4th Annual Gators in the NFL Rankings

Every year, I put together this completely subjective account of all the former Gators in the National Football League. I spend the two weeks between the conference championships and the Super Bowl researching and writing this thing, but despite the time it takes, it is the most fun I have writing something all year. If you are a Gators fan but not a huge NFL person, it is a fun stroll down memory lane catching up with old friends. And even if you are a big NFL fan like I am, it is still enlightening to see the numbers of former Gators compared.

It’s not a news flash that the quality of football in Gainesville has been on the downslide for four or five years. And given the dearth of success in the Swamp, it shouldn’t be surprising the NFL has seen a downtick in former Gators success too. I’ve been doing this column for four years now (2013, 2012, 2011), long enough to remember when we actually wrote things for this website rather than just spamming up your twitter feed begging for retweets and hocking t-shirts. Back in 2011, there were 52 former Gators in the league. This year, there were 43.

2014 was a tough year for former Gators. Many that looked like they might find a way back on the field didn’t even make it on a roster. Rex Grossman was a final roster cut by the Browns. They invited him back to start the final game of the season after losing Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel but Sexy Rexy appears to have holstered his gun for good. Max Starks also called it quits, officially retiring after the Cardinals cut him in camp. Maurice Hurt was one of the final roster cuts by Washington in the preseason. Ahmad Black never even made it to training camp.

Even sadder are the Gators who have disappointed so much off the field that it is hard to see any NFL team asking for their services again. We’ll get to those guys in a minute.

Last year was the first year I took a look at what an all-Gators starting lineup would look like. It was decent.. If I had done it, it would have looked better in 2012 and even better still in 2011. This year is easily the worst looking bunch.

QB – None
RB – Trey Burton (I guess?)
WR – Percy Harvin, Riley Cooper, Louis Murphy
TE – Jordan Reed
OL – Maurkice Pouncey, Mike Pouncey, Marcus Gilbert, Jonatthan Harrison, Xavier Nixon
DL – Carlos Dunlap, Jeremy Mincey, Jaye Howard, Shariff Floyd
LB – Jelani Jenkins, Brandon Spikes, Jon Bostic
CB – Joe Haden, Janoris Jenkins
S – Will Hill, Matt Elam
K – Caleb Sturgis
P – None
KR – Frankie Hammond Jr.

That defense isn’t bad but the offense… who boy!

Now, on to the rankings…

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

Ray McDonald
Stats: 39 tackles, 3 sacks
Last Year: 2
This Year: Done
Despite being only 30 and one of the most consistent and productive members of the 49ers defense over the past few years, McDonald’s career is over due to off-the-field issues. The charges in the first case were dropped and no arrest or charges have been made in the second incident as of yet. Still, the fact that McDonald put himself in any sort of situation that might warrant this kind of attention is disturbing. It is hard to imagine a NFL team risking the public relations nightmare that would come from signing him.

Chris Rainey
Last Year: Headed Out of the League
This Year: Done
According to a report in August, Colts head coach Chuck Pagano liked what he saw from Rainey and was ready to utilitze the former Gators speedster as a kick returner. But during the first week of training camp, the Colts cut Rainey after an undisclosed incident in which Rainey tweeted he messed around with a fire extinguisher. The Colts backfield was a mess all year and the guy Rainey was fighting in camp for a roster spot, Boom Herron, made a name for himself in the postseason. Rainey’s last chance was his best and he blew it. The Cardinals signed him to their practice squad but cut him soon after. Rainey’s past domestic violence issues mean he won’t ever play in the league again.

Jermaine Cunningham
Last Year: Headed Out of the League
This Year: Done
Cunningham tore his ACL in a scrimmage before the preseason slate even began. He has now been on more rosters (3) than fields for actual games (2) in the past two seasons. A few weeks ago, he was arrested and now after some very disturbing charges, the former second-round pick is headed out of the league as a bust. And he might be headed to jail.

HEADED OUT OF THE LEAGUE

Deonte Thompson
Stats: 1 G
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: Headed Out of the League
Thompson appeared to have secured a role with Ravens after scoring touchdowns in three straight preseason games. But he could never get over the hump, was inactive for two games and then cut. The Ravens still saw something because they re-signed him to the practice squad at a payrate higher than usual. Late in the season, the Bills signed him to their active roster and he finally was active for a game but delivered no stats. Given how erratic Thompson was at Florida, the fact that he stayed in the NFL this long is a miracle. His run might be over though.

Xavier Nixon
Stats: 4 G, 1 start
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: Headed Out of the League
Nixon was an undrafted free agent facing long odds in 2013. Despite that, he found a way to impress the Colts, earn some playing time and an invite for the 2014 training camp. The Colts had many issues along the offensive line but Nixon wasn’t the solution. He’s still young and will have one more chance to make an impression and find a place in the league.

Jeff Demps
Last Year: Headed Out of the League
This Year: Headed Out of the League
Demps has been tantalizing football coaches with his blazing speed since Pop Warner. After an offseason enticing new Bucs coach Lovie Smith, Demps ultimately was one of the Bucs’ last cuts before the regular season. He spent half the season on the Colts practice squad but was never called up to the 53-man. The Colts have signed him to a futures contract meaning they still see potential but you have to imagine this is the last offseason Demps will have a chance to figure it out and make a NFL career.

Jon Halapio
Last Year: Gainesville
This Year: Headed Out of the League
Halapio did not make the Patriots roster as a sixth round pick. Perseverance paid off in December when the Broncos signed him to their practice squad. Given that he didn’t play a snap this year, it is tough to rank him anywhere but here. That said, you can’t doubt someone with the toughness and grit of Halapio. He‘ll have a chance to make a team next year.

Justin Trattou
Stats: 4 G, 2 tackles, 2 kick returns, 19 yards
Last Year: Headed Out of the League
This Year: Headed Out of the League
Trattou had more of an opportunity this year with the Vikings than he has ever had in the NFL. He played some on special teams and had a late crack as a rotational defensive end. The Vikings seem to think he has the ability to be a full-time backup and will give him that chance this offseason.

Loucheiz Purifoy
Stats: 11 G, 5 tackles
Last Year: Gainesville
This Year: Headed Out of the League
Purifoy’s decision to leave Florida early has not paid off. He went undrafted, had an uphill battle to make the Colts and then after showing flashes of promise was cut by them after a reported string of off-field incidents. The Seahawks attempted to sign him but he failed his physical. So instead of potentially playing in Sunday’s Super Bowl, Purifoy is looking for a team to give him yet another chance.

David Nelson
Stats: 6 G, 8 rec, 65 yds
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: Headed Out of the League
Nelson began the year as a starter and ended it without a job. Such is life in the NFL. Nelson’s first two seasons in the league resulted in 92 catches for over a thousand yards and eight touchdowns. But since tearing his ACL in 2012, Nelson hasn’t been able to sustain any success. He was cut after six games when the Jets traded for Percy Harvin. Gator on Gator crime has never hurt that bad. But regardless of whether Nelson can find his way back to the league next year, he’s a star with his off-the-field work supporting orphans in Haiti.

GOTTA STAY HEALTHY

Dominique Easley
Stats: 11 G, 2 starts, 9 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT
Last Year: Gainesville
This Year: Gotta Stay Healthy
Easley has the natural ability to be one of the best defensive linemen in football. The question is will his knees allow him to reach that vast potential. We all remember the torn ACL he suffered in practice in 2013. He tore the ACL in his other knee two years earlier. Given the history, it wasn’t surprising the Patriots shut him down early this year after constant knee soreness. They invested a first-round pick and want to make sure that investment pays off. It goes without saying that next year is huge for Easley. He’ll be two years removed from the most recent surgery and hopefully the pain will go away.

Mike Gillislee
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: Gotta Stay Healthy
Gillislee was hurt in the preseason and landed on injured reserve, missing the entire season. It was a bad break as the Dolphins had some injuries in the backfield and he may have had a chance to backup Lamar Miller. Gillislee is a long shot at this point to make a roster next year, let alone to ever make an impact in the league.

ROLE PLAYERS

Jaylen Watkins
Stats: 4 G, 3 tackles, 1 pass defended
Last Year: Gainesville
This Year: Role Player
After making his mark as a corner at Florida, Watkins future in the NFL might be at safety. His only action on defense was in the Eagles finale after they were eliminated from playoff contention so he has an important offseason ahead if he has hopes of becoming a regular.

Ronald Powell
Stats: 14 G, 2 tackles
Last Year: Gainesville
This Year: Role Player
Powell was a key contributor on special teams but played only four snaps on defense all year. The Saints will give him a chance to see if he can ever regain the explosiveness we saw pre-ACL injury.

Marcus Roberson
Stats: 10 tackles, 1 INT
Last Year: Gainesville
This Year: Role Player
Just making a roster as an undrafted free agent is an accomplishment. Roberson did that and then played mostly special teams for nine games. He finally received an opportunity in the season finale to play defense and delivered with four tackles and a pick for the Rams. He’ll have a chance heading into training camp to prove his worth.

Solomon Patton
Stats: 10 punt returns, 11.2 avg, 18 kick returns, 23.1 avg, 1 rush, 19 yards
Last Year: Gainesville
This Year: Role Player
An undrafted free agent, Patton surprisingly made the Buccaneers roster to start the season and did a good job returning kicks. Despite that, he was cut midway through the season, joined the Cardinals’ practice squad for a while, before ending up back with the Bucs. After the ups and downs of his rookie campaign, Solo will be have a chance to stick somewhere as a returner next year.

Frankie Hammond Jr.
Stats: 3 starts, 4 rec, 45 yds, 15 punt returns, 13.3 avg, 2 kickoff returns, 37.0 avg
Last Year: Headed Out of the League
This Year: Role Player
So “Hot Light” Hammond and Deonte Thompson can return kicks in the NFL but Brandon James couldn’t? Baffling. Hammond tied for first in punt return average among players with at least 15 returns and in limited duty flashed potential on kickoffs too. He even started three games at receiver for the team with the worst wideout corps in the league.

Bubba Caldwell
Stats: 5 rec, 47 yards, 12 kickoff returns, 23.2 avg
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: Role Player
Caldwell is at a crossroads this offseason. He just finished his seventh season in the league and turns 30. The Broncos have a new coach and may have a new quarterback. Caldwell was the Broncos fourth receiver and one of its kick returners, but you have to wonder if he’s part of their plans for 2015.

Lerentee McCray
Stats: 13 G, 8 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble
Last Year: Gotta Stay Healthy
This Year: Role Player
McCray was an undrafted free agent who was hurt before the 2013 season and did not play a down. The odds of him making the Broncos roster this season were long. But he made the team as Von Miller’s backup and played on special teams. In the Broncos playoff loss, he had two tackles. McCray will have to continue to work hard to stick but he’s shown he’s capable of surprising.

Caleb Sturgis
Stats: FG 29/37, 78.4%, 128 points
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: Role Player
We miss him dearly in Gainesville but as a Dolphins fan, I can honestly say that Sturgis makes me nervous. Inside of 40 yards, he is one of the best kickers in football. Simply automatic. But on kicks over 40, Sturgis is not NFL-caliber. The Dolphins will certainly bring in a kicker to challenge him in training camp, and he simply must improve from long range.

Jonathan Bostic
Stats: 83 tackles
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: Role Player
Bostic only played in 13 games, starting eight, but still improved his tackle numbers from his rookie campaign, finishing second on the team. At the same time, he still struggles at the point of attack, something crucial for a middle linebacker. New coach John Fox may move to a 3-4 alignment, which could help Bostic but he’ll have to improve his consistency.

Josh Evans
Stats: 90 tackles, 2 fumble recoveries
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: Role Player
Evans racked up a lot of tackles for the Jaguars this year but should have had more – he led the team with 19 missed tackles. For a safety who doesn’t force turnovers, missed tackles can’t happen. The Jags will be looking to upgrade their secondary and Evans’ playing time next season is in jeopardy.

Major Wright
Stats: 51 tackles
Last Year: 10
This Year: Role Player
Wright only played in 12 games with the Bucs before ending the season on injured reserve. He isn’t much of a playmaker as he didn’t force a turnover and had only one pass defended. But he is a hard hitting safety that should still find a way to play in the league for a few more years.

Jonotthan Harrison
Stats: 15 G, 10 starts
Last Year: Gainesville
This Year: Role Player
An undrafted rookie, Harrison started 10 games and played in 15 on a line charged with protecting one of the NFL’s superstars in Andrew Luck. Yes Harrison struggled, and yes he was benched at the end of the year, but he showed enough potential to warrant consideration as a backup offensive lineman for years to come.

Riley Cooper
Stats: 55 rec, 577 yards, 3 TD
Last Year: 6
This Year: Role Player
Cooper’s emergence in 2013 was a bit of fool’s gold inflated by a five-game stretch where he and Nick Foles just clicked. That led to a five-year contract extension with the Eagles and even higher expectations for 2014. Well, Cooper caught more balls this past season but his other numbers were down substantially. In reality, he wasn’t very good, ranking near the bottom of wide receivers by Pro Football Focus. Lots of drops, including a crucial one in a loss to the 49ers, really hurt his team. Cooper’s days as a #2 are done but he’ll probably hang on in the league for a few more seasons as a third and fourth receiver.

Matt Elam
Stats: 52 tackles, 0.5 sack, 1 forced fumble
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: Role Player
During the Ravens-Patriots game, I tweeted that never in a million years would I have thought Will Hill would be a better pro than Elam. But that’s what happened this year. Elam lost his starting spot to Hill and when you watched the Ravens, it was Hill who impressed you. Elam was such a tremendous tackler at Florida that it was shocking to see him miss a tackle in that Patriots game on Danny Amendola. A move back to Elam’s natural free safety position this year didn’t help and he finished the season as a nickel guy. Reggie Nelson looked lost in his first few years in the league, too, so there’s hope that Elam can turn this thing around and become the type of player we all thought he would be.

Will Hill
Stats: 8 starts, 47 tackles, 1 INT, 1 TD return
Last Year: Unranked
This Year: Role Player
OK folks, are you paying attention? Because nobody called me on my Will Hill omission last season even though he played well for the Giants at times. I’ll blame my editor. Anyway, this season Hill moved to the Ravens and ended up starting eight of the 10 games he played after serving a six-game suspension for a failed drug test. It was perhaps Hill’s best stretch of football since high school, given the ups and downs we saw in Gainesville and the erratic play so far in the NFL. Unfortunately as has been the case Hill’s entire career, success is fleeting. He was arrested this offseason and all the good work he put in becoming a solid presence with Baltimore is in jeopardy once again. Despite his legal troubles, Hill’s play in the regular season and in the postseason when he had six tackles and two passes defended to solidify a shaky Ravens secondary should mean he’ll have a role with them once again next season.

Jaye Howard
Stats: 10 starts, 36 tackles, 1 sack
Last Year: Headed Out of the League
This Year: Role Player
Who can make sense of the NFL? Howard seemed like a decent prospect coming out of Florida, ended up on a team with his collegiate defensive coordinator and did nothing. He moved to the Chiefs in 2013 and was similarly ineffective. Then all of sudden, the light went on and 2014 was a nice surprise for the defensive tackle. The Chiefs have an excellent defense and Howard was an important piece.

Marcus Gilbert
Stats: 12 games, 12 starts
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: Role Player
The Steelers believe in Gilbert. He signed a six-year contract extension before the season began, and then after a slow start in which he gave up two sacks in each of the first two games, he rewarded their faith with a pretty good season. He’s an anchor at right tackle on a line that leads the way for one of the best young backs in the game (LeVeon Bell) and a 4,000-yard passer (Roethlisberger). He has to be more consistent and durable, having played all 16 only once so far in his four-year career.

Trey Burton
Stats: 7 tackles, blocked punt, TD
Last Year: Gainesville
This Year: Role Player
Just like in Gainesville, Trey Burton wasted little time showing the Eagles his versatility. The undrafted free agent earned instant playing time on special teams where he made a huge impact. He blocked a punt that a teammate scooped and scored on. Later in the season, he picked up a blocked punt and returned it for a TD. Pro Football Focus named him a first team All-NFL special teamer and the Pro Football Writers’ Association named him to its All-Rookie team. Burton only played 15 snaps on offense but if he remains a force on special teams, he’ll have a place in the league for a long time.

Louis Murphy
Stats: 11 G, 31 rec, 380 yards, 2 TD
Last Year: Headed Out of the League
This Year: Role Player
A nice rebound season for Murphy almost didn’t happen. He was cut by the Bucs right before the season started but got a call a few weeks later and didn’t let the opportunity pass. In his first game with Tampa, Murphy went wild with six catches for 99 yards in a huge upset of the Steelers. He found a role as a third receiver and rewarded the Bucs for sticking with him. They in turn rewarded him with a three-year contract extension in December.

Sharrif Floyd
Stats: 14 G, 11 starts, 42 tackles, 4.5 sacks
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: Role Player
Floyd had a very good sophomore campaign under the tutelage of defensive wizard Mike Zimmer, the Vikings head boss this season. Floyd really hit a stride in the middle of the season and was becoming one of the best young defensive tackles in football before hurting his knee in practice. After returning, he eventually regained his midseason form and finished the season strong. We know how talented he is and it will be surprising if he doesn’t develop into a Pro Bowl caliber presence on the Vikings line.

Mike Pouncey
Stats: 12 starts
Last Year: 3
This Year: Role Player
Mike Pouncey’s season is hard to dissect. He had hip surgery that delayed the start of it and then moved to guard so the Dolphins could put their five best linemen on the field at the same time. He helped the Dolphins rushing attack to the second best yards per rush mark in the league. At the same time, the line struggled in pass protection. Pouncey was up and down, ranking 69th among all guards by Pro Football Focus. On the flip side, he was named to the Pro Bowl. Still it was a down year by his standards and that’s why I rated him just outside the top 10. A move back to center and a healthy offseason will be big for his 2015 prospects.

TOP 10

Jordan Reed
Stats: 50 rec, 465 yds
Last Year: 8
This Year: 10
After an injury-plagued rookie campaign, Reed once again missed significant time, only playing in 11 games this year. In two seasons, he’s mimicked his infamous quarterback in Washington with an inability to stay healthy. Still, Reed has shown the ability to be a matchup nightmare and can become one of the premier tight ends in the game. His future is bright but he needs a full season in 2015 to prove it.

Brandon Spikes
Stats: 54 tackles, 1 sack, 3 passes defended, 1 forced fumble
Last Year: 7
This Year: 9
At this point in his career, Spikes is what he is. A stout, run-stopping inside linebacker who will be exposed in pass coverage. He played less than 50% of the snaps in Buffalo this past season because of that but still racked up impressive tackle totals and helped make the Bills one of the toughest defenses in the league. He’s a free agent and will have plenty of suitors including Rex Ryan, the Bills new coach. He fits the mode of a tough, physical presence that Ryan’s defenses are known. He is already in the top 15 for former Gators in tackles and should have quite a few years left to climb those rankings.

Percy Harvin
Stats: 13 G, 51 rec, 483 yds, 1 TD, 11 rush, 92 yds, 1 TD, 32 KO returns, 24.3 avg
Last Year: Gotta Stay Healthy
This Year: 8
Hours after this column came out last year, Harvin took a kickoff back for a touchdown and sealed the Seahawks Super Bowl victory. He also was the Seahawks leading rusher in the game and caught a pass. In a game with contributions across the board, Harvin was a viable contender for MVP honors. It will be interesting to see if they miss him this Sunday (they will, they don‘t have any playmakers at receiver and their return game isn‘t good). Did you know that Harvin has played in three championships dating back to 2007’s Florida-Ohio State game and is 3-0? He scored a touchdown in each game with a combined 189 rushing yards and an average of 130 all-purpose yards per game. On the flip side, he has now played for three NFL teams in three years. He is ninth all-time in NFL history in kickoff return average and one of the most electric players in the game but also someone that has struggled to find his place and to stay healthy.

Jeremy Mincey
Stats: 46 tackles, 6 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: 7
Few players were bigger surprises in the NFL this year than Jeremy Mincey. The Cowboys defense was predicted to be one of the worst entering the season with big questions rushing the passer. But they found a gem in Mincey, who turned in arguably his finest season in year seven. As good as he was in the regular season, Mincey was a man possessed in the postseason. He racked up nine tackles in two games and had a sack in both as well. Pro Football Focus called him the best defensive end in the playoffs. He quickly became a locker room leader in Dallas and figures to have found a home after playing with three teams in two seasons.

Carlos Dunlap
Stats: 66 tackles, 8 sacks, 5 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles
Last Year: 4
This Year: 6
Dunlap’s production is nice but it continues to fall short of his immense potential. You watch him at times and it seems like a 15+ sack season is easily within reach. And yet in some games, he’s a complete non factor. Perhaps he’ll find that extra gear one of these years. He already has 35.5 sacks in his career, 9th all-time among former Gators.

Janoris Jenkins
Stats: 59 tackles, 2 INT, 2 TD (99-yard return), 5 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles
Last Year: 9
This Year: 5
Plain and simple, Jenkins is a pick-six machine. Two more this year, five now in his three-year career. Throw in a fumble return TD and he’s scored six defensive TDs in three seasons. That’s more than any player in the NFL over that span. At the same time, Jenkins gives up just as many big plays with lapses that kill the Rams. He’s feast or famine on a grand scale. He was a Pro Bowl alternate this year but didn’t make the team in the end. He was also part of the troll moment of year when Jeff Fisher sent all the Rams acquired in the RGIII trade out as captains against Washington.

Jelani Jenkins
Stats: 15 G, 110 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
Last Year: Role Player
This Year: 4
Mincey was probably the biggest surprise among former Gators this season but Jenkins was a close second. He started the season as a backup in Miami but injuries struck, he was thrust into the starting role and he tackled everything in sight. He finished with 110 tackles in 15 games, 93 more than he logged in his rookie campaign. You have to take advantage of opportunities when presented. Jenkins did that and now he’s looking at establishing himself as a longtime starter in the NFL.

Reggie Nelson
Stats: 99 tackles, 4 INT, 1.5 sacks, 12 passes defended
Last Year: 5
This Year: 3
“Reggie ‘F-ing’ Nelson”. “The Eraser”. I don’t know why I don’t put Nelson at the top of these rankings every year because frankly he’s the former Gator I love watching the most. He is the dean of the Bengals defense and has been the best player on it for four seasons running now. The fact that Nelson has yet to make a Pro Bowl is ridiculous. His 22 career picks is fifth all-time among Gators and he’s within striking distance of the top spot if he can play 3-4 more years.

Joe Haden
Stats: 73 tackles, 3 INT, 20 passes defended
Last Year: 1
This Year: 2
Remember when Joe Haden arrived on campus in Gainesville? If you don’t, that’s OK. The class was headlined by Gatorade National Player of the Year John Brantley (LOL) and the ‘Lakeland 7’. Haden was a great high school quarterback and one of the best athletes in the country but had never really played cornerback. Yet he became the first true freshman to start at corner in the season opener in Florida football history. The legend was born and has grown beyond all realistic expectations. The seventh overall pick in the 2010 draft, Haden is one of the best corners in the NFL. As impressive as Haden’s performance on the field was this year (he finished second in the league with 20 passes defended), he was even more impressive off it, becoming the first NFL player ever to be a global ambassador for the Special Olympics. Haden has to rank near the top of any list of former Gators that make Gator Nation proud.

Maurkice Pouncey
Stats: 16 starts
Last Year: Gotta Stay Healthy
This Year: 1
Hard to argue with All-Pro status. Maurkice is the only current Gator to earn that and has now done it twice in four years,. He’s also made four Pro Bowls in all four seasons in which he has played more than nine snaps. He is the pre-eminent center in the NFL and one of the most respected offensive linemen in the game today. This was his finest season and the fact that he is getting better is incredible. Who would have pegged him as the most likely to succeed off those loaded Gators teams?

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