3rd Annual Gators in the NFL rankings

As I documented last year in my 2012 rankings, it was a down year for former Gators in the NFL. But in hindsight, that was nothing compared to the offseason. No point reliving it here but there is no doubt that the bad mojo from the professional ranks infected Gainesville and contributed to a lost season on the gridiron.

So with expectations low and big names lacking, the 2013 season didn’t look promising. However a deep rookie class bolstered the ranks and gave Florida perhaps its deepest talent pool in the NFL ever. There are a handful of special talents, but I don’t think any would qualify as elite superstars just yet. But the potential is there and the base will only continue to grow.

If you were making a starting lineup of only former Gators in the NFL, it would look like this:

QB – Rex Grossman
RB – Mike Gillislee
WR – Percy Harvin, Riley Cooper, David Nelson, Andre Caldwell
TE – Jordan Reed
OL – Mike Pouncey, Maurkice Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert, Xavier Nixon, Max Starks
K – Caleb Sturgis
DE – Carlos Dunlap, Jeremy Mincey
DT – Ray McDonald, Sharrif Floyd
LB – Brandon Spikes, Jon Bostic, Jelani Jenkins
CB – Joe Haden, Janoris Jenkins
S – Reggie Nelson, Major Wright, Matt Elam

You could win some games with that defense, offensive line and receiving corps. Now on to this year’s rankings.

HEADED OUT OF THE LEAGUE

Justin Trattou (2 games, 4 tackles)
Last Year: Headed Out of the League
This Year: Headed Out of the League
Trattou has played in eight games in three seasons since leaving Gainesville. He was cut by the Giants, the team that signed him as an undrafted free agent, and picked up for one game by the Vikings. He’s now made this list two years straight and it is unlikely he’ll make it again next year.

Maurice Hurt
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: Headed Out of the League
Hurt never made it off the PUP list this season for the Redskins. In three seasons, he has missed more games than he’s played in.

Jaye Howard (6 tackles)
Last Year: Invisible
This Year: Headed Out of the League
The Seahawks cut Howard right before the season began and the Chiefs claimed him. He didn’t see much action until the end of the season when the Chiefs were resting their regulars and recorded all six of his tackles in the finale. He did play in the playoffs, too, recording two tackles. Howard is a longshot to stick around with Kansas City though.

Chris Rainey (6 kick returns, 21.8 avg, 4 punt returns, 7.3 avg)
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: Headed Out of the League
Rainey earned a second shot at making it in the league after the Steelers released him after an offseason arrest. He played in two games with the Colts before breaking his leg and ending up on Injured Reserve. His speed always gives him a chance at impressing and making someone’s team but the injury and the off field problems are going to make it very tough on him.

Jeff Demps (3 rec, 21 yards, 1 rush, 14 yards, 4 kick returns, 23.3 avg)
Last Year: Gotta Stay Healthy
This Year: Headed Out of the League
The time has come for Jeff Demps to make a choice between seriously pursuing an NFL career or giving his sprinting career a final chance. After the past two NFL seasons in which he played only two games and ended both on injured reserve, teams are not going to be patient with the speedster anymore. Speed alone isn’t enough to succeed in the NFL and Demps will need to put in the work both on the field and in the film room if he hopes to play again.

Jermaine Cunningham
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: Headed Out of the League
Cunningham was signed and released by the 49ers without ever seeing the field. Then he was picked up mid-season by the Jets but only played in one game. Still, the Jets liked him enough to resign him this offseason to a one-year deal. Of course, that is no guarantee Cunningham will make their roster next season. Three teams in less than a year means Cunningham will have his work cut out for him to remain in the league.

Ahmad Black (4 games, 12 tackles)
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: Headed Out of the League
Black quickly fell out of favor with the Bucs last year and was cut after week 4. An unrestricted free agent, Black will have a tough time finding a home in 2014. Of course for the undersized safety who was never supposed to make much of an impact in college, who was never supposed to make the NFL, beating long odds would be nothing new.

Ahmad Black’s Hit on Jimmy Graham Earned Him a Fine and Might Be One of His Last Plays in the NFL

Louis Murphy (6 rec, 37 yards, 1 TD)
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: Headed Out of the League
2013 was a total bust for Murphy. He signed with Giants and was expected to provide depth to their receiving corps as either the 3rd or 4th receiver alongside Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz. But he never made an impression, rarely saw the field, and when he did, accomplished nothing. Murphy will likely once again be looking for a new team and after an awful season, he might not find one.

GOTTA STAY HEALTHY

Maurkice Pouncey
Last Year: 2
This Year: Gotta Stay Healthy
Less than one quarter of one game into the 2013 season, Maurkice Pouncey tore his ACL. Pouncey had made the Pro Bowl in his first two professional seasons and was already among the best offensive lineman in the league. His rehab has gone well and by all accounts, he’ll be back in time for Steelers training camp.

Percy Harvin (1 game, 1 rec, 17 yards, 1 kick return, 58 yards)
Last Year: 5
This Year: Gotta Stay Healthy
Fred Taylor was once the bain of NFL fantasy league managers everywhere because of his inability to stay healthy. Harvin appears to have inherited Taylor’s injury luck and has earned the unfortunate reputation as fragile. The Seahawks gave up a first round pick to land him and received one regular season game and part of a one playoff game out of him so far. But don’t think it won’t have been worth it if he can salvage a lost season with a return in the Super Bowl, a big play or two and a ring.

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

Rex Grossman
Last Year: Lifetime Achievement Award
This Year: Lifetime Achievement Award
Rex will continue to get the LAA as long as he keeps holding a clipboard and collecting a paycheck in the NFL, but this may have been his final season. In our hearts, the legend will always live on, especially if you follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter (which you really should be doing).

Sexy Rexy probably tipped his cap for the final time this year. We salute the Rex Cannon for going deep as much as possible.

Max Starks
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: Lifetime Achievement Award
I prematurely bestowed this honor on Starks a couple of years ago but after finishing his 10th season in the league, Starks now deserves it. Granted year 10 was a complete bust as Starks saw only eight snaps with the Rams before being cut. It looks like the end of the road for the big tackle, but it was a road that led to two Super Bowl rings and 96 career starts, placing him in the top 30 for Gators all-time in the NFL. Hopefully Starks can land a job with a team in 2014 and break that 100-start mark.

ROLE PLAYERS

Xavier Nixon
Last Year: Gainesville
This Year: Role Player
Nixon was a surefire NFL prospect when he arrived in Gainesville as a freshman in 2009. But by his senior year, Nixon’s inconsistent play dropped him off the draft radar meaning he had to fight and claw his way into the league. He signed first with Washington but didn’t make the active roster. The Colts picked him up midseason and by the end of the year, he earned some playing time and played well enough to have a shot at making the team in 2014.

Deonte Thompson (10 rec, 96 yards, 7 kick returns, 28.7 avg)
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: Role Player
Thompson not only made the Ravens as an undrafted rookie, he stuck around for a second year and was actually expected to make an impact. However, once he was given a chance to contribute, he failed to do much. He only played 155 offensive snaps and just wasn’t able to be productive enough to show he has a future in the NFL. He might be able to stick around another year or two as a kick returner but it also wouldn’t be surprising if this was his final professional season.

Jelani Jenkins (17 tackles)
Last Year: Gainesville
This Year: Role Player
Jenkins made most of his contributions on special teams for the Dolphins. With Miami seemingly set at linebacker for the next few years, Jenkins will have to continue in that role and hope to make more of an impact when he does see the field on defense.

Mike Gillislee (6 rush, 21 yards)
Last Year: Gainesville
This Year: Role Player
I thought when Gillislee was drafted by Miami that he might get a shot to crack the rotation given the Dolphins lack of talent in the backfield. And then everything about Miami’s rushing attack was a disaster this season and yet his number was rarely called. #FreeGilly

Sharrif Floyd (19 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble)
Last Year: Gainesville
This Year: Role Player
I was as sure of Sharrif Floyd’s success in the NFL as I’ve ever been of any Gator, but his rookie season was a mild disappointment. He struggled mightily early on before becoming a somewhat solid backup later in the season. Let’s face it, he’ll most be remembered for his Fat Guy Fumble kickoff return. Floyd needs a big leap next year to live up to his lofty expectations. Mike Zimmer’s arrival as head coach in Minnesota could be huge for Floyd’s development given what Zimmer did for Geno Atkins in Cincinnati.

Jeremy Mincey (17 tackles, 2 sacks)
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: Role Player
Few players in the NFL experience the ride Jeremy Mincey has been on this year. Mincey was waived by one of the worst teams in the league, Jacksonville, and days later signed by the Super Bowl bound Broncos. It was hard to see Mincey being much use to Denver after his production had fallen with the Jaguars from 8 sacks in 2011 to 3 in 2012 and then 2 in 2013. But Mincey has fit into a nice rotation and has a chance to earn a ring on Sunday.

Marcus Gilbert (16 starts)
Last Year: Gotta Stay Healthy
This Year: Role Player
Gilbert was Pittsburgh’s starting right tackle all season, his first season in which he didn’t miss a game due to injury. He has to improve in pass protection where he allowed 11 sacks but has established himself as a decent run blocker. A potential move to guard at some point might work for him.

Andre Caldwell (16 rec, 200 yards, 3 TD)
Last Year: Headed Out of the League
This Year: Role Player
Credit Caldwell with fighting and holding onto the Broncos’ fourth receiver slot after a lost season in 2012. He caught a TD from Peyton Manning on opening night and then memorably had a 2-TD performance filling in for an injured Wes Welker on another Thursday night game. In fact, Caldwell may have lead the league in Thursday night TDs. Now he’ll line up occasionally in the slot in the Super Bowl with a chance to win a ring. A great comeback story.

Josh Evans (58 tackles)
Last Year: Gainesville
This Year: Role Player
Josh Evans was clearly the surprise of the Gators NFL rookie class. A sixth round pick by the Jaguars, he was supposed to be a special teams player at best. But Evans ended up starting 11 games for a Jacksonville defense that improved throughout the season. He’ll need to get better in coverage and stay hungry but if he can build on his rookie campaign, he’ll play for a while in the NFL.

Caleb Sturgis (26/34 FG, 76.5%)
Last Year: Gainesville
This Year: Role Player
Sturgis had a decent rookie campaign with the Dolphins that started strong, went through a very rough four-game stretch and then recovered at the end. His field goal conversion percentage was one of the worst in the league but when looking at his attempts inside of 50, he is middle of the pack in percentage. The Dolphins offense was terrible for a good stretch of the season and Sturgis was often put in long kick situations (no one attempted more than his 7 50+ kicks). As we saw at Florida, he has 50+ yard range. With an improved Dolphins offense next year, Sturgis should improve as well and get his field goal percentage closer to the 90 percent mark that defines the NFL’s top kickers.

Jonathan Bostic (57 tackles, 1 INT, 1 sack)
Last Year: Gainesville
This Year: Role Player
Bostic found his way into the starting lineup because of injuries and flashed the same hard-hitting, hard-tackling abilities he showed at Florida. Unfortunately, he also displayed the same inconsistencies and inability sometimes to plug the right holes and get off blocks. A full offseason to work within the Bears scheme and get better should give Bostic a very good chance to be part of the defensive rebuilding in Chicago, especially with more hits like the one below.


Download | Convert YouTube to MP3 | Advanced Video Downloader

David Nelson (36 rec, 423 yards, 2 TD)
Last Year: Gotta Stay Healthy
This Year: Role Player
Nelson’s return from a torn ACL was a success, despite not joining the New York Jets until October. By the end of the season, Nelson was the Jets best and most consistent receiver (not saying much I know) and he again established himself as a sure-handed, reliable target. He signed a two-year contract extension with the Jets and will give them a great possession threat in the middle of the field.

Matt Elam (77 tackles, 1 INT, 2 fumble recoveries)
Last Year: Gainesville
This Year: Role Player
Elam was one of the only players from the 2013 draft class to start all season but he played out of position at free safety and struggled to make many plays. He should slide inside to strong safety next year and take off as a playmaker in the league, becoming a mainstay of our annual top 10 rankings. He’s already one of the better former Gator trash talkers as evidenced by his notorious call out of Calvin Johnson. With Elam and Josh Evans joining vets Reggie Nelson and Major Wright, the Gators now have four starting safeties in the league.

TOP 10

Major Wright (101 tackles, 2 INT, 1 TD return, 2 forced fumbles)
Last Year: 8
This Year: 10
Started every game he was healthy for and the Bears horrible defense meant he posted a career high in tackles. He’s an unrestricted free agent and the Bears are sure to make changes so Wright may be looking for a new home. After the season, Bears GM Phil Emery spoke of his disappointment in Wright’s lack of big plays.

Janoris Jenkins (60 tackles, 1 INT, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery)
Last Year: 4
This Year: 9
The proverbial sophomore slump really tripped up Jenkins this year. He went from a ball hawking playmaker to a risk-taker who gave up big plays and didn’t come up with any. Jenkins’ issues in man-to-man coverage were hidden last year by his ability to force turnovers. This year, those flaws were on full display. He still has the potential to be very good corner but this is a big offseason for his development.

Janoris’ Instagram account is a must follow but he needs to spend more time studying film and less getting ready for the strip club.

Jordan Reed (45 rec, 499 yards, 3 TD)
Last Year: Gainesville
This Year: 8
Jordan Reed was headed for one of the best rookie seasons by a Gator ever before a concussion ended it early. Despite not cracking the starting lineup until week 7, Reed developed a chemistry with Robert Griffin III and become one of the QB’s go-to receivers. Reed’s combination of size and speed that made him so deadly at Florida translated well to the NFL and he is poised to have a long career with the possibility of becoming one of the game’s best tight ends.

Brandon Spikes (86 tackles, 1 INT, 1 fumble recovery)
Last Year: 6
This Year: 7
Spikes has established himself as one of the best run-stuffing linebackers in the NFL. According to advanced metrics, Spikes was second in the league among inside linebackers in tackle percentage on run plays. But it appears his time with the Patriots is over after Bill Belichick put him on injured reserve before the first playoff game allegedly because Spikes was late to a practice. He is a free agent who will be sought after because of his ability to play the run and be an emotional leader on a defense.

Riley Cooper (47 rec, 835 yards, 8 TD)
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: 6
Other than the former tight end who shall not be named, Riley Cooper had the worst offseason imaginable. There was pretty strong sentiment to cut the receiver who hadn’t done much in his first three seasons. But the Eagles are glad they didn’t because Cooper turned his career around with a breakout season that saw him tied for 16th in the NFL in TD catches and third in the entire league in yards per reception. His 47 catches were one more than he had in those first three seasons. The Eagles explosive offense is the right fit for Cooper’s speed and big frame but he’s a free agent. And despite his production on the field, the off-field baggage from Cooper’s idiotic slur may still doom him.

Reggie Nelson (69 tackles, 2 INT, 2 fumble recoveries, 1 sack)
Last Year: 7
This Year: 5
Expectations were probably unrealistically high for Nelson after his monster final year in Gainesville. A slow start in the NFL branded Nelson with a bust label unfairly. Yet now after four seasons in Cincinnati, Nelson is the backbone of a great defense and one of the most consistent deep defenders in the NFL.

Carlos Dunlap (62 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles)
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: 4
Though Dunlap had more sacks in his rookie campaign, this was easily his best all-around campaign. He started 15 of 16 games and notched a career-high 62 tackles. After getting a big contract from the Bengals last offseason and just now entering his prime, Dunlap seems like a big part of the core of what is a very good Cincinnati defense.

Mike Pouncey (14 starts, Pro Bowl)
Last Year: 3
This Year: 3
It was only a matter of time and this year (perhaps because of his brother’s injury), Mike Pouncey is a Pro Bowler. Pouncey missed two games but after three seasons, he’s started every game he’s been healthy for, 46 of a possible 48. Pro Football Focus rated Pouncey as the best pass protecting center in the game, which is truly amazing considering the Dolphins gave up the most sacks in the league and in franchise history. Pouncey is a better run blocker than he showed this year, perhaps hurt by the rest of the Dolphins’ offensive line issues. He has established himself as one of the game’s best centers after just three seasons and will be playing football for a long time.

Ray McDonald (50 tackles, 3.5 sacks)
Last Year: 1
This Year: 2
For the second or third consecutive season, Ray McDonald deserves a place on the NFL’s most underrated team. McDonald once again helped anchor a stout Niners’ defense despite playing most of the season with a torn biceps tendon!!! that will require surgery this offseason. Not only did he play through the pain, he put up a career high in tackles. Not many would have picked McDonald to have the most successful pro career off that dominant Gators 2006 national championship defense. But at this point, I’d say McDonald or Reggie Nelson hold that title and both have a few more years left to claim the crown.

Joe Haden (54 tackles, 4 INT, 1 TD)
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: 1
For the third straight season doing these rankings, we have a new number one. After a disappointing 2012 that featured a drug suspension, Joe Haden vowed to get his game and his life back on track. Well that’s just what he did in 2013 and he has arrived as one of the elite corners in the NFL. He made his first Pro Bowl after picking off four passes and placing third in the league in passes defended. And perhaps even more impressive is Haden’s presence in the Cleveland community, including great fan interaction like this story. Haden might be the best former Gator corner to ever play in the NFL and has a chance to be one of the best defensive players if he puts together a few more seasons like this past one.

Haden capped the season with a pick in the Pro Bowl. Here’s to many more for Joe.

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