team: Free Agent
2017: Injured Reserve
Years in the NFL: 5
Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley might have been the most dominant frontline duo the Gators fielded together since Kevin Carter and Ellis Johnson. But instead of long, successful NFL careers, both have been ravaged by injuries. Easley still has a chance at an impact (keep reading), but Floyd’s career appears over. He was let go in March by the Vikings after failing to ever recover from nerve damage suffered during knee surgery in 2016.

FRANKIE HAMMOND, JR.
Position: WR
Team: Free Agent
2017: DNP
Years in the NFL: 2
Cut before the start of the 2017 season, Hammond is an unsigned free agent. It’s been three years since he last played an NFL game.

JUSTIN TRATTOU
Position: DL
Team: Free Agent
2017: Injured Reserve
Years in the NFL: 6
Trattou spent all of 2017 on injured reserve and has failed to garner a contract offer this year.

LAST CALL

While currently not in any training camp, these two could get a look after final roster cuts and injuries shake out. Both were sitting at home in the middle of last season and finished the year on active rosters.

LOUIS MURPHY, JR.
Position: WR
Team: Free Agent
2017: 7 games, 8 rec, 121 yds, 1 TD
Years in the NFL: 8
After sitting out all of 2016 recovering from a torn ACL, Murphy clawed his way back to the league last year in a late-season stint with the 49ers. It was an impressive feat and if it’s his last hurrah, definitely something to be proud of. Murphy is a free agent and at 31 years of age, the phone will likely not ring. That hasn’t stopped him from being a force for good in his Tampa community and says more about him than any of his 170 catches in the NFL does.

JELANI JENKINS
Position: LB
Team: Free Agent
2017: 7 games, 10 tackles
Years in the NFL: 5
In 2014, Jenkins posted 110 tackles and 3 ½ sacks in just his second season in the league. Now four years later, he appears to be out of the league. Jenkins bounced around from Oakland to Buffalo to Houston last season and played in only seven games, mostly on special teams with the Texans. He’s a free agent now hoping for another shot, but the market for undersized linebackers just isn’t strong. Jenkins doesn’t deserve to be in this section, but he might not get another chance.

CUT DOWN DAY WILL BE NERVE-RACKING

A few years ago, the NFL began allowing teams to keep their 90-man rosters intact for the entire preseason and instead of weekly cuts, all teams were tasked with trimming down to 53 the week of the season opener. This year, September 1 is the day and many Gators figure to be sweating out a roster spot until the very end.

MIKE GILLISLEE
Position: RB
Team: New England Patriots
2017: 104 rush, 383 yds, 5 TD, 1 rec, 15 yds
Years in the NFL: 5
After a dynamic 2016 campaign in Buffalo, Mike Gillislee arrived in New England with high expectations. The opportunity to take Legarrette Blount’s role as the big back in the Patriots’ high-powered offense was there. But after a promising start in which he scored four TDs in the first two games, Gilly was essentially banished after Week 8. He entered training camp this year as a likely cut, and after the first game when Jeremy Hill outperformed him, that looks inevitable. Hopefully Gilly lands someplace that will give him the opportunity to find his flash.

MATT JONES
Position: RB
Team: Philadelphia Eagles
2017: 5 rush, 14 yds
Years in the NFL: 3
Matt Jones is up against it in Philly. The running back competition is fierce with one or two roster spots at most available to a group of four guys. Jones is in the mix but missed the first preseason game with a leg injury. The good news is the others in the competition haven’t impressed either. Still Jones needs to be on the field showing he can hold onto the ball (eight lost fumbles in 20 games in Washington).

MACK BROWN
Position: RB
Team: Minnesota Vikings
2017: 4 games, 29 rush yds, 11 rec yds
Years in the NFL: 2
Feel free to stump your fellow Gators with this trivia question around a tailgate: Who has the most yards per carry in the NFL, minimum 15 carries? Give them 10 guesses and I’m not sure they’ll nail any of the top three: Ike Hilliard (16 for 126, 7.9), Travis Taylor (32 for 232, 7.3), and then the first running back on the list, Mack Brown (16 for 111, 6.9). Most of those yards came on one of his first professional carries ever with the Redskins, a 61-yard scamper back in 2016. Brown signed with the Vikings late last season and finds himself in a battle to earn the third-string spot behind Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray. It’s a surprise he’s lasted as long as he has in the NFL, but more than likely, that time is almost up.

CHAZ GREEN
Position: OL
Team: Dallas Cowboys
2017: 14 games, 4 starts
Years in the NFL: 2
There weren’t many performances from 2017 that were more humiliating than what Chaz Green experienced in Week 10 versus Adrian Clayborn and the Falcons. Green was whipped for four sacks while the Cowboys gave up six total to Clayborn. After beginning training camp last season with a chance to earn a starting guard spot, Green quickly fell behind and then suffered one of the great beatdowns of the year as a spot starter in place of All-Pro tackle Tyron Smith. It will be hard for Green to recover from that with the Cowboys, and even harder considering he has had more issues staying on the field in training camp.

CHRIS THOMPSON
Position: WR/Kick Returner
Team: Houston Texans
2017: 5 rec, 84 yards, 6 punt returns, 6.5 avg, 17 kick returns, 21.7 avg
Years in the NFL: 1
It’s rare that a special teams ace in college makes the leap to the NFL, but that’s just what Thompson did with the Texans last season. His speed not only paid dividends returning kicks, it also helped him become a gunner on coverage. But like just about every undrafted free agent, nothing is ever secure. Thompson’s recovering from a concussion right now and that’s limiting his opportunity to hold onto his spot. It may come down to Thompson and former Auburn receiver Sammie Coates for a roster spot.

JOEY IVIE
Position: DL
Team: Seattle Seahawks
2017: Practice Squad
Years in the NFL: 0
Ivie was cut by the Cowboys before the start of the 2017 season. He eventually landed on the Falcons practice squad before they waived him this summer. Just over a week ago, the Seahawks brought him and soon Ivie was making the play of the preseason. Despite the highlight reel, Ivie faces long odds of making the Seahawks. Seattle kept only four tackles last season and Ivie is likely sixth on the depth chart right now. It might be another practice squad role if he’s to stick around in 2018.

GET HEALTHY!

Injuries are a part of the game, but these guys have faced more obstacles than they deserve.

JORDAN REED
Position: TE
Team: Washington
2017: 6 games, 27 rec, 211 yds, 2 TD
Years in the NFL: 5
As Washington fans are all too aware, Reed has never started more than nine games in a season. Last year, he was hurt going into training camp and never fully recovered. Six games in and with barely 200 receiving yards, his worst season was over. Now the former Gators quarterback enters 2018 claiming to be fully healthy for the first time in a long time. This is a make-or-break season but the potential is there to return to form as one of the best tight ends in the game.

DOMINIQUE EASLEY
Position: DL
Team: Los Angeles Rams
2017: Torn ACL, Injured Reserve
Years in the NFL: 4
Time is running out for Dominique Easley. Four ACL injuries have stalled what appeared to be a sure-fire productive NFL career. Easley had a chance last year to make an impact for the Rams during Aaron Donald’s holdout. Instead, he blew out his ACL and missed the entire season. Donald’s holding out again, but Easley still isn’t back practicing with the team. I was at Rams camp at the end of July and saw him working hard with a trainer, looking quick and explosive. The Rams still believe in him and expect him to be activated from the PUP list before the preseason ends. He’ll have to make up for lost time and make an impression quickly to earn playing time on what will be a stacked and loaded Rams’ defensive line.

Easley hopes to join his teammates on the practice field soon.

JAKE MCGEE
Position: TE
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
2017: DNP
Years in the NFL: 0
McGee spent 2016 on the Chargers practice squad and has also spent time with the Panthers and Raiders organizations. This offseason looked promising as the Steelers brought him back after a brief stint in 2017. Unfortunately during OTA workouts in May, he tore his Achilles and will miss the entire 2018 season.

TRANSFERS BUT THEY’LL ALWAYS BE GATORS TOO

The NCAA’s transfer rules have changed so much that quite a few players spend many years at one school before departing for another, having a great final season, and propelling themselves into the league. I still think of these guys as Gators, even if their best playing days were in colors other than Orange and Blue. Cam Newton is the exception here. If you win a Heisman at your second stop, you cease being tied to your original school.

JEFF DRISKEL
Position: QB
Team: Cincinnati Bengals
2017: Injured Reserve
Years in the NFL: 2
Driskel spent his first year in the NFL on the practice squad in Cincinnati. The Niners drafted him, but waived him before the 2016 season. Driskel impressed Marvin Lewis and came into training camp in 2017 with a realistic shot of backing up Andy Dalton. He played really well in exhibition games and the Bengals entertained thoughts of moving A.J. McCarron, but that decision was made for them when Driskel broke his thumb in the preseason finale and went on injured reserve. This season, McCarron is gone and Driskel is battling Matt Barkley for the job. He was impressive in the first preseason game, leading a 91-yard game-winning drive late in the 4th quarter. Even if he doesn’t beat out Barkley, he might factor in to another team’s plans down the road.

JOSH SHAW
Position: CB
Team: Cincinnati Bengals
2017: 34 tackles, 3 passes defended
Years in the NFL: 3
Shaw has carved out a role as a nickel corner and backup safety with the Bengals, but he’s facing competition in camp that might make him a cutdown casualty.

IAN SILBERMAN
Position: OL
Team: Oakland Raiders
2017: Colts and Browns Practice Squad
Years in the NFL: 0
Silberman almost transferred from Florida to Louisville before eventually landing at Boston College with Steve Addazio. Those moves were nothing compared to what Silberman has done since. He’s a veteran of four different teams’ practice squads in the three years since he was drafted in the sixth round. He’s had his best training camp so far this season with the Raiders in Napa, but he’s still facing long odds of sticking on the roster.

JACOBY BRISSETT
Position: QB
Team: Indianapolis Colts
2017: 3098 pass, 59% comp, 13 TD, 7 INT, 81.7 QB rating
Years in the NFL: 2
Sometimes you just need a little luck. Brissett’s playing time in the NFL has come thanks to suspension and injuries to Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, and Andrew Luck. Three of the best in the league had to go down for Brissett to find the field, and to his credit, he’s taken advantage of those opportunities and shown he can play quarterback in the league. A nearly 60 percent completion percentage and close to 2-1 TD/INT ratio has probably guaranteed Brissett a long career as a quality backup QB in the NFL.

NEED MORE SEASONING

The potential and promise are still there. An offseason spent working hard, a training camp where they learned a few more tricks, a handful of games early… all of it could lead to the breakout we know they have in them.

QUINCY WILSON
Position: CB
Team: Indianapolis Colts
2017: 7 games, 22 tackles, 1 INT, 6 passes defended
Years in the NFL: 1
By some accounts, Quincy Wilson is ready to blossom in his second season. But by others, namely the team’s depth chart, Wilson is running behind an undrafted free agent in his quest to be a starter in the NFL. Whether he starts or not, the Colts expect big things from Wilson and he appears primed to deliver.

TEEZ TABOR
Position: CB
Team: Detroit Lions
2017: 10 games, 11 tackles
Years in the NFL: 1
When Tabor fell in the 2017 draft, many of us were surprised. We watched him dominate so thoroughly in Gainesville that we assumed he was a can’t-miss NFL prospect. A rough rookie season justified the skeptics concerns about Tabor’s game. So far this fall, he hasn’t picked up the Lions new defense and is struggling to make plays. Speed was never Tabor’s forte and as long as he’s learning and reacting instead of just playing, he’s going to struggle. Don’t count him out. His length, athleticism, and smarts will get him where he needs to be eventually.

Tabor hopes to give the media more to write about in his second season.

BRYAN COX, JR.
Position: DE
Team: Carolina Panthers
2017: 7 games, 6 tackles, 1 fumble recovery
Years in the NFL: 1
The odds were against Cox as an undrafted free agent last season. He cleared the first hurdle by making the practice squad. He was then activated to the 53-man roster but in a very limited role. But when the Panthers season wrapped up in a playoff loss to New Orleans, Cox had two tackles and was an integral part of the rotation along the defensive line. After offseason ankle surgery, he began training camp on the physically unable to perform list. Now he’s back on the field and poised to learn from veteran Julius Pepper and make an even bigger contribution to Carolina’s success.

DAVID SHARPE
Position: T
Team: Oakland Raiders
2017: 5 games, 2 starts
Years in the NFL: 1
Sharpe is on the bubble in Oakland. Veteran Donald Penn missed the first two weeks of camp, but Sharpe wasn’t able to impress enough and seize the opportunity. Even with Penn out, he was splitting time at right tackle with former Gator Ian Silberman. Now with Penn back and 2017 first-round pick Kolten Miller locked in at left tackle, Sharpe might be on the outside looking in.

CALEB BRANTLEY
Position: DT
Team: Cleveland Browns
2017: 18 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 fumble recovery
Years in the NFL: 1
After a scare early in camp, Brantley is back on the field running with the twos along the Browns defensive front. He showed some promise toward the end of his rookie season and has a chance for a bigger impact in his sophomore campaign with a much-improved Browns team.

VETS WITH ROLES

They might not be starters in the league, but these guys are the backbone of NFL teams. You put together a bunch of these types of players on the depth chart and you’re going to have a successful season.

BRIAN POOLE
Position: DB
Team: Atlanta Falcons
2017: 63 tackles, 4 passes defended, 1 sack
Years in the NFL: 2
Poole has strung together two good seasons after making the Falcons as an undrafted free agent in 2016. As the Falcons’ primary slot defender, Poole was beaten in pass coverage a little more often in year two than in his rookie campaign, but he also finished fifth overall on the team in tackles. In the NFL, there are no guarantees and so Poole once again finds himself battling for his job this year.

DEONTE THOMPSON
Position: WR
Team: Dallas Cowboys
2017: 38 rec, 555 yds, 2 TD, 11 kick returns, 20.8 avg
Years in the NFL: 6
Coming off the best season of his career, Thompson signed with Dallas as part of the many pieces they are going to use to fill Dez Bryant’s shoes. But a roster spot is far from a guarantee, despite the $2.5 million deal. He’s dealing with an Achilles issue and needs to get back on the field fast. If Thompson doesn’t stick in the big D, he’ll likely find a role someplace else after his consistent play in 2017.

JONOTTHAN HARRISON
Position: C
Team: New York Jets
2017: 8 games, 1 start
Years in the NFL: 4
Harrison is putting together a very nice career after leaving Florida with little fanfare. He has four seasons, 52 games and 24 starts under his belt and seems locked in as a backup center and guard for the Jets.

MAX GARCIA
Position: G
Team: Denver Broncos
2017: 16 Games, 16 Starts
Years in the NFL: 3
Garcia has started every game for the Broncos the past two seasons, but given how poor the line overall has played, that might not be a good thing. Denver has really tried to rebuild the line and Garcia might be the odd man out. He did start at left guard in the preseason opener and his versatility as a center and guard might make him valuable. Even if the Broncos cut him, he won’t be out of work long.

LERENTEE MCCRAY
Position: LB
Team: Jacksonville Jaguars
2017: 3 tackles, 1.5 sacks
Years in the NFL: 4
McCray has made a living by becoming a special teams ace and occasional edge rusher. He appears to have found a home in Jacksonville. Even before getting more reps this week at defensive end in the wake of Dante Fowler’s suspension, McCray entered training camp looking at more opportunity along the line. One Gators’ demise in Jacksonville might mean more opportunity for another Gator.

JAYLEN WATKINS
Position: DB
Team: Los Angeles Chargers
2017: 12 games, 17 tackles
Years in the NFL: 4
Watkins is fighting for his NFL life, just as he’s done every training camp. After earning a Super Bowl ring with the Eagles last season, Watkins signed with the Chargers in the offseason. The Bolts boast a crowded secondary and Watkins is fighting for one of the last safety spots. His versatility as a corner and special teams contributor help his cause.

Watkins is working hard to earn a spot in the Chargers deep secondary.

SOLID STARTERS

They’ve worked hard. They’ve overcome obstacles. They’ve established themselves as capable pros. They’ll have long careers in the league.

ANTONIO MORRISON
Position: LB
Team: Indianapolis Colts
2017: 108 tackles, 1 pass defended
Years in the NFL: 2
The Colts’ defense was atrocious last season. So the fact that Morrison started 15 games and racked up 108 tackles doesn’t carry much weight with a new coaching staff trying to rebuild. I saw Morrison in person a couple of times last year and the undersized backer was the same player as always – aggressive to the ball, hard-nosed, instinctive but struggled to get off blocks at times or make big plays. In the right system with good defensive tackles in front of him, Morrison will excel. The Colts did not have that last season and yet he still led the team in tackles.

MARCUS GILBERT
Position: RT
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
2017: 7 Games, 7 Starts
Years in the NFL: 7
For seven seasons, Marcus Gilbert has been the Steelers starting right tackle. The problem has been that in just two of those seven years has Gilbert been able to start all 16. When healthy, he teams with former Gator teammate Maurkice Pouncey to form one of the best offensive lines in the league. As a seasoned vet, Gilbert has embraced a mentoring role with younger guys, something that paid huge dividends in the development of Alejandro Villenueva and could led to Gilbert’s replacement in Pittsburgh’s third round draft pick in this year’s draft.

D.J. HUMPHRIES
Position: T
Team: Arizona Cardinals
2017: 5 games, 5 starts
Years in the NFL: 3
By all accounts, D.J. Humphries is finally looking the part of NFL left tackle. Going up against an elite pass rusher in Chandler Jones every day has certainly helped as has being healthy after a MCL sprain and dislocated knee last season. Humphries will need to be at his best if the oft-injured Sam Bradford is the Cardinals starting quarterback.

QUINTON DUNBAR
Position: CB
Team: Washington Redskins
2017: 28 tackles, 1 INT, 8 passes defended
Years in the NFL: 3
Three years ago, Dunbar was an undrafted free agent wide receiver who was asked to switch to cornerback to provide depth in camp. The odds are long for undrafted players to make the league, even more so for a guy learning a new position. Now entering his fourth season, he was rewarded with a three-year, $10 million contract and looks like the potential starter opposite Josh Norman. Dunbar is one of the more impressive Gators in the NFL success stories you’ll ever see.

CALEB STURGIS
Position: PK
Team: Los Angeles Chargers
2017: 1 game, 3/3 FG
Years in the NFL: 5
After years of inconsistency, Caleb Sturgis finally developed into a trustworthy NFL kicker in 2016. Expectations were high for him, if not the Eagles, entering 2017. But after one game, Sturgis season was over with a hip injury. He then watched as his replacement Jake Elliott nailed memorable game winners and his teammates won the Super Bowl. Sturgis has moved on to a San Diego team desperate for a quality kicker. So desperate in fact that they also brought former Noles kicker Roberto Aguayo into camp. Sturgis drilled his first FG of the preseason but shanked his second badly. Aguayo, who flamed out laughably in Tampa, has looked good in practices. The job is Sturgis’ for the taking, but he’ll have to hold off Aguayo’s comeback.

The lonely life of a kicker as Sturgis practices alone on a far field at Chargers training camp.

VERNON HARGREAVES III
Position: CB
Team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2017: 9 games, 42 tackles, 5 passes defended
Years in the NFL: 2
Hargreaves first two seasons in Tampa have been disappointments. The eleventh overall pick in the 2016 draft has only one career interception. He has been beaten for big plays and failed to make many of his own. This is a make or break year, and the early returns were promising. Hargreaves was having his best camp and playing some of the best football the Buccaneers had seen from him. Unfortunately, he suffered a groin injury in the first preseason game and will miss two-to-three weeks. When he returns, all eyes will be on him to see if he can put it all together finally. Bucs fans are certainly shaking their head that he’s in the “solid” section here, but I believe in VH3.

HOLDING THEMSELVES BACK

The knucklehead section. Wouldn’t be a Gators football list without it. Pro Bowl potential that could be derailed by off-the-field issues.

DANTE FOWLER, JR.
Position: DE
Team: Jacksonville Jaguars
2017: 21 tackles, 8 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoveries, TD
Years in the NFL: 3
One season lost to a torn ACL. One career start. Two arrests. One game suspension for the arrests. One week of preseason suspension for fighting in practice. This isn’t the kind of resume Fowler wanted to put together after the Jaguars took him third overall in the 2015 draft. All of that overshadows his obvious skills as an edge rusher. The Jags have one of the best defenses in football and figure to be close to a breaking point with Fowler. If he makes the opening day roster, his role as a backup should be embraced with great fervor. It might be what determines just how long his football-playing future is.

JANORIS JENKINS
Position: CB
Team: New York Giants
2017: 9 games, 30 tackles, 3 INT, 2 TD
Years in the NFL: 6
It was not a pleasant offseason for Jenkins after a friend’s murder at his house in which his brother was charged with manslaughter. The Giants corner was out of the state and appears to have had nothing to do with it, but it is not a good look for an athlete in the biggest media market in the world. This past week, Jenkins used an insensitive word in a social media post and has rightfully caught grief for it. On the field, Jenkins’ game slipped a little last season despite his three picks and two pick-sixes. His nose for the end zone continues to be astounding as he has seven pick-sixes in his career. If he can put the off-field issues behind him, Jenkins should once again rank among the best corners in the game.

ON THE RISE

Planting my flag on these guys. Expect big things from them in 2018.

TRENT BROWN
Position: OT
Team: New England Patriots
2017: 10 games, 10 starts
Years in the NFL: 3
Generally, if Bill Belichick wants you, you’re pretty good. For the past two seasons in San Francisco, Brown started all 26 games he was healthy. But in a surprise move this offseason, the Niners dealt the massive tackle to the Patriots for almost nothing. Now Brown appears to be the heir apparent to Nate Solder as Tom Brady’s blindside protector. If you want to place a bet on the Gators alum breakout player of the year, Brown is my pick. He’s a potential future All-Pro now that he’s in New England.

JON HALAPIO
Position: C/G
Team: New York Giants
2017: 10 Games, 6 Starts
Years in the NFL: 1
Jon Halapio is the symbol of NFL perseverance. A sixth-round draft pick in 2014 by the Patriots, he was cut in training camp. He was signed to the Broncos’ practice squad late that season but never played and was waived in the offseason. The Cardinals brought him into 2015 camp but cut him before the season. For almost a year, he was out of football and working as a car salesman. The Patriots came calling again in 2016 before cutting him, again, after training camp. Less than a month later, the Giants brought him into their practice squad. He spent the rest of the 2016 season and the first few games of the 2017 on the practice squad before finally getting a promotion to the active roster halfway through the 2017 season. Halapio played in 10 games in 2017, starting six of them. After more than three years of hard work that yielded few concrete results, Halapio was an NFL player. The Giants appear close to turning over the keys to their offensive line to Halapio; he has taken every snap as the first-team center since minicamp back in May. It is a remarkable journey and one that hopefully is only beginning.

ALEX ANZALONE
Position: LB
Team: New Orleans Saints
2017: 4 games, 16 tackles, 1 sack
Years in the NFL: 1
Anzalone has Sean Payton and Saints’ defensive coaches excited for a huge second year. After a promising start in his rookie campaign, Anzalone went down with a shoulder injury, the same issue that plagued him in Gainesville. But after surgery that he says has fixed all issues, he’s had a monster training camp so far. He lined up at middle linebacker in the Saints’ first preseason game, although he’s expected to play the WILL position. His versatility and abilities in coverage mean he’s primed for a huge roll on one of the NFC favorites.

Expect the long locks of Anzalone to flow this year.

 

JONATHAN BULLARD
Position: DT
Team: Chicago Bears
2017: 26 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble
Years in the NFL: 2
Bullard has a chance to be a full-time starter in Chicago this year after two lackluster seasons. His trademark quickness off the ball should start to emerge after two years of learning how to play in a 3-4 defense. I saw Bullard in person at the Hall of Fame game and he had a sack and a couple of tackles. Always one of my favorites, I’m expecting big things from him in 2018.

Bullard should be spending less time on the sidelines and more time in the backfield this season.

DEMARCUS ROBINSON
Position: WR
Team: Kansas City Chiefs
2017: 21 rec, 212 yds
Years in the NFL: 2
Not that long ago, the adage in the NFL was that it took three years for a receiver to really figure things out. That’s not the case anymore for everyone, but for Demarcus Robinson, it very well could be. His sophomore campaign was a step in the right direction with eight starts, 21 catches in the regular season, and an impressive 4-for-57-and-a-TD stat line in the Chiefs’ playoff loss. He’s been given more roles in the offense this fall as a result, and it paid off early with three catches and a touchdown in the first preseason game. He’ll be behind Tyrek Hill and Sammy Watkins for sure, but Robinson appears to be finding his niche.

TOP 10

The current best of the best. Some of this is based on 2017 performance. Some of it on 2018 expectations. And some of it on track record over the course of a few seasons.

#10 – JOE HADEN
Position: CB
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
2017: 11 games, 20 tackles, 1 INT, 1 sack, 7 passes defended
Years in the NFL: 8
For the first time in his career, Haden is beginning a season with the belief that he’ll be playing football in January. Signing with the Steelers right before the season opener last year was a move from the outhouse to the penthouse. Now Haden must prove he can stay healthy. Only once, his rookie year, has he played all 16 games. Not coincidentally, he had a career-best six picks. Haden’s already missed time with nagging injuries this training camp. When healthy, he’s still one of the NFL’s best lockdown corners.

#9 – MIKE POUNCEY
Position: C
Team: Los Angeles Chargers
2017: 16 games, 16 starts
Years in the NFL: 7
Mike Pouncey has a new home in L.A. with the Chargers after spending seven seasons in Miami. As another South Florida to Southern California transplant, I’m excited to see the older Pouncey twin with the Bolts. He looks healthy and rejuvenated and has already made a great impression. If he can stay healthy, expect big things as he anchors what will easily be the most explosive offense he’s played in since the Tebow days.

It did not take long for Pouncey [53] to become the anchor in the middle of the Chargers line.

#8 – MARCUS MAYE
Position: S
Team: New York Jets
2017: 78 tackles, 2 INT, 1 forced fumble
Years in the NFL: 1
The hype and buzz surrounding Jamal Adams overshadowed Marcus Maye throughout the 2017 season. But if you ask those who watched both of them all season, it’s a coin flip as to who was better and who is better positioned to become a star. Maye showcased the ball skills and sure tackling that made him so great in Gainesville. After offseason ankle surgery, he returned to the field in training camp and looks every bit the dominant free safety.

#7 – TREY BURTON
Position: TE
Team: Chicago Bears
2017: 23 rec, 248 yds, 5 TD
Years in the NFL: 4
Florida fans fell in love with Trey Burton’s jack-of-all-trades style of play, but nothing we ever saw in Gainesville prepared us for Super Bowl LII. No matter where Burton goes from here, he’ll be defined and remembered for the play that helped the Eagles win their first championship. Now in Chicago, Burton appears headed for more than just a trick play and backup role. New head coach Matt Nagy envisions Burton as a Travis Kelce-like weapon so he might eclipse his career total of 63 grabs in 2018 alone.

#6 – REGGIE NELSON
Position: S
Team: Oakland Raiders
2017: 89 tackles, 1 INT, 2 forced fumbles
Years in the NFL: 11
Congratulations to the newest member of the UF Athletic Hall of Fame! Nelson is going to turn 35 in September and for the first time in his long, brilliant NFL career, Father Time started to nip at his heels. He was still a sure tackler for the most part but his ability to defend over the top and to the sidelines started to slip. In his 12th training camp, he’s battling to hold onto his starting spot. An improved Raiders’ pass rush will help Nelson’s older legs in coverage.

#5 – JARRAD DAVIS
Position: LB
Team: Detroit Lions
2017: 86 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery
Years in the NFL: 1
Despite playing in only 14 games, Davis led all rookies in tackles last season. He finished strong, too, with 12 wrap-ups and a pick in the Lions’ finale. Lions new head coach Matt Patricia has brought a new system in, but Davis’ work ethic has already ingratiated him to Patricia and elevated him to a leadership role within the Lions defense. Davis is positioned for a long run of success in the NFL.

#4 – JONATHAN BOSTIC
Position: LB
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
2017: 97 tackles, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery
Years in the NFL: 5
Jon Bostic is used to stepping into massive shoes. His freshman year at Florida, he helped replace Brandon Spikes. The Bears drafted him to take over the middle for Brian Urlacher. Now the Pittsburgh Steelers are hoping he can fill the gap left by Ryan Shazier. After signing with his fifth team in six years, Bostic appears comfortable with his game and role. Last season, he notched a career-best 97 tackles in only 14 games for the Colts. Already in training camp, he’s split time with the first-team unit and turned enough heads that it wouldn’t be surprising to see him become the fourth former Gator to start in the Steel City this year alongside Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert, and Joe Haden.

#3 – CARLOS DUNLAP
Position: DE
Team: Cincinnati Bengals
2017: 46 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 1 INT for TD, 7 passes defended
Years in the NFL: 8
Last year’s #1 on this list, Dunlap has cemented his status as one of the best defensive players in Bengals history. He holds the team’s all-time sack mark at 64.5, an average of eight per year since he’s entered the league. His passes defensed numbers dropped last season, but he still bats down more balls at the line than just about any other pass rusher. Still only 29, he’s due a nice contract extension soon. Elite pass-rushing defensive ends tend to stick around well into their 30s giving Dunlap the chance to eclipse the 100-sack benchmark and surpass Kevin Carter and Trace Armstrong as the most prolific Gators pass rushers ever (Jack Youngblood excluded since sacks weren’t counted for most of his heyday). More importantly, Dunlap has become one of the most charitable athletes in Cincinnati, a mark the kids in that community will remember far longer than any sack.

#2 – MAURKICE POUNCEY
Position: C
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
2017: 15 games, 15 starts
Years in the NFL: 8
Six full seasons, six Pro Bowls. Still only 29, Maurkice Pouncey has a few years of high-level football ahead of him to add to his impressive resume. He anchors the line for one of the game’s best offenses and in some circles is seen as one of the all-time greats for one of the NFL’s most storied franchises. If he can sustain his high level of play into the next decade, he has a shot at Canton.

#1 – KEANU NEAL
Position: S
Team: Atlanta Falcons
2017: 113 tackles, 1 INT, 3 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries
Years in the NFL: 2
Neal followed up a great rookie campaign with an even better sophomore season. He made his first Pro Bowl and finished 13th in the league in tackles. In just his third season and at the age of 23, he’s one of the leaders of the Falcons defense. Kiki has established himself as one of the best strong safeties in the league, but one thing to watch is how the NFL’s new helmet rules will impact his ability to deliver big blows in the Falcons’ secondary.

You know you have arrived when Madden dishes out that high grade.

And with that, you have the complete list of 2018 Gators in the NFL. Here’s what an all-former-Gators team would look like.

QB – Jacoby Brissett
RB – Mike Gillislee
WR – Deonte Thompson
WR – Demarcus Robinson
WR – Antonio Callaway
TE – Trey Burton
TE – Jordan Reed
RT – Marcus Gilbert
RG – Max Garcia
C – Maurkice Pouncey
LG – Mike Pouncey
LT – Trent Brown

DE – Carlos Dunlap
DT – Jonathan Bullard
DT – Caleb Brantley
DE – Dante Fowler, Jr.
LB – Jon Bostic
LB – Jarrad Davis
LB – Antonio Morrison
CB – Joe Haden
FS – Reggie Nelson
SS – Keanu Neal
CB – Janoris Jenkins
NB – Brian Poole

K – Eddy Pineiro
P – Johnny Townsend

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Post Season – Pass on Pick em

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UAB – Down One Scholarship Podcaster

This week, Josh takes over. He doesn’t even let Matt get a single word in. Hear his thoughts on the win (what’s that?), his pick em games, and his take on chips and dip.https://soundcloud.com/user-605671470/uab-down-one-scholarship-podcaster

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South Carolina -More Money Than Alaska

In this week’s episode, Matt and Josh discuss the (loss) to South Carolina. They’ll also get in to a few of the week’s big games, and exactly what we can expect from a coaching race in the SEC.

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Mizzou – We’ve Clearly Given Up

Tune in to this week’s episode and listen to Matt and Josh discuss yet another loss, this time to Mizzou! Remember in 2014 when the Gators lost to them at home? Don’t worry, they don’t mention that. Also, hear our continued talks on head coaches, as well as which teams we think have the toughest fan bases.

 

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Georgia – Now Accepting Head Coach Applications

Join Matt and Josh again this week as they welcome their friend Bobby to chat the UAA and its thought process moving forward with finding a new head coach.

Also, we may have played a game on Saturday. Did it go well? Find out when you listen! And also make sure to stick around to hear who we think should be Head Coach. I promise some choices may surprise you. Saban? Haha no.

 

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Texas A&M: New Unis, Same Florida

Matt and Josh are back for episode 5! Let’s talk a little bit about Texas A&M, and in case you forgot, our Gators were wearing some new uniforms. Did we like them? Find out by listening to this weeks episode. If you’re a fan of College Football in general, then don’t worry, because we discuss all of those upsets that took College Football by storm this weekend. Unlucky Friday the 13th, unless you’re Syracuse!!!

 

 

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Geaud Gawd LSU

Listen in to this week’s podcast where Matt and Josh discuss the loss to LSU, our future as a football team, whose uniforms look like a Walmart Great Value brand, and giving some insight to what Tom Petty meant to them. New episodes every Wednesday morning.

Also! We’re excited to announce we’re on iTunes! Information on a giveaway will come out next week with our Texas A&M recap. And remember, In All Kinds of Weather.

 

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Podcast – Do We Curse Teams?

On this week’s episode, Matt and Josh discuss the game against Vandy, LSU’s disastrous defeat, cursing teams, and the ugliest uniforms from this week in college football.

Make sure to check back next Wednesday for our take on the LSU match up!

 

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NFL Preview, Florida Gators Version: 2017 Player Rankings

When NFL training camps open up in the next two weeks, close to 3,000 men will be able to say they are members of the National Football League. By the time the regular season launches in September, that number will be reduced by over a thousand. Some of those cut will continue to fight and may eventually catch on in the NFL. Others will find jobs playing in the Canadian Football League (see: Will Hill) or the Arena Football League. But for many, the long, difficult dream of becoming a professional football player will end just shy of the goal line. Everyone knows how difficult it is to make it as a professional football player but this time of year it is always helpful to reflect.

Per some studies, your chances of having an IQ of 150 or higher are about the same as the chances of a high school senior football player making the NFL. That’s super genius territory of Bill Gates and Albert Einstein. No wonder we revere professional athletes like we do. Their journeys fueled by hard work, perseverance and determination are as impressive as any of society’s greats.

Just to make it to the NFL is an accomplishment in itself. To play for any length of time, regardless of skill level and contributions, is something to be proud of and cherish forever. It is why the narrative that certain players are busts or bums is so foolish. If you made it to the NFL, you are by definition one of the elite few to ever play the sport. JaMarcus Russell may not have lived up to the expectations of a first-overall pick, but he exceeded any realistic expectations of performance and achievement JUST BY MAKING IT TO THE LEAGUE.

Each year, I enjoy writing this column looking at the University of Florida products playing in the NFL more than just about anything else I write. Part of the reason is because of just how difficult it is to make the league, let alone thrive. In the past, I’ve written this before the Super Bowl and the end of the season. This year, I wanted to do it before camps open for that very reason. Any former Gator who makes a roster is to be celebrated regardless of playing time and statistics. At the same time, we live in a fantasy football world driven by statistics and accomplishments. Those numbers lead to more numbers with our annual rankings of Gators in the NFL.

The Gators had 33 players on NFL rosters in week one of the 2016 season. Overall, 43 former Gators were active at some point with three more on either injured reserve or a practice squad. That was third-most last season behind LSU and Alabama. This year, the Gators could eclipse that number led by a deep draft class and undrafted free agents.

2017 DRAFT PICKS

JARRAD DAVIS
Position: LB
Team: Detroit Lions
Draft: 1st Round, 21st overall

MARCUS MAYE
Position: S
Team: New York Jets
Draft: 2nd Round, 39th overall

QUINCY WILSON
Position: CB
Team: Indianapolis Colts
Draft: 2nd Round, 46th overall

TEEZ TABOR
Position: CB
Team: Detroit Lions
Draft: 2nd Round, 53rd overall

ALEX ANZALONE
Position: LB
Team: New Orleans Saints
Draft: 3rd Round, 76th overall

DAVID SHARPE
Position: T
Team: Oakland Raiders
Draft: 4th Round, 129th overall

CALEB BRANTLEY
Position: DT
Team: Cleveland Browns
Draft: 6th Round, 185th overall

JOEY IVIE
Position: DT
Team: Dallas Cowboys
Draft: 7th Round, 228th overall

UNDRAFTED FREE AGENTS

BRYAN COX, JR.
Position: DE
Team: Carolina Panthers

AHMAD FULLWOOD
Position: WR
Team: New Orleans Saints

AUSTIN APPLEBY
Position: QB
Team: Dallas Cowboys

CHRIS THOMPSON
Position: WR
Team: Houston Texans

We’ll see where those rookies land in next year’s rankings after they hopefully make their mark in the NFL. Now onto the rankings, which are broken up into different categories based on performance. The first two groups are players who have played their last games in the league. There is no coming back from these off-field incidents, especially given the lack of production.

DON’T CALL US AND WE DEFINITELY AREN’T CALLING YOU

MATT ELAM
Position: SS
Team: None
2016: 9 games, 4 tackles
Years in the NFL: 4
Elam is one of the most surprising failures among former Gators in the NFL. He was such an electric and dynamic force in Gainesville, and it seemed his style of play would translate well to the league. After a promising rookie season, he fell out of favor in Baltimore. He entered this offseason as a free agent in search of a home, but rather than fighting for his career, Elam was arrested for drug possession. Later this summer, he added another arrest for theft and battery. Those charges have been dropped but not the drug charges. It’s sad to see Elam’s career end, but hopefully he can turn his life around before it is too late.

LOUIS MURPHY
Position: WR
Team: None
2016: Injured reserve
Years in the NFL: 7
Murphy missed all of 2016 recovering from a torn ACL and is currently a free agent. An offseason gun charge, later dropped, probably ended any hopes of his comeback in 2017.

RETIRED

PERCY HARVIN
Position: WR
Team: None
2016: 2 games, 2 rec, 6 yds
Years in the NFL: 8
Harvin officially retired last offseason but was talked back into action by the Bills in November. Like many greats before him, it wasn’t a prudent decision. Harvin was a non-factor for Buffalo and retired again in March. Despite so many injuries, he left his mark in the NFL as one of the best kickoff return men ever punctuated by his Super Bowl touchdown. He is one of the few Gators ever with national championship and Super Bowl rings.

THE WRITING IS ON THE WALL

While not officially retired, this next group of players are on the outside looking in right now. It isn’t impossible that they still might receive a phone call, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

BRANDON SPIKES
Position: LB
Team: None
2016: 11 games, 9 tackles
Years in the NFL: 6
Spikes has had an up-and-down career in the NFL that feels like it left a lot on the table in terms of production. There have been stretches where Spikes was mentioned among the better run-stuffing linebackers in football. But lack of consistency, lack of health and an off-the-field incident in 2015 have all contributed to his vagabond status entering the 2017 season. He is unsigned as of now and given his age of lack of production in 2016, this might be the end of the road. Six years in the NFL after two national championships and All-American seasons at Florida secures Spikes’ legacy.

MAJOR WRIGHT
Position: S
Team: None
2016: 2 games, no stats
Years in the NFL: 7
Wright’s career appears to be at an end. He does not have an invite to training camp with a team after being released by the Buccaneers late last year. He hasn’t officially retired so if injuries happen, he might still receive a call at some point. But if it is the end, Wright had a nice career. Over seven seasons, he racked up 326 tackles and 9 picks including three pick-sixes, mostly with the Bears.

NEIRON BALL
Position: LB
Team: None
2016: Injured reserve
Years in the NFL: 1
Waived just this week by the Raiders, Ball likely didn’t show enough in his rehab to earn the trust he could compete for a spot on the roster. Ball has certainly overcome much worse odds so don’t count him out just yet. But it is likely his professional career is over after six games, five tackles and one sack, all coming in 2015. The fact that he played at all in the NFL is truly one of the greatest Gators stories ever.

JUSTIN TRATTOU
Position: DE
Team: None
2016: 16 games, no stats
Years in the NFL: 6
Never a star at UF, Trattou was undrafted after his senior season and given little chance of ever playing in the NFL. Not only did he make the Giants roster and play in six games his rookie season, he bounced around practice squads and injured reserve and played at least four games in five of his six professional campaigns. Trattou’s career may be over but he’ll always have the two interceptions with the Vikings in 2015 to his name (two more than legendary Gators Kevin Carter and Trace Armstrong ever got in a combined 435 games).

WILL THEY MAKE A ROSTER?

MACK BROWN
Position: RB
Team: Washington Redskins
2016: 8 rush, 82 yds, 1 TD
Years in the NFL: 1
Brown saw five times as many snaps on special teams as he did on offense in his rookie season. He did impress when given the opportunity to carry the rock, breaking off a 61-yard touchdown in mop-up duty against the Bears. Still, the odds are stacked against Brown in Washington with three backs ahead of him on the depth chart.

FRANKIE HAMMOND
Position: WR
Team: New York Jets
2016: Practice Squad
Years in the NFL: 3
After contributing as a returner for two season with the Chiefs, Hammond spent all of 2016 on KC’s practice squad. The Jets took a flier on him this offseason in hopes he can spark their return game and contribute to an anemic receiving corps.

DEONTE THOMPSON
Position: WR
Team: Chicago Bears
2016: 22 rec, 249 yds, 2 TD, 35 kr, 23.0 avg
Years in the NFL: 5
One of the more frustrating Gators during his time in Gainesville, Thompson has worked hard to carve out a nice career in the NFL. This past season was his best to date with a regular role as a kick returner and a spot in the receiving corps. Despite the production of 2016, Thompson isn’t guaranteed a roster spot in Chicago and this training camp will be critical for him.

JAYLEN WATKINS
Position: S
Team: Philadelphia Eagles
2016: 30 tackles, 3 passes defended
Years in NFL: 3
Watkins’ slow climb up the Eagles’ depth chart can be credited to his move to safety. Drafted in the 4th round of the 2014 draft as a corner, he played mostly on special teams in four games before getting cut right before the start of the 2015 season. The Eagles brought him back later that season and in his third season, the move to safety allowed him to see the field for all 16 games and become a vital part of the Eagles’ defense. He’ll be in a battle this August to keep his role and even his roster spot.

JEFF DRISKEL
Position: QB
Team: Cincinnati Bengals
2016: Active for 16 games, no snaps
Years in the NFL: 1
Driskel was picked up by the Bengals before the start of last season after being waived by the 49ers. He remained the third quarterback all season but never saw any action as Andy Dalton stayed healthy. There are rumors the Bengals might deal A.J. McCarron and promote Driskel to Dalton’s backup. That’d be a huge statement of their confidence in the former Gator, but if they don’t do a deal, Driskel may find himself left off the roster.

JOSH EVANS
Position: FS
Team: Washington Redskins
2016: 2 games, 1 tackle
Years in the NFL: 4
Evans was cut by Jacksonville last season after starting 36 games in his first three seasons. He signed with the Redskins and made two appearances, both on special teams. The Redskins have him in camp this year but the odds are long that he’ll make the final roster. A sixth-rounder in 2013, he certainly exceeded expectations for a playing career in the league.

MATT JONES
Position: RB
Team: Washington Redskins
2016: 99 rush, 460 yds, 3 TD, 8 rec, 73 yds
Years in the NFL: 2
Over the past two seasons, Jones has 1,327 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns. Pretty good? And yet Jones is currently fifth on the Redskins depth chart at running back and unlikely to ever carry the ball again for the team. Eight fumbles, including multiple times on the goal line, will do that. Jones recently hired Drew Rosenhaus as his agent, perhaps hoping to seek a release or trade and a chance to start over somewhere else.

MARCUS ROBERSON
Position: CB
Team: Houston Texans
2016: 7 games, 2 tackles
Years in the NFL: 3
Roberson was picked up in the offseason by the Texans after a lackluster year in Buffalo. He’ll have to earn a spot as a backup and special teams player to keep his career going. Despite the pressures of performing in a make-or-break year for his NFL career, Roberson spent some of his offseason visiting Rwanda where he helped build homes and played sports with children. Bravo Marcus!

LYNDEN TRAIL
Position: LB
Team: Washington Redskins
2016: 2 games, 2 tackles
Years in the NFL: 1
One of the good friends of this blog, Trail is a favorite around these parts. Despite never actually playing at Florida, Trail remained a part of Gator Nation, rooting on the school from afar after his transfer to Norfolk State. We rooted for him, too, and after a great career in Virginia, he had a chance to be drafted in 2015. It didn’t happen, though, but he was able to land on the Redskins practice squad. In 2016, he bounced from the Redskins practice squad to the Rams practice squad to the unemployment line. He grabbed a job at UPS, kept working out and miraculously received a call from Washington late in the season. The ultimate journey to the NFL was completed when Trail played in the final two games of the season. He’ll be in Redskins camp next week and we’re rooting hard for him to stick in the league.

CRITICAL SEASON FOR SURVIVAL

SHARRIF FLOYD
Position: DT
Team: Minnesota Vikings
2016: 1 game before season-ending knee injury
Years in the NFL: 4
Coming out of school, Floyd looked poised to become an impact defensive tackle. It hasn’t worked out that way. A disappointing rookie season was followed by two years that showed some improvement and potential. Now after complications from his knee recovery, Floyd’s career is in jeopardy. Fingers crossed he gets back on the field and proves his critics wrong.

DANTE FOWLER, JR.
Position: OLB/DE
Team: Jacksonville Jaguars
2016: 32 tackles, 4 sacks, 5 passes defended
Years in NFL: 2
Imagine dreaming of playing in the NFL all your life, getting drafted in the first round after a spectacular college career, but then in your first professional practice, blowing out your knee before you even signed your contract. Fowler’s ACL tear on the first day of mini-camp in 2015 was cruel but not career-defining. He made an impact in his first season back on the field with the Jaguars and is poised for a breakout campaign this year. That is, if he can stay out of trouble. Fowler was arrested Tuesday night for allegedly pushing a man, breaking his glasses and throwing his bag of booze in a lake. Childish behavior for sure but apparently not Fowler’s first run-in with trouble. Fowler needs to get his act together off the field or he’ll derail a promising a career.

MIKE POUNCEY
Position: C
Team: Miami Dolphins
2016: 5 games, 5 starts
Years in the NFL: 6
There might not be a former Gator more integral to his team’s success than Pouncey. The three-time Pro Bowler hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2012 and the Dolphins pass protection and run game has suffered for it. Pouncey has a bad hip and received a stem cell treatment this offseason. There is uncertainty to when he will actually see the field for Miami. If he can return fully healthy, he’ll re-establish himself as one of the game’s best centers. If he can’t, he might be closer to retirement than another Pro Bowl.

JONATHAN BULLARD
Position: DT
Team: Chicago Bears
2016: 18 tackles, 1 sack
Years in the NFL: 1
At Florida, Bullard was a menace. Explosive off the snap, instinctive to the football, he was a disruptive force who lived in opposing teams’ backfields. In his rookie campaign, Bullard flashed very little of what made him a Gator great. This offseason, he trained with former Gators and Bears star Alex Brown. Given Bullard’s obvious skills, quickness and strength, it would be surprising if he doesn’t put together a more complete performance this season and turn into an impact player with the Bears.

COMFORTABLE IN THEIR ROLE

This group of players are the backbone to the NFL. Superstars win championships and get all the accolades, but the lifeblood of the NFL are role players who do their job. Often they do the little things that allow the superstars to do the big things. Some of the guys in this group are my favorite players to watch on Sundays, starting with the first one for sure.

TREY BURTON
Position: TE
Team: Philadelphia Eagles
2016: 37 rec, 327 yds, 1 TD
Years in the NFL: 3
Quite simply, Trey Burton is a football player. Cliché as it is, Burton just finds a way to make teams better playing wherever he is needed. He did it in Gainesville and is doing it in Philadelphia. Last season, Burton came on as a receiver for Carson Wentz after making his mark mostly as a special teams player. He has developed into a good blocker and spreads the field for Philly both inside and out. Of course wherever the Eagles need him, he’ll play, even if it means long snapping.

D.J. HUMPHRIES
Position: T
Team: Arizona Cardinals
2016: 13 games, 13 starts
Years in the NFL: 2
Humphries earned the dubious distinction of being the only 2015 first-round draft pick to be inactive for all 16 games. He was deep in Cardinals coach Bruce Arians’ doghouse. But a good camp in 2016 earned him the starting right tackle spot. He impressed so much that they are moving him to Carson Palmer’s all-important blind-side this year.

ANTONIO MORRISON
Position: LB
Team: Indianapolis Colts
2016: 45 tackles
Years in the NFL: 1
Morrison got his feet wet in the NFL last season and hopes to earn more playing time and possibly even a starting role in training camp this year. The film shows a fundamentally sound and smart linebacker who plugs holes and makes sure-handed tackles.

DEMARCUS ROBINSON
Position: WR
Team: Kansas City Chiefs
2016: 16 games, no stats
Years in the NFL: 1
Robinson played in all 16 games for the Chiefs in his rookie campaign as a special teamer. He received just six snaps on offense and was never targeted. That’s about as close to a redshirt year as you can get in the NFL. The buzz out of KC heading into camp, though, is that Robinson is poised for a big second season. Many are predicting he’ll win a starting spot opposite Tyreek Hill. Robinson is definitely one to watch for in 2017.

LERENTEE MCCRAY
Position: DE/LB
Team: Jacksonville Jaguars
2016: 10 tackles
Years in the NFL: 3
An unspectacular stint in Gainesville littered with injuries led to McCray going undrafted in 2013. One of the least likely Gators to ever make the NFL, McCray now enters his fourth professional season, this one back in his home state with the Jaguars. He has a chance to continue as a special teams ace and situational defensive backup. McCray is an inspiration not just on the field too.

JELANI JENKINS
Position: LB
Team: Oakland Raiders
2016: 9 games, 29 tackles
Years in the NFL: 4
After his worst season as a professional, Jenkins has a lot to prove in Oakland. Injuries were part of it, but even when healthy, Jenkins really struggled both in run defense and pass defense. Perhaps he can regain the form he flashed in 2014 when he was a reliable three-down linebacker for the Dolphins.

JAYE HOWARD
Position: DT
Team: Chicago Bears
2016: 8 games, 23 tackles, 1 sack
Years in the NFL: 5
Cut in the offseason by the Chiefs, Howard says he’s humbled and determined to return to his 2015 form that saw him emerge as a dominant force in the middle of the defensive line for Kansas City. He’s coming back from a hip injury that cost him half the season, but the Bears believe he can provide depth and improvement, perhaps even pairing with fellow Gator Jonathan Bullard in the middle of their line.

JONOTTHAN HARRISON
Position: C/G
Team: New York Jets
2016: 13 games, 4 starts
Years in the NFL: 3
Harrison has proven to be a versatile lineman, playing all five positions with the Colts last season. The Jets signed him in the offseason to be a backup at a number of positions.

MAX GARCIA
Position: G
Team: Denver Broncos
2016: 16 games, 16 starts
Years in the NFL: 2
Garcia has developed into a solid NFL guard, especially adept as a road-grader in the rush game. He’ll likely man the left side of the line this season.

JACOBY BRISSETT
Position: QB
Team: New England Patriots
2016: 3 games, 34/55, 400 yds, 16 rush, 83 yds, 1 TD
Years in the NFL: 1
Brissett started two games for the Super Bowl champs last season when Tom Brady was serving his suspension. He managed the game well, doing little to hurt the team. He has earned the trust of Bill Belichick and by all accounts, looks miles ahead of where he was at this point last year. He’ll remain the Pats third quarterback, a good spot for a young QB still learning the game to be. He’s also a pretty good writer so maybe blogging is in his future after his playing days are over.

TRENTON BROWN
Position: T
Team: San Francisco 49ers
2016: 16 games, 16 starts
Years in the NFL: 2
In 2016, Brown started more games than he did in his entire career at Florida. The inconsistency that plagued his two years in Gainesville disappeared as Brown’s work ethic and overall game improved. He is poised to become a fixture on the offensive line in San Francisco and join the growing number of great Gators offensive linemen currently playing in the NFL.

DOMINIQUE EASLEY
Position: DT
Team: Los Angeles Rams
2016: 35 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
Years in the NFL: 3
Easley had his best season as a pro last year in Los Angeles and finally showed the immense potential that made him a first-round pick in 2014. The Rams have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL, and Easley may play an even bigger part of their production this season. His ceiling is high and future is bright.

QUINTON DUNBAR
Position: CB/Nickel
Team: Washington Redskins
2016: 25 tackles, 1 INT, 1 sack
Years in the NFL: 2
A position switch has made Dunbar a pro and might just turn him into a real force in the NFL. Dunbar caught over 100 passes in Gainesville for over 1,000 yards. But in his first camp with Washington, the Redskins moved him to cornerback. It took some time but last year he began to catch on and really show glimpses of potential. Dunbar might make a big leap with another offseason and more experience.

CRACKING THE TOP 10 NEXT YEAR

This next group includes one bounce back candidate and two young players, one with the opportunity of a lifetime, the other with all the talent to be a star.

JOE HADEN
Position: CB
Team: Cleveland Browns
2016: 13 games, 3 INT, 48 tackles, 11 passes defended
Years in the NFL: 7
Back in 2013 and 2014, there were few corners in the league better than Haden. He appeared destined for all-time greatness despite playing for the wretched Browns. Two injury-plagued seasons later, Haden is fighting for his job. Life comes at you fast in the NFL.

CHAZ GREEN
Position: T
Team: Dallas Cowboys
2016: 4 games, 2 starts
Years in the NFL: 2
Getting drafted by the team with the best offensive line in football was a blessing and a curse for Green. He missed all of his rookie season because of hip surgery. In 2016, he was set to contribute, starting two games and playing well, before getting hurt again. Now heading into 2017, Green has a chance to win a starting job at right tackle. If he seizes the chance, he’ll join the best position group in the NFL and help lead the way for one of the game’s most dynamic runners in Ezekiel Elliot.

VERNON HARGREAVES III
Position: CB
Team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2016: 76 tackles, 1 INT, 10 passes defended
There is no tougher position to be a rookie than cornerback. VH3 learned that first-hand in what was widely panned as a miserable year. He led all corners in receptions given up and yards against. But beyond the numbers and big plays, Hargreaves showed toughness as a tackler and some of his innate skills that will pay off once the game slows down for him. It is likely that VH3 makes the biggest jump up this list next season.

TOP 10

Here’s the best of the best, an absolutely scientific ranking of course.

#10 – BRIAN POOLE
Position: CB/Nickel
Team: Atlanta Falcons
2016: 58 tackles, 1 INT, 1 sack, 2 fumble recoveries
Years in the NFL: 1
In Gainesville, we knew Brian Poole could play. In the 2016 draft, the NFL didn’t know. They sure found out, though. The Falcons got a steal in signing Poole as an undrafted free agent. He delivered one of the best defensive rookie campaigns in the league and was a huge part of the Falcons defense and the team’s path to the Super Bowl. The Falcons plan to utilize him as a blitzer more and continue to move him around the defensive backfield. He’s primed for a big 2017 and a long career in the league.

#9 – CALEB STURGIS
Position: K
Team: Philadelphia Eagles
2016: 35/41 FG, 85.4%, 30/31 XP, 96.8%
Years in the NFL: 4
Arguably the best kicker in Florida history (pre-Pineiro), Sturgis’ big leg didn’t translate to accuracy early in his career. He appeared headed out of the league when the Dolphins cut him before the season in 2015. He got a shot in Philadelphia when the Eagles’ kicker was injured, but in his first game, he missed an extra point and a field goal in a three-point loss.  At that point, the odds were not good for his career continuing. But since then, Sturgis has become one of the better kickers in the league. He was third in the NFL in field goals made last season and sixth with four 50+ yarders. His accuracy is now above the league average and barring injury, he appears poised to have a long career.

#8 – MARCUS GILBERT
Position: RT
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
2016: 13 games, 13 starts
Years in the NFL: 6
Gilbert has improved every season in the NFL and is now a fixture at right tackle for the Steelers. He allowed only four sacks all last season and probably deserved a Pro Bowl selection. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the fifth best tackle in pass protection. He doesn’t get the accolades or recognition fellow Gator Maurkice Pouncey does on the Steelers line, but he’s just as integral to their offensive success.

#7 – MIKE GILLISLEE
Position: RB
Team: New England Patriots
2016: 101 rush, 577 yds, 8 TD, 9 rec, 50 yds, 1 TD
Years in the NFL: 4
#FreeGilly was in full effect in 2016. The former Florida fan-favorite led the NFL in yards per rush and scored as many touchdowns as Le’Veon Bell despite receiving only part-time work behind LeSean McCoy. This season, he joins the Super Bowl champion Patriots and has a chance to carve out a workhorse role next to Tom Brady in the backfield. This might be the most prolific rushing season for a Gators running back since Fred Taylor’s heyday.

#6 – KEANU NEAL
Position: FS
Team: Atlanta Falcons
2016: 106 tackles, 9 passes defended, 5 forced fumbles
Years in the NFL: 1
Neal is cut from the same cloth as ferocious, big-hitting Gators safeties Lawrence Wright and Reggie Nelson. In an incredible rookie season with the Falcons, he tied for third in the NFL in forced fumbles and had the fourth most tackles by a safety. He was a star last year and has superstardom written all over him going forward. Just ask Mike Evans.

#5 – JORDAN REED
Position: TE
Team: Washington Redskins
2016: 66 rec, 686 yds, 6 TD
Years in the NFL: 4
Hard to imagine that John Brantley’s backup in 2010 would develop like this. Jordan Reed’s move to tight end in Gainesville will go down as one of the greatest position changes in Gators history. When healthy, Reed has established himself as one of the best tight ends in football. He joined Janoris Jenkins as the only Gators in the NFL Network’s Top 100 players countdown, coming in at #65. However, at least six concussions going back to his playing days at UF are scary to think about. Frankly, Reed is the perfect example of why so many of us are conflicted about the sport we love. We root for him to keep playing and become one of the all-time Gators greats in the NFL (he’s already 15th in receptions and 10th in TD catches for former Gators). At the same time, we know his body and brain can’t take much more. Here’s hoping to a safe and successful 2017.

#4 – MAURKICE POUNCEY
Position: C
Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
2016: 15 games, 15 starts
Years in the NFL: 7
Pouncey returned to Pro Bowl form last season after missing all of 2015 with a broken leg. The five-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro is the anchor of a dynamic Steelers offense. If you get a chance to watch a Steelers game this upcoming season, take some snaps to focus only on Pouncey and the job he does making calls pre-snap and pulling and leading the way for Le’Veon Bell. I’ve said it before, but who would have thought he’d have the best NFL career of those Urban Meyer-juggernaut teams?

#3 – JANORIS JENKINS
Position: CB
Team: New York Giants
2016: 49 tackles, 3 INT, 18 passes defended, 1 sack
Years in the NFL: 5
After signing a big free-agent deal last offseason, Jenkins backed it up with his best season. He made his first Pro Bowl, was named second-team All-Pro, finished sixth in the league in passes defended and helped turn a struggling Giants defense around. Players voted him the 54th best player in the league in NFL Network’s Top 100, the highest spot for any Gator. Jenkins is firmly entrenched as one of the elite corners in the league.

#2 – CARLOS DUNLAP
Position: DE
Team: Cincinnati Bengals
2016: 49 tackles, 8 sacks, 15 passes defended
Years in the NFL: 7
How good has Dunlap become? He made his second straight Pro Bowl thanks to 29 quarterback pressures, 8 sacks and 15 pass deflections. He was 13th in the NFL in pass deflections, the only defensive end to rank in the top 75. His 57 career sacks are behind only Jevon Kearse, Kevin Carter and Trace Armstrong in Gators lore and rank first among all players in his 2010 draft class. Dunlap has put together an amazing career and is in his prime entering 2017. He falls just short of the top spot, though.

Dunlap has reached his pass-rushing potential.

#1 – REGGIE NELSON
Position: FS
Team: Oakland Raiders
2016: 65 tackles, 5 INT, 12 passes defended
Years in the NFL: 10
The “Eraser” keeps getting better with age. After a slow start to his career in Jacksonville, Nelson found success for six seasons in Cincinnati, culminating with his first Pro Bowl selection in 2015. Last season, he jumped to Oakland and anchored a young defense’s rise to prominence. Nelson has 17 picks in his past three seasons, the most in the NFL over that stretch. He is the all-time picks leader among Gators alums, also ranking fifth in tackles. He’s established himself as one of the game’s best ball hawks with little signs of slowing down entering year 11. For the first time, he sits atop the rankings.

This is the strongest group of Gators there has been in the NFL in at least a decade. Here’s what an all-Gators NFL starting lineup would look like. You could win some games with this bunch.

Offense
QB – Jacoby Brissett
RB – Mike Gillislee
TE – Trey Burton
TE – Jordan Reed
WR – Demarcus Robinson
WR – Deonte Thompson
LT – DJ Humphries
LG – Max Garcia
C – Maurkice Pouncey
RG – Mike Pouncey
RT – Marcus Gilbert

Defense
DE – Carlos Dunlap
DT – Dominique Easley
DT – Jaye Howard
DE – Dante Fowler, Jr.
LB – Jelani Jenkins
LB – Jarrad Davis
LB – Antonio Morrison
CB – Janoris Jenkins
CB – Joe Haden
SS – Keanu Neal
FS – Reggie Nelson
Nickel – Brian Poole

Special Teams
K – Caleb Sturgis
P – Johnny Townsend (he’s coming out early to join this all-Gators squad)
PR – Frankie Hammond
KR – Deonte Thompson

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