2nd Annual Gators in the NFL rankings

How quickly things change in the National Football League. Last year, I began what I hope will be an annual series ranking every former Gator in the NFL. And arguably, 2011 was the strongest ever for former Gators cumulatively. Sure, any year Emmitt Smith was toting the rock and Trace Armstrong was rushing the passer, the Gators had some individual success that stands the test of time. But from a pure depth standpoint, 2011 was special.

Last year, it was hard to narrow the list down to a top 10. There were plenty of guys who had decent years that didn’t crack it. Rex Grossman threw for over 3,000 yards and couldn’t make it. Within the top 10, I struggled because so many guys put up career years. Jabar Gaffney almost surpassed the 1,000-yard mark. Jeremy Mincey had eight sacks. Percy Harvin and Aaron Hernandez were healthy (mostly) and led the way. And despite all the hype, Tim Tebow could only place 9th on my list.

This year… dammmmmmnn.

Every Gator on last year’s top 10 list had a worse year except for the Pouncey twins and maybe Brandon Spikes. In most cases, this year was hugely, substantially worse. In hindsight, it was mass carnage for the NFL Gators in 2012 (although this is the 11th straight season a Gator has suited up for the big game).

Despite being a struggle to come up with a top 10, this is still one of the more fun columns to write. I challenge anyone anywhere to come up with a more comprehensive ranking. My system consists of statistics, team performance and having watched a shit-ton of football with my own eyes. I don’t rule out bias for some of my most beloved Gators either. As always, if you don’t agree, hit me up on twitter or in the comments below.

ARE THEY STILL IN GAINESVILLE?

Jaye Howard
Last year: Gainesville
This year: Invisible
He was only active for two games and recorded no stats. I‘m not sure he saw the field. Hopefully being reunited with Dan Quinn will help him.

GOTTA STAY HEALTHY

David Nelson (2 rec, 31 yards)
Last year: 10
This year: Gotta Stay Healthy
In a year of bad breaks, bad luck and bad health for the NFL Gators, this might have been the worst. Nelson had defined his third-down role with the Bills and was headed for a very similar year. Then, his knee blew out in the season opener. He’s hoping to recover in time for the 2013 season opener.

Marcus Gilbert (5 starts)
Last year: Supporting Actor
This year: Gotta Stay Healthy
Injured his ankle early,tried to comeback but was eventually placed on IR. The future is still bright for him, as he has started 18 of his 19 career games. Should team up with Maurkice Pouncey for a solid interior line for the Steelers for years to come.

HEADED OUT OF THE LEAGUE

Justin Trattou
Last year: Invisible
This year: Headed Out of the League
Saw the field for six games last year but none this year. Will be hard for him to remain in the league.

Bubba Caldwell (8 games, 1 rec, 18 yards, 1 rush, 14 yards)
Last year: Supporting Actor
This year: Headed out of the league
When Denver landed Peyton Manning, Andre Caldwell saw the Broncos as a great opportunity, a chance for him to fit into the Anthony Gonzalez/Austin Collie/Brandon Stokley role. He had performed well as the 3rd receiver with the Bengals and Manning would only make it easier. However, Caldwell wasn’t healthy for a good portion of the year and when he was, he was a complete non-factor. With only one catch on the season, Caldwell will be up against it to stay with the Broncos this offseason.

Jabar Gaffney (4 rec, 68 yards)
Last year: 7
This year: Headed Out of the League
Gaffney was almost out this year. He couldn’t latch onto a team until late in the season, finally ending up with Miami (a team that was desperate for receivers and yet still didn’t want to sign him until early October). Then he played 3 games before being waived and suspended by the NFL. A year after setting career marks in catches and yards, it is going to be a challenge for him to continue his career. If this is it, Gaffney will depart with top 10 ranks for all-time Gators in the NFL in catches, yards and TDs.

Chas Henry (3 games, 48.5 yards/punt)
Last year: Supporting Actor
This year: Headed Out of the League
Henry boomed the ball in first three games, averaging six yards more per punt than his rookie season. Somehow, inexplicably, the Eagles then cut him. Stunning.

Tim Tebow (39 yards passing, 32 yards rushing)
Last year: 9
This year: Headed Out of the League
A lost season. The best example of Gator success from 2011 to 2012 is Tebow. As poorly as he played at times last year, he also made enough plays to deserve a shot somewhere. New York was not somewhere. Now it appears that somewhere is nowhere. It is truly hard to fathom, Tebow’s last start in the NFL may have been one of the biggest overtime upsets in league history. Combine that with the fact that the read option and mobile quarterbacks have gained traction, and it is almost impossible to wrap your brain around Tebow’s plight. I’ve been on the record that he wouldn’t succeed in the NFL since day one but this fate is beyond baffling to me. He deserves a chance with the right offense somewhere to show whether he can run a team even half as effectively as Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick.

Fourth and God: The Wasted Season

Fourth and God: The Wasted Season

SUPPORTING ACTORS

Deonte Thompson (5 catches, 51 yards)
Last year: Gainesville
This year: Supporting Actor
The first of our two Super Bowl participants is perhaps the most shocking NFL Gator for me ever. Thompson was easily one of the most disappointing Gators ever (Andre Debose, this crown is your’s soon). And yet, the man who had no hands at Florida, managed to return kicks and contribute to the Ravens Super Bowl run. Simply amazing.

Brandon Siler (14 tackles, 1 forced fumble)
Last year: Gotta Stay Healthy
This year: Supporting Actor
It was really good to see him back on the field after missing all of 2011. Siler is one of those special-places-in-our-hearts kind of guys. His age and injury history certainly fight against him having more than a couple of seasons left but we’re rooting for him.

Maurice Hurt (13 games, 1 start)
Last year: Supporting Actor
This year: Supporting Actor
Third season may be his last chance to stay in the league long-term. You would think the Redskins offensive shift to the read option would help him given his experience at Florida under Urban Meyer.

Jermaine Cunningham (24 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries)
Last year: Gotta Stay Healthy
This year: Supporting Actor
Cunningham was healthier but still only played in 12 games. He didn’t produce enough in limited playing time, though, and is still closer to making an exit from the league than making an impact.

Chris Rainey (162 yards from scrimmage, 2 TD)
Last year: Gainesville
This year: Supporting Actor
Rainey showed some potential in the Steelers crowded and confused backfield. And as a returner, he was 8th in the league this year in kickoff return yardage. It will be interesting to see what kind of career he can carve out.

Louis Murphy (25 rec, 336 yards, 1 TD)
Last year: Supporting Actor
This year: Supporting Actor
Probably right in line with what we should expect from Louis Murphy. Frankly, he’s exceeded my expectations already. He is never going to be anything more than a 4th or 5th receiver in the league. Hopefully, he can hang on for a couple more years and make some good money. He couldn’t find a steady role with Cam Newton this year but perhaps another year of consistency will lead to bigger things.

Jeremy Mincey (41 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 1 fumble recovery)
Last year: 10
This year: Supporting Actor
Mincey has now started every game for Jacksonville for the past two years. But his production fell into a hole this year as he produced less tackles, sacks and turnovers than 2011. If I were a Jaguars fan, I’d be very angry thinking about those numbers combined with the four-year, $27 million contract he signed last offseason.

Riley Cooper (23 rec, 248 yards, 3 TD)
Last year: Supporting Actor
This year: Supporting Actor
He has gone from seven catches in his rookie campaign to 16 catches last year to 23 catches this year. Slowly, Cooper is making progress. Part of the delay in his growth is that he only played in 11 games. Despite the limited action, he started five of them and had one of the catches of the year with a one handed grab of a Michael Vick pass for a touchdown. Topping that, he was FOUR FEET from being a part of the play of the year when he laid down in the end zone for a trick play that resulted in him scampering 93 yards for a TD only to have it nullified because the lateral to him was forward. Next year will be huge if Cooper is to remain in the league in much longer.


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Ahmad Black (16 games, 2 starts, 32 tackles, 2 INT)
Last year: Not mentioned
This year: Supporting Actor
One of the most popular Gators in recent history, Ahmad Black earned some significant playing time with Tampa Bay and showed some of the playmaking skills we’ve loved. Hopefully a dismissed pot charge doesn’t diminish his star in the organization because Black has the chance to compete for a full-time nickel role, if not a starting job next year.

Max Starks (16 starts)
Last year: Lifetime Achievement Award
This year: Supporting Actor
I was perhaps a little premature last year with the Lifetime Achievement Award for Starks. He does have the two Super Bowl rings and did just complete his ninth season. It was also just the third time he started all 16 games. Nonetheless, Starks is going to play a couple more seasons and go down as one of the all-time offensive lineman in the league for Florida.

Carlos Dunlap (6 sacks, 1 INT returned for TD, 3 fumble recoveries, 4 forced fumbles)
Last year: Supporting Actor
This year: Supporting Actor
Dunlap is developing into a situational pass rusher. He has amassed 20 sacks in 3 seasons and is aleady 15th among all Gators ever in the NFL in that category. Yet, he can’t crack the starting lineup for the Bengals.

Joe Haden (51 tackles, 3 INT)
Last year: 6
This year: Supporting Actor
This was supposed to be the year Joe Haden put his name on the Pro Bowl roster for good. He has all the tools, scouts rave about him and when you watch him play, you marvel at his athleticism and physicality. But 2012 was a setback year for Haden thanks to a drug suspension. Officially it was for Adderall, allegedly taken while partying in Vegas. Believe what you want about that one. Bottom line, Haden blew it and now you have to wonder if he’ll ever reach his potential.

Aaron Hernandez (51 rec, 483 yards, 5 TD)
Last year: 1
This year: Supporting Actor
Hernandez earned the top spot last year by helping the Patriots to the Super Bowl and teaming with Rob Gronkowski for perhaps the greatest TE duo in NFL history. This year, the Pats fell on their faces in the playoffs and both Gronk and A-Hern missed significant time due to injuries. Hernandez’s versatility in the Patriots offense could have him in line for a career year next year if Wes Welker departs New England.

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARDS

Rex Grossman
Last year: Lifetime Achievement Award
This year: Lifetime Achievement Award
Sexy Rexy held a clipboard with a front row seat to the RGIII experience. Not a bad way to spend your 10th season in the league. After throwing for over 3,000 yards last year, it was surprising the Rex Cannon didn’t see the field when Griffin was hurt. But I’m not going to feel bad. Did you know Grossman is by far the most successful Gators quarterback in NFL history? It isn’t saying a lot given the competition but it also isn’t close in terms of wins, yards and touchdowns.

Rex had RGIII's back

Rex had RGIII’s back

TOP 10

Mike Peterson (11 tackles)
Last year: Lifetime Achievement Award
This year: 10
This ranking is purely sentimental for me with no apologies. Mike Peterson is one of my favorite Florida Gators of all-time. Part of it has to do with the fact that I was in school when Mike was there. Watching that skinny kid from Alachua who didn’t really have a position, force his way onto the field, into the record books and into the NFL was a treat. This was likely his final year and he finishes as Florida’s NFL all-time leader in tackles, while also being 5th in INTs and 14th in sacks. Combine those NFL stats with his career at Florida, which included the ’96 national championship, and you have one of the greatest football careers ever in the history of the school. I know the Ring of Honor has very specific, very high standards. But no Florida Ring of Honor is complete without Mike Peterson, in my opinion.

Truly a Gator Legend

Truly a Gator Legend

Cooper Carlisle (16 starts)
Last year: Lifetime Achievement Award
This year: 9
Cooper Carlisle was never the Gators best lineman when he played at Florida. In his senior year alone, he was overshadowed by freshman Mike Pearson and sophomore Kenyatta Walker. Those guys were 1st and 2nd round picks; Carlisle went in the 4th round. Pearson had 33 starts in a four-year career. Walker 73 in six years. And both were seen as disappointments. Meanwhile, Carlisle just finished his 13th season in the league. He has started 127 of 128 possible games since 2005. In all, his 190 games played is 7th most by a former Gator in the NFL, just behind of the likes of Emmitt, Youngblood, Trace and Carter. He may be the most underrated NFL Gator of all-time.

Major Wright (71 tackles, 4 INT, 1 TD, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 forced fumble)
Last year: Supporting Actor
This year: 8
This was Major Wright’s breakout season. He started every game and was part of a changing of the guard for the Bears defense. He lived up to his reputation from his Florida days as a big hitter and forcer of turnovers. Wright has better days ahead in Chicago.

Reggie Nelson (83 tackles, 3 INT, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble)
Last year: Supporting Actor
This year: 7
After flaming out in Jacksonville, the “Eraser” has found a home in the Bengals secondary. With a second consecutive solid season, he has become a leader on Marvin Lewis’s defense. Much like his college career, it took Nelson a few years and a second home to find his place. And as he was known in Gainesville, Nelson has become a big hitter and playmaker in Cincinnati. His pick against the Steelers in Week 16 helped clinch the Bengals playoff spot.

Brandon Spikes (91 tackles, 1 sack)
Last year: 5
This year: 6
This was Spikes’ healthiest season yet but he lacked making the big plays he is capable of. He was steady and combined with Jerod Mayo for a fine linebacking duo that will anchor the Pats defense for years to come. His finest moment may have come on this play. And as I tweeted at the time, Jim Nantz was a pompous ass for suggesting Spikes jump on the pile to try to recover the fumble after the whistle had been blown.


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Percy Harvin (62 rec, 773 yards from scrimmage, 5 total TD)
Last year: 2
This year: 5
It is the same old story with Harvin. You marvel at the talent. You know this guy could be one of the top players in the NFL. And yet every year dating back to his time in Gainesville, some injury jumps up and knocks him out for a few games. Statistically, this was Harvin’s worst year ever in the NFL. He saw huge declines from his 2011 numbers of 1312 yards from scrimmage and 9 TD. And yet, you’ll go into next year hoping he can play all 16 and put up the kind of numbers never seen before in all-purpose player. Here’s hoping he can shake the label like Fred Taylor before him and become one of the best Gators to ever play the game.

Janoris Jenkins (73 tackles, 4 INT, 1 fumble recovery, 4 TD)
Last year: North Alabama
This year: 4
Easily the most remarkable Gators-related NFL story of the year. We all knew Jenkins was one of the most talented corners ever to roll through Gainesville. But we all also knew he was one of the biggest off-the-field disasters too. Jeff Fisher and the Rams took a chance on him and it looks like they may have a huge steal on their hands. Jenkins probably should have made the Pro Bowl. After being suspended in week 10 for missing curfew, he faced a fork in the road. He could have sulked and been out of the league in 16 months. Instead. he responded with two pick-sixes in week 12 and added another one in week 16. His three return touchdowns tied Ronnie Lott’s rookie record. Jenkins is a huge playmaker and next to Harvin, he might have the greatest upside of any former Gator in the NFL. To reach it, he’ll have to improve his 1-on-1 coverage which suffered at times.

Mike Pouncey (16 starts)
Last year: 8
This season: 3
It was this kind of year for the NFL Gators: a center who didn’t make the Pro Bowl still ranks third on our list. Mike has started every game of his career so far, all 32. The Dolphins ground game wasn’t as strong this year as last, which may have hurt him, but Pouncey really took over as leader of a young offense. The best proof that Pouncey anchored the line: Jake Long’s season-ending injury didn’t significantly impact the team’s offensive production. Pouncey will be a Pro Bowler down the road and will have a long career in the NFL.

Maurkice Pouncey (15 starts)
Third straight Pro Bowl
Last year: 4
This year: 2
The list of Gators to go to the Pro Bowl in their first three years in the NFL: Emmitt Smith and Maurkice Pouncey. Simply stated, Maurkice has a chance to be one of the best centers to ever play the game.

Ray McDonald (38 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 1 safety)
Last year: 3
This year: 1
As if rooting against the vile Ray Lewis wasn’t enough for you on Sunday, think of Ray. McDonald is one of the leaders of the 49ers defense, an underappreciated cog in the NFL’s top defensive unit the past two seasons. Don’t believe me? Check the praise from his teammates or from the media. Just like at Florida where McDonald was overshadowed by Derrick Harvey and Jarvis Moss (both out of the NFL now), he doesn’t get the attention Aldon or Justin Smith get along the Niners line. But McDonald is a steady force who has saved his best games for the playoffs – last year’s five-tackle, two-and-a-half-sack gem against the Giants and this year’s five-tackle effort against the Falcons. I will be rooting very hard on Sunday for the Niners simply because of Ray.

Go Cure Cancer. Go Win a Super Bowl. Go Gators.

Go Cure Cancer. Go Win a Super Bowl. Go Gators.

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