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Florida Gators in the NFL, Weeks 11 and 12: Ups and downs as the holidays loom

Gator Nation’s NFL diaspora may have suffered through a season with plenty of coal — but there has been much to be grateful for, too.

New York Giants v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Week 11

As always around Thanksgiving, it’s good practice to slow things down and remember what’s good in life. Family, friends, and health hopefully always top the list. But what about sports?

We often give the games played by collegians and professionals an oversized presence in our personal happiness and as silly as that is, it’s also understandable. Upon arriving in Gainesville, I discovered what being a part of Gator Nation meant. In the best of times, sports bring us together. It shows the values of hard work, perseverance, and teamwork - things we frankly lose sight of too often in society.

When things are going great, as they were for Florida football one year ago, there is a sense of pride. Rocking the sweatshirt while grabbing coffee, you stand a little taller in line knowing you’re part of something bigger.

On the flip side, there’s the current state of the program. The Gators seem about as close to the bottom as they have ever been in modern times - since 1990 and the Head Ball Coach’s return home.

In the National Football League, things haven’t gone much better for the Gators in 2021. Injuries have decimated the ranks. Bad teams with bad coaching or bad systems have stifled the growth of young potential stars.

That said, in the spirit of the season, I added some optimistic notes regarding each current Gator in the league with their weekly stats below. Every player, regardless of performance, playing time, or roster status, has something to be thankful for.

Player of the Week

Kadarius Toney returns after a week that was only 30% as productive as it could have been. First, imagine if the Bucs hadn’t tackled Darius Slayton on Toney’s 55-yard missile.

Next, imagine if the Giants demanded their most electric weapon get as many touches in as many ways as possible.

After nine targets in his previous three games, Toney had the ball thrown his way 12 times last week. As I note below, expect more of this going forward.

Play of the Week

A.J. Terrell is a terrific young cornerback. He’s got an even brighter future ahead of him.

But I’m pretty sure his life flashed before his eyes as he saw big Trent Brown pull and head his way.

Here are all of the Week 11 stats (ranked and tiered in order of performance):

The Good

Kadarius Toney, NYG, WR: 7 rec, 40 yds, 0/1 passing, 35 snaps (60%)

The firing of Giants’ offensive coordinator Jason Garrett might be the best thing to happen to Toney’s rookie season.

Evan McPherson, CIN, K: 4/4 FG, including 51, 53, and 54 yarders, 2/3 XP, first missed XP of season

McPherson nailed a game-winning field goal in his first NFL game. He hit another one three weeks later. This past week, he drilled three field goals from over 50. After that memorably ugly hiccup against the Packers, McPherson has made 10 straight field goals.

Trent Brown, NE, RT: 62 snaps (97%)

Brown has returned from an ankle injury that caused him to miss eight weeks with a vengeance. He’s mauling people in the run game and contributing to the Patriots’ resurgence in the AFC.

Dante Fowler, Jr., ATL, OLB: 5 tackles, 0.5 sack, 1 QB hit, 38 snaps (59%)

Fowler also just returned from injured reserve and made an impact right away. He’s still not the sack artist we all thought he could be, but he’s up to 33.0 sacks in his career and should finish 2021 by moving into the top 10 among all former Gators.

Alex Anzalone, DET, LB: 7 tackles, 2 passes defended, 74 snaps (100%)

No one on this list plays harder than Anzalone, who leads all former Gators in tackles this season. After battling injuries throughout his time in Gainesville, it’s inspiring to see him in his fifth season in the NFL.

D.J. Humphries, ARI, LT: 83 snaps (100%)

Humphries battled injuries early in his career which contributed to uneven performances on the field. Since 2019, he’s started every game, becoming one of the leaders for a surprising Cardinals team, and keep Kyler Murray’s blindside safe.

Keanu Neal, DAL, LB: 7 tackles, 68 snaps (100%)

Neal had his best game of the season last week. Perhaps not coincidentally, he played every snap on defense for the first time all year.

Kyle Pitts, ATL, TE: 3 rec, 29 yds, 44 snaps (81%)

“Everything is a problem. This guy, I thought last year in the draft, just watching him, he’s phenomenal. He’s big. He’s fast. He’s got great hands and adjusts to the ball. Makes tough catches. Savvy route-runner, can get open. Very hard to match up against. I was reading through some of the Atlanta comments and you hear them comparing him to a cross between Tony Gonzalez and Julio Jones, and I’d say that’s about right. That’s what it looks like. This guy is one of the superstars of the NFL already.”

If Bill Belichick is talking about someone like that, that someone might be special.

Tommy Townsend, KC, P: 3 punts, 55.3 Avg

Townsend leads the league in net punting (45.9) and has the best ratio of kicks inside the 20 to touchbacks (15:1). Barring a collapse down the stretch, he should be headed to his first Pro Bowl.

Max Garcia, ARI, C: 72 snaps (87%)

In his seventh season now, Garcia has found a home alongside Humphries with the Cardinals. Versatile as a center and a guard, he’s clearly one of Arizona’s top five options in front of Murray.

Jawaan Taylor, JAX, RT: 46 snaps (100%)

Taylor is an excellent run blocker who is consistently underrated. He’s now started all 42 games since entering the league — and, more amazingly, he’s never even missed a snap, playing 2,769 in a row.

Marco Wilson, ARI, CB: 1 tackle, 2 passes defended, 47 snaps (96%)

Wilson is one of the bigger recent surprises. The fourth-round pick has started 10 games in the desert and is fifth on the team in tackles and second in passes defended.

The Limited

Jonathan Bullard, ATL, DL: 5 tackles, 21 snaps (33%)

Continues to find a role as a rotation player along the defensive line.

Freddie Swain, SEA, WR: 1 target, 0 catches, 20 OFF snaps (41%), 2 punt returns, 9 yards, 9 ST snaps (33%)

Hasn’t had a catch since Week 7 — but Russ has to be getting healthier, right?

Lerentee McCray, JAX, OLB: 2 tackles, 1 TFL, 11 DEF snaps (16%), 21 ST snaps (91%)

Special teams ace recorded his fourth career tackle for loss last week.

Carlos Dunlap, SEA, DE: 3 tackles, 17 snaps (20%)

Suffering through the worst season of his career, Dunlap can look back upon 88 career sacks that rank him fourth all-time among former Gators — behind only Hall of Famer Jack Youngblood and legends Trace Armstrong and Kevin Carter.

Marcell Harris, SF, S: 3 tackles, 7 DEF snaps (15%), 16 ST snaps (70%)

The former sixth-round pick has put together a fourth consecutive season as a role player on the Niners defense.

C.J. Henderson, CAR, CB: 2 tackles, 17 DEF snaps (25%), 3 ST snaps (12%)

New life in Charlotte has given Henderson an opportunity to reach his potential that wasn’t going to be there in Jacksonville.

T.J. Slaton, GB, DT: 2 tackles, 17 DEF snaps (24%), 12 ST snaps (43%)

Backing up one of the best interior lineman in the game in Kenny Clark has been beneficial to Slaton. The big man has played well in limited snaps.

Demarcus Robinson, KC, WR: no stats, 28 snaps (41%)

Despite not seeing a lot of targets, you can see how much respect Robinson has by watching the Chiefs in warmups. He leads the receivers onto the field and in an orchestrated ritual before every game.

Taven Bryan, JAX, DE: no stats, 31 snaps (45%)

Has tied his career high in sacks this season. Yes, it’s 2.0. Yes they both came in one game.

Still!

Jarrad Davis, NYJ, LB: no stats, 9 DEF snaps (12%), 19 ST snaps (68%)

An ankle injury sidelined him for the first half of the season, so his return to the field is great to see.

● Teez Tabor, CHI, S: no stats, 3 ST snaps (12%)

After flaming out in Detroit, Tabor had to fight and claw to find his way back. After two years out, he’s returned this year as a safety for the Bears.

● Stone Forsythe, SEA, T: no stats, 3 ST snaps (11%)

Although he’s spent most weeks inactive, Forsythe is being groomed for a starting role in the next year or two in Seattle.

● Feleipe Franks, ATL, QB: 0/1 passing, 1 INT, 1 OFF snap (2%), 8 ST snaps (33%)

Look: The only pass he’s thrown in the NFL was a terrible pick-six. But on the bright side: He’s thrown a pass in the NFL!

The Inactive

Van Jefferson, LAR, WR: Bye Week

Jefferson is now the No. 2 receiver on a Super Bowl contender. He should put up big numbers the rest of the season.

Tyrie Cleveland, DEN, WR: Bye Week

Getting on the field in Denver with special teams hustle.

Joe Haden, PIT, CB: DNP (foot)

Despite being slowed by injuries and age, Haden is still one of the better corners in the league.

Jonathan Greenard, HOU, DE: DNP (foot)

The breakout star of the year among former Gators.

Janoris Jenkins, TEN, CB: DNP (Chest)

Jackrabbit isn’t the difference maker he once was, but his solid play in the secondary has helped turn the Titans defense into a force.

La’mical Perine, NYJ, RB: Inactive

Perine hasn’t had much opportunity this season, but if Michael Carter is out for any stretch, perhaps his time is coming.

Kyle Trask, TB, QB: Inactive

Sharing a quarterback room with the greatest ever.

Jeff Driskel, HOU, QB/TE: Inactive

Getting rave reviews for his transition to tight end. It certainly worked for Jordan Reed and Trey Burton and ... welp, can’t recall any other former Gators trying it, why do you ask?

Vernon Hargreaves III, CIN, CB: Inactive

Went from the worst team in the league to one fighting for first place in its division.

● Fred Johnson, CIN, G/T: Inactive

Versatility has kept him on the roster in Cincinnati and in the mix for playing time.

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, NO, S: Injured Reserve (foot)

Ceedy Deuce gets a lot of attention for his antics mixing it up with other players. He should get more for his play on the field, which is just as tenacious as his personality. The Saints clearly miss him.

Marcus Maye, NYJ, S: Injured Reserve (Achilles)

Just a brutal year for Maye, but he could be looking at a fresh start and an escape from New York this offseason.


Week 12

My son and I watched this week’s Monday Night Football game together. The game was awful, but Jack wouldn’t leave the couch or turn the channel. He’s a Seahawks fan and this is the roughest sports year of his life.

Part of the deal for sports fans is celebrating the highs and suffering through the lows. Jack’s 13, so he doesn’t really remember the Seahawks Super Bowls, but he also doesn’t know a losing season.

This year is rock bottom in Seattle and may likely be the end of the Pete Carroll era. Watching the games through the lens of my son’s anguish has been fascinating.

Unless you are a Patriots fan, you’ve experienced some lean times rooting for your favorite NFL team. Part of the reason I enjoy spending so much time following and rooting for former Gators in the league is to take me away from the pain and suffering involved in being a lifelong Dolphins fan.

Seeing Jack struggle with how bad his Seahawks are each week has definitely reminded me of when I was younger. The pain in his eyes. The hurt in his grin. The righteous anger as drive after drive fails to yield points.

As bad as the game was, when Freddie Swain caught a touchdown with less than 20 seconds left, we both let out a holler. The Seahawks had life — and a former Gator helped give it to them.

Of course, on the very next play, Russell Wilson’s pass intended for Swain was picked and Jack’s hopes were dashed once again.

You never want your kids to suffer. And yet there is a perverse joy in knowing my son is hooked just like I was when I was a kid. And as an older and wiser sports fan, I know what he doesn’t yet — experiencing the lows makes the highs that much better to savor when you finally get back to them.

Player of the Week

Van Jefferson had already carved out a huge role in the Rams’ offense before Robert Woods’s season-ending injury. Jefferson has started every game this season and usually plays anywhere from 70-95% of the offensive snaps in the Rams’ heavy three-receiver attack.

With Woods going down and Cooper Kupp drawing even more attention from defenses, there is now an opportunity for even more big plays. Jefferson came through with one on Sunday.

In a hilarious moment after his touchdown catch, Jefferson attempted a Lambeau Leap only to be stiff-armed by Packers fans.

Jefferson is on pace for over 50 catches, almost 900 yards, and six TDs. That would be the most productive season by a former Gators receiver since Percy Harvin’s peak - although tight end Jordan Reed deserves mention with his monster years in 2015 and 2016. With the increased targets and role in the Rams offense without Woods, Jefferson has a shot at the first 1,000-yard receiving season for a UF alum since Darrell Jackson in 2004.

Play of the Week

Forget the turkey; Keanu Neal gorged on the Raiders for a career-high 12 tackles on Thanksgiving. He has 19 the past two weeks after moving back into the starting lineup. But it wasn’t a tackle - or a third piece of pumpkin pie - that had us standing up with our mouths agape.

Unfortunately, one of the plays of the year, and maybe one of the best plays we’ve ever seen on Thanksgiving, didn’t actually happen.

Or, well: We all saw it happen, but thanks to replay overturning the catch that preceded Neal’s miraculous, acrobatic save of a fumble, the play’s existence was wiped from the official statistics. Nevertheless, it’s the clear play of the week.

Here are all of the Week 12 stats (ranked and tiered in order of performance):

The Good

  • Van Jefferson, LAR, WR: 3 rec, 93 yards, 1 TD, 61 snaps (98%)
  • Keanu Neal, DAL, LB: 12 tackles, 1 TFL, 82 snaps (94%)
  • Evan McPherson, CIN, K: 2/2 FG, Long 51, 5/5 XP
  • Trent Brown, NE, RT: 59 snaps (98%)
  • Jonathan Greenard, HOU, DE: 2 tackles, 1 sack, 2 QB hits, 1 forced fumble, 45 snaps (67%)
  • Dante Fowler, Jr., ATL, OLB: 2 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 40 snaps (55%)
  • Alex Anzalone, DET, LB: 9 tackles, 2 passes defended, 70 snaps (100%)
  • Freddie Swain, SEA, WR: 1 rec, 32 yards, 1 TD, 23 OFF snaps (41%)
  • Janoris Jenkins, TEN, CB: 4 tackles, 54 snaps (90%)
  • Kyle Pitts, ATL, TE: 2 rec, 26 yds, 1 tackle, 47 snaps (78%)
  • Jawaan Taylor, JAX, RT: 73 snaps (100%)

The Limited

  • Carlos Dunlap, SEA, DE: 3 tackles, 17 snaps (20%)
  • C.J. Henderson, CAR, CB: 3 tackles, 28 DEF snaps (38%), 5 ST snaps (18%), first start with Carolina
  • Taven Bryan, JAX, DE: 1 tackle, 1 QB hit, 24 snaps (40%)
  • Jarrad Davis, NYJ, LB: 3 tackles, 12 DEF snaps (21%), 16 ST snaps (64%)
  • Lerentee McCray, JAX, OLB: 1 tackle, 13 DEF snaps (22%), 20 ST snaps (91%)
  • Marcell Harris, SF, S: no stats, 17 DEF snaps (31%), 21 ST snaps (75%)
  • T.J. Slaton, GB, DT: no stats, 5 DEF snaps (8%), 12 ST snaps (33%)
  • Jabari Zuniga, NYJ, DE: no stats, 10 snaps (18%)
  • Stone Forsythe, SEA, T: no stats, 3 ST snaps (11%)
  • Feleipe Franks, ATL, QB: no stats, 8 ST snaps (36%)

The Inactive

  • Kadarius Toney, NYG, WR: Inactive (Quad)
  • Joe Haden, PIT, CB: Inactive (foot)
  • Jonathan Bullard, ATL, DL: Inactive (Ankle)
  • Tyrie Cleveland, DEN, WR: Inactive (Hamstring)
  • D.J. Humphries, ARI, LT: Bye Week
  • Max Garcia, ARI, C: Bye Week
  • Marco Wilson, ARI, CB: Bye Week
  • Demarcus Robinson, KC, WR: Bye Week
  • Tommy Townsend, KC, P: Bye Week
  • La’mical Perine, NYJ, RB: Inactive
  • Kyle Trask, TB, QB: Inactive
  • Jeff Driskel, HOU, QB/TE: Inactive
  • Vernon Hargreaves III, CIN, CB: Inactive
  • Fred Johnson, CIN, G/T: Inactive
  • Teez Tabor, CHI, S: Inactive
  • Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, NO, S: Injured Reserve (foot)
  • Marcus Maye, NYJ, S: Injured Reserve (Achilles)
  • Jon Bostic, WAS, LB: Injured Reserve (Chest)
  • Jonotthan Harrison, NYG, OL: Injured Reserve (Achilles)
  • Quincy Wilson, NYG, CB: Injured Reserve (Ankle)
  • Bryan Cox, Jr., BUF, DE: Injured Reserve (Achilles)

The Practice Squad

  • Brian Poole, IND, CB (just signed this week)
  • Duke Dawson, DEN, CB
  • Brandon Powell, LAR, WR
  • Jon Halapio, SF, G
  • David Sharpe, BAL, T
  • Josh Hammond, JAX, WR
  • David Sharpe, BAL, T
  • Donovan Stiner, PIT, S
  • Chaz Green, PIT, T
  • Shawn Davis, GB, S