As the 2011 NFL Season Wraps, Here are the Best Gators in the NFL

As Gators fans, it is natural to mourn the end of the college football season. But as a football fan, the true depression doesn’t kick in until all football is over… and that’s fast approaching with Sunday’s Super Bowl. The crossover between Gators and the NFL was never higher, never more relevant than this year. By far, Gators left more of an impact on this NFL season than any in history. And Sunday will once again prove the point with Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Spikes and Gerard Warren likely having a big impact for the Patriots.

I hope to begin an annual tradition here today. This is Bourbon Meyer’s inaugural rankings of Gators in the NFL. As I stated, there have never been as many Gators making such a big impact in the NFL. As with all lists, this one is subjective. Individual performance and statistics make up most of the perceived value. However, team performance factors into the rankings. Additionally, guys received a bump for exceeding their expected value prior to the season. I’ve broken down all 31 guys into a few different categories and saved my top 10 for last.

Hit me up on Twitter or in the comments section below with any feedback. Enjoy the game and try to not cry too much at the end thinking about those eight lonely months ahead.

Gotta Stay Healthy

Brandon Siler, Jermaine Cunningham
Siler tore his Achilles before the season started and Cunningham was dinged up and has never really made much noise in New England. Both will have chances to rebound. Siler has already proven he can make plays on special teams in this league. Cunningham will have to show something soon or he’’ll slide into the next category.

Headed Out of the League

Jarvis Moss (1 sack, 6 years, 6 sacks)
Gators will always have a special place in their hearts for Moss after his blocked kicks against South Carolina in 2006 and his dominating performance in the BCS title game against Ohio State. But in the NFL, plain and simple, he has been a bust. He played sparingly for the Raiders this year and it won’t be shocking if his career is over.

Derrick Harvey (5 games, 4 tackles)
A year after Moss went in the first round, another Florida pass rusher followed. Health has been an issue but this former first-round pick will have a hard time ever shaking the bust label.

Supporting Actors

Reggie Nelson (99 tackles, 4 INT, 1 TD)
It took five years but Nelson finally started playing like Reggie F’N Nelson again. He anchored a Bengals defense that was surprisingly strong this season. Nelson showed off the speed and ball hawking skills that made him a Gainesville favorite and will surely attract a lot of attention from teams this offseason. He is on the verge of becoming an excellent veteran safety.

Marcus Thomas (46 tackles)
After smoking his way out of Gainesville, Thomas took a while to get going in the NFL. This season was probably his last chance. But he delivered, playing an effective defensive tackle for the Broncos, allowing their linebackers to roam free and make plays. Thomas proved he has what it takes to play in the league.

Major Wright (10 starts, 57 tackles, 3 INT, 1 TD)
Wright cracked the Bears starting lineup this year and played well at times before injuring his shoulder late in the year. He also had some forgettable lapses in coverage, and memorably, crashed into icon Brian Urlacher, giving Bears’ fans a heart attack. He’ll need to be more consistent to last in the league.

Carlos Dunlap (23 tackles, 4.5 sacks)
Dunlap took Cincinnati by storm in the second half of his rookie campaign and ended up setting the Bengals’ rookie record for sacks. This year, he suffered a hamstring injury and a bit of sophomore slump and finished with half as many sacks. Still with 14 sacks in his first two seasons and an impressive playoff performance against the Ravens to build on (6 tkl, 0.5 sack), Dunlap is poised to become the Gators best NFL pass rusher since Alex Brown and Jevon Kearse.

Andre Caldwell (37 rec, 317 yards, 3 TD)
Caldwell has settled into a 4th receiver role with the Bengals when healthy. He works well in the slot and and can probably stick around a few more years assuming he recovers from his latest injury setback.

Riley Cooper (16 rec, 315 yards, 1 TD)
Cooper did most of his damage in a three-week stretch when Desean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin were banged up. He has shown potential to have more of an impact but needs to develop better hands.

Louis Murphy (15 rec, 241 yards)
Banged up for most of the year, Murphy never made an impact after two productive campaigns. He will surely produce more next year.

Chas Henry (66 punts, 42.9 net avg)
Henry was pedestrian punting the ball this year. Unfortunately for him, he’ll be remembered for short arming a wide open pass on a fake punt on Monday Night Football. The Eagles underachieved this year and so did Henry. We remember that cannon leg and expect bigger things from him next year.

Lifetime Achievement Awards

Mike Peterson (23 tackles, 1 INT)
The dean of the NFL Gators, Peterson just finished up his 13th season in the league. It was cut short by a torn triceps muscle, but he still showed glimpses of what has made him special in the league. Age and injuries mean his time is short but when he does finally retire, he’ll have put up one of the best careers of any Gator in the NFL. He leads all former Gators in total tackles and is fifth in interceptions. As I compiled this list, I revisited a lot of fond memories and a lot of my personal favorites. But I don’t think any players on this list were more special to me than Mike Peterson. He was my original cat and is the only guy still playing that I went to school with. Truly one of the greatest Gators ever.

Andra Davis (14 total tackles in 2011, 790 career tackles, 3rd all-time among NFL Gators)
I’m guessing there are many Gators fans who have never heard of Andra Davis, let alone knew he was still in the league. There weren’t many in Gainesville who would have predicted a 10-year NFL career for him either. He has always been one of my favorites, a quiet force in the middle for the Gators and then with the Browns for many years. He may have one or two more seasons left as a backup and special teams player but regardless, his place among the NFL Gators greats is quietly secured.

Max Starks (started 11 games for Steelers)
When healthy, Starks has been a constant face on the Steelers offensive line for the past eight seasons. He has two Super Bowl rings, ranking behind only Emmitt Smith as far as former Gators go. He isn’t the most mobile on the outside but uses his strength and size to keep rushers away from Ben Roethlisberger.

Cooper Carlisle (started all 16 games for Raiders, 117 career starts is 8th most for any offensive NFL Gator)
Carlisle has been a regular starter in the league since 2005, starting 111 of a possible 112 games since then. He has established himself as a solid choice on the interior line and helped the Raiders rushing attack to over 2110 yards this year, 7th in the league.

Earnest Graham (206 rush yards, 26 rec, 163 rec yards)
Graham finished his 8th pro year early due to torn Achilles tendon. Before the injury, though, he was putting together another solid campaign as a backup RB and third down back. Graham has averaged five yards per carry or more in half of his professional seasons. He has always been a great receiver out of the backfield. In the 2007 season, he rushed for almost 900 yards and caught 49 passes. But for some reason, the Bucs have continually looked to other backs and taken for granted what Graham brings. He is a free agent and age and injuries surely mean his best days are behind him. But I’m rooting for Graham to finish his career on his own terms.

Rex Grossman (3151 yards, 16 TD, 20 INT, 72.4 rtg)
It was more of the same in 2011 for the Rex Cannon. Sexy Rexy had some amazing moments – 305 and 2 TD to beat the Giants, 314 and 2 TD to win at Seattle – followed by moments where he looked like the worst QB in the league – 4 picks against Philly, 2 against Miami. He’s the same high-risk, high-reward guy that helped the Bears to the Super Bowl. It isn’t likely that he’ll be a long-term starter in the league anymore but he’ll hang around for a few more years as a backup.

Lito Sheppard (43 tackles, 1 sack)
Sheppard entered the NFL as one of the best cornerbacks ever to wear Orange and Blue. He lived up to the hype early with All-Pro status in his third season. But by his sixth year in Philadelphia, Sheppard had lost a few steps and was done as an elite corner. Now mostly a nickel player, Sheppard can still be effective in the right schemes.

Gerard Warren (11 games, 15 tackles, 1 sack)
Do you remember? Big Money was the third overall pick in the draft back in 2001. That was just one of many terrible mistakes the Browns made in a lost decade. But Warren has persevered and found a way to stay in the league for the long haul. The past couple of seasons, he has been a part of the Patriots’ defensive line rotation. Warren has had some nice pressure and made a few plays this postseason and will continue to be a rotational guy in the next couple of years.

10 (tie) – Jeremy Mincey (57 tackles, 8 sacks, 1 INT)
Mincey easily could have been in double digits with sacks this year. He was the Jaguars’ top pass rusher and graded out as one of the top defensive ends in the league. It took a while for Mincey to become a consistent force in the NFL but as he enters the free agent market, someone will pay a premium for an up-and-coming DE.

10 (tie) – David Nelson – 61 rec, 658 yards, 5 TD
After being passed over in the 2010 NFL draft, Nelson’s chances of making the NFL were slim. He signed as a free agent in Buffalo and surprisingly made the team. After a modest rookie campaign in which he showed potential, Nelson really emerged this year. He was the Bills’ second leading receiver and a real force in the red zone. Nelson will always be fondly remembered by Gators fans for his TD catches in the SEC and BCS championship games in 2008. Amazingly, the numbers he posted this past year surpassed his entire production in four years at Florida. Going forward, Nelson is poised to carve out a nice niche as a 3rd receiver and a force on third downs and in the red zone.

9 – Tim Tebow (1729 pass yards, 660 rush yards, 18 total TD, 6 INT, 72.9 rtg)
Not sure what else can be said. Although I was watching SportsCenter earlier today and Tebow was being interviewed at the Super Bowl (of course he was). Tim was talking about dealing with adversity and haters in college and in high school and it confused the hell out of me. See, I thought Tebow walked on water the minute he arrived on campus. He was beloved. He won the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore! Where was the criticism and haters? Anyway, many people will wonder why he is not higher on this list. He was the biggest sports story of the year but I can’t put him over any of the next 8 guys. A low completion percentage and 20 turnovers mean he has a lot of room for growth. In the right offense, he can make strides. Let’s hope he does.

8 – Mike Pouncey (started all 16 games)
Thinking back to some of those horrendous snaps in the 2010 Florida season, it was hard for many of us to imagine Pouncey as an NFL center. But Pouncey has never looked back after those early struggles. He was a rock on Miami’s offensive line this year, turning Reggie Bush from a scat back into a workhorse. Pouncey will team with Jake Long to give the Dolphins a physical, dominating offensive line for years.

7 – Jabar Gaffney (68 rec, 947 yards, 5 TD)
It is rare for a 10th year receiver to be a breakout star but Gaffney set career highs across the board while teaming with former Gator teammate Rex Grossman in Washington this year. Gaffney benefited from his chemistry with Grossman and injuries to some of the Redskins other targets to almost eclipse the 1,000 yard mark. And as a member of my championship winning fantasy football team, I can attest to remarkable consistency throughout the year. Gaffney doesn’t have the speed or size to be a #1 receiver but he has settled nicely into the #2/#3 role. With a few more healthy years, he has a chance to finish as the second most prolific NFL Gator receiver of all time.

6 – Joe Haden (65 tackles, 19 passes defended)
Haden was sixth in the league in passes defended and despite not picking a ball off, established himself as one of the game’s premier young corners. He had six interceptions in his rookie campaign and has to return to forcing turnovers to take the next leap and become a Pro Bowler. Despite the dip in INTs, Haden was a better player this year. His reputation is already enough to make opposing offenses adjust their game plans away from his side of the field.

5 – Brandon Spikes (8 games, 56 tackles)
Injuries kept Spikes out of action for a good chunk of the 2011 season, but when he did see the field, he proved his value to the Patriots. Spikes has earned a reputation for being one of the most physical linebackers against the run in the entire league. His athleticism was on display against the Ravens in the AFC championship game when he made a one-handed pick of a Joe Flacco pass. The week before, he sacked Tebow and recovered a fumble. Spikes is clearly a rising star in the league and could make a national name for himself with a big play in the Super Bowl.

4 – Maurkice Pouncey (started all 30 games of his career)
Two-time Pro Bowler and first-team All Pro this year. Pouncey is now recognized as the best center in football. It could be said he is the heart and soul of the Steelers offense. Without him, they lost the Super Bowl last year and their first playoff game this year. For the second consecutive year, he suffered an injury that kept him out of the team’s final game. So expect that to be used as motivation to push him to further heights.

3 – Ray McDonald (43 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 3 forced fumbles)
McDonald was the heart and soul of the Gators 2006 championship defense and this year, he finally emerged as a true force in the NFL. He was a part of what might have been the most fearsome defensive line in the league. His coming out party, though, was saved for the biggest stage. The Niners may have lost to the Giants in the NFC championship game but it wasn’t without the game of Ray’s life. He had 5 tackles and 2.5 sacks and almost buried Eli Manning. The stage is set for McDonald to be an aggressive force along the DL in San Francisco for a while.

2 – Percy Harvin (87 rec, 1312 yards from scrimmage, 9 total TD)
Many of us thought Harvin was the most talented Gator to ever wear the Orange and Blue. His performance in his first three professional years hasn’t changed that belief for me. Harvin is arguably the most electric, versatile player in the league. Just like in Gainesville, he is threat to take it to the house every time he rushes, receives or returns the ball. Harvin finally played in all 16 games for the first time, although he was still hobbled at various points throughout the season. All that is keeping him out of the Pro Bowl is health.

1 – Aaron Hernandez (79 rec, 910 yards, 7 TD)
Many of us thought Hernandez was the second most talented player in those immortal Gators teams with Harvin and Tebow. Ironically, Hernandez was overshadowed in college and is again in the pros thanks to the Patriots other superhuman tight end. Still, Hernandez has proven he is one of the elite tight ends in the game and would surely catch 100 balls for 1,300 yards and 10 TD on any other team in the league. Every Florida fan has the shovel pass to Hernandez etched in his brain and while the Pats aren’t using that, they are using him in the backfield this postseason (70 yards rushing so far). Hernandez gets the slight edge over Harvin because of team success this year. With Gronk hurting, Hernandez is a sneaky MVP play at 16-1.

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