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Florida Gators in the NFL: Setting the stage for the 2021 season

Dozens of Gators dot NFL rosters heading into this season. Some could make Pro Bowls; others could swing the outcome of the Super Bowl.

Cleveland Browns v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

How do you define a successful National Football League career and how do you determine who will have one? These are a couple of questions that have eluded consensus answers since the sport began.

Declaring a career successful depends largely on circumstance and perspective. Just making a NFL roster is a success against incredibly long odds, and this becomes especially true for a late-round draft pick or undrafted player. Stringing together multiple seasons in a sport designed to inflict bodily damage on every play should be considered a success for just about any player; certainly, it’s a financial windfall for many, even if that sometimes comes in trade for a lifetime of poor health.

Some players are held to even higher standards based on expectations. Pro Bowls, statistical records, and even Super Bowl trophies are the only criteria used to measure — and validators of success for — the elite.

Figuring out who will reach each level of success is an inexact science to say the least. As the NFL season kicks off this weekend and we keep our eyes on all the Florida Gators throughout the league, we don’t have to think hard about the surefire superstars who passed through Gainesville on their way to bigger things in the NFL. Emmitt Smith and Jack Youngblood were dominant as Gators, became first-round draft picks, and put together Hall of Fame NFL careers. Many others followed the same path and had illustrious careers.

On the flip side, we’ve been flummoxed over the years by collegiate stars who flamed out quickly after being taken in the first round like Huey Richardson, Jarvis Moss, and Matt Elam. Injuries are always going to alter the career trajectory of some players — Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley come immediately to mind — but it’s the guys who are healthy and still don’t develop into solid pros that really make you scratch your head.

By all measures, the path from Florida to professional football has been one of the most well-worn in the country. Florida’s media guide claims 378 total Gators drafted in history, good for ninth-most of any college. And though that tally includes drafts for long-forgotten leagues like the All-American Football Conference (AAFC) and the American Football League (AFL), just looking at the NFL finds that 364 former Gators have had their names called. Walt “Tiger” Mayberry became the first Gator selected in the NFL draft in 1938, and Paul Duhart was the first first-round pick from Florida in 1945; just this past spring, Kyle Pitts led eight former Gators who were drafted, including fellow first-rounder Kadarius Toney.

Those eight draftees placed Florida fifth overall among colleges in terms of 2021 NFL Draft selections. Since the NFL merger in 1967, the Gators have had the fifth-most first-round picks with 53. Florida is also fifth with 117 overall picks since 2000.

The draft is not the only way to break into the NFL. Undrafted players are increasingly making rosters and having productive careers. Stars at Florida like Shane Matthews and Trey Burton found their way in the NFL via the undrafted route, as did Gainesville underachievers Deonte Thompson and Lerentee McCray. The most recent undrafted Gator to make a roster was punter Tommy Townsend in 2020 with the Chiefs. Townsend is hoping to follow in the footsteps of the only undrafted former Gator to ever make the Pro Bowl, punter John James, who was a three-time Pro Bowler with the Falcons in the mid-1970s.

There are currently 32 former Gators on active NFL rosters, eighth-most among college programs. 10 more players are on practice squads, and five players are currently on injured reserve and could return at some point after the first three games of the season.

As I track former Gators in the NFL all season long, I also will keep an eye on a few guys who were recently cut or remain unsigned but may find their way back to the league soon.

Additionally, I’ve added players who played most of their collegiate careers in Gainesville and count as former Gators in my accounting. The best way to explain who makes the cut as a “former Gator” in this regard is by looking at the two quarterbacks from Florida’s 2011 recruiting class who transferred. Jeff Driskel played four uninspiring seasons in Gainesville before moving on to Louisiana Tech to finish out his college career with a bang; Jacoby Brissett was only in Gainesville for two seasons as a part-time player before excelling at North Carolina State in his final two campaigns. Driskel counts; Brissett doesn’t.

(Neither does Cam Newton, of course.)

Former Gators in the NFL, 2021 Season

Quarterback

Starter: Kyle Trask (Buccaneers)

Backup: None

Practice Squad; Jeff Driskel (Texans), Feleipe Franks (Franks)

By and large, Florida’s star quarterbacks have not translated to the pro ranks. Not including Cam, the Gators have never produced a Pro Bowler at the position. Rex Grossman had the most success and then it’s a lot of meh (Steve Spurrier, Shane Matthews, Tim Tebow). The current depth chart reflects that same lack of production. Trask is the only QB on an active roster right now. Of course, he’s yet to attempt a professional pass and given Tom Brady’s superhuman aging, Trask may not see the field until 2030. Driskel is entering his fourth season in the league, something very few would have thought likely after the ups and (mostly) downs in Gainesville. Franks’s comeback after the gruesome leg injury was awesome to see last season, and we’re all rooting for him to find a role in the league.

Running Back

Starter: La’Mical Perine (Jets)

Backup: None

Practice Squad: None

Unsigned: Jordan Scarlett

Florida’s historical running back production goes beyond the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. Fred Taylor has a case for enshrinement in Canton. Neal Anderson, John L. Williams, and Rick Casares were Pro Bowlers. Errict Rhett, Earnest Graham, Lorenzo Hampton, James Jones, and Larry Smith all led their teams in rushing at least once. Perine will try to join that group this season as part of a crowded backfield in New York, but needs to play faster if he wants consistent touches.

Scarlett was on the Dolphins practice squad until last week, but is now looking for his fourth team in just over a year, a sign his future in the league is in doubt.

Wide Receiver

Starters: Van Jefferson (Rams), Demarcus Robinson (Chiefs), Freddie Swain (Seahawks)

Backups: Kadarius Toney (Giants)

Practice Squad: Tyrie Cleveland (Broncos), Brandon Powell (Dolphins), Josh Hammond (Jaguars)

Unsigned: Antonio Callaway, Trevon Grimes

Not quite as underwhelming as the quarterbacks, former Gators receivers have had some good seasons. Wes Chandler is the cream of the crop, while Ike Hilliard, Nat Moore, and Percy Harvin were solid contributors to very good teams.

The top three this year are in the same boat: Jefferson, Robinson, and Swain all hold the third receiver role on playoff teams. Toney had a rough camp and needs to get healthy and catch up. Callaway has to be near the end of the line after countless chances. Grimes was waived by the Eagles in June after signing as an undrafted free agent. He had knee surgery and that surely has kept him from getting a chance with another team so far.

Tight End

Starter: Kyle Pitts (Falcons)

Backup: None

Practice Squad: None

Unsigned: Trey Burton

Jordan Reed is the standard bearer here, making the transition from quarterback to tight end look easy (and perhaps convincing a former Heisman winner he could do the same … alas). Pitts not only has a chance to eclipse Reed’s numbers, he has a chance to be one of the best to ever play the position after becoming the earliest drafted tight end in league history.

Shockingly, Burton — another QB-to-TE — remains unsigned despite a rash of injuries across the league. Burton is still only 29, and put up a respectable 28/250/3 line in part-time work with the Colts last season. My guess is he’ll sign somewhere after Week 1 when vested veterans (four or more years experience) only have 25% of their salary guaranteed.

Offensive Line

Starters: Trent Brown (Patriots), DJ Humphries (Cardinals), Jawaan Taylor (Jaguars), Max Garcia (Cardinals)

Backups: Fred Johnson (Bengals), Stone Forsythe (Seahawks)

Practice Squad: Chaz Green (Steelers)

Unsigned: David Sharpe, Jonotthan Harrison, Brett Heggie, Martez Ivey

Lomas Brown is probably just outside of Hall of Fame consideration, but Maurkice Pouncey will definitely be in the conversation five years from now. Twin brother Mike made a few Pro Bowls but injuries prevented him from reaching his full potential. Their offseason retirement deprived this current contingent of some Pro Bowl-caliber talent.

The only current Pro Bowler is Trent Brown, who returns to the Patriots after two injury-plagued seasons with the Raiders. He’s healthy and looks every bit like the towering menace he was three years ago.

Humphries has found his groove after a rough start to his career in Arizona. He’s started every game he’s ever played, including all 32 in 2019 and 2020.

Taylor has also started all 32 the past two seasons, but he has struggled quite a bit. This is a big year for him as Urban Meyer tries to remake the Jags.

Garcia, the only center in this group, started for a couple of seasons in Denver but has settled into a backup role with the Cardinals.

Forsythe won’t see much playing time barring injuries this season but has the size to eventually develop into a starter. Johnson started six games for the Bengals last season and is once again a swing tackle this year.

Green has been one of the more maligned tackles in football the past five seasons and is strictly an emergency insurance plan for the Steelers. Sharpe has been a backup and occasional starter for four seasons but is looking for work after he was waived by Washington in August. He also spent three weeks on the COVID-19 reserve list; you wonder if his vaccination status may have played a part in his unemployment.

Six-year vet Harrison and undrafted rookie Heggie were waived by the Giants last week. Ivey was cut by the Panthers.

Defensive Line

Starters: Carlos Dunlap (Seahawks), Jonathan Bullard (Falcons), Taven Bryan (Jaguars), Jonathan Greenard (Texans)

Backups: Tedarrell (T.J.) Slaton (Packers)

Practice Squad: Jabari Zuniga (Jets)

IR: Bryan Cox, Jr. (Bills)

Unsigned: Joey Ivie

Florida defensive linemen that had stellar careers in the pros include Trace Armstrong, Kevin Carter, Jevon Kearse, Ellis Johnson, Alex Brown, and Brad Culpepper, making the Gators’ graduates in the trenches one of the program’s better groups over the years.

Dunlap’s place is secure among these legends, and with a couple more solid seasons, he could finish second all-time to Youngblood in sacks by former Gators. Bullard is on his fourth team in four years, but has a chance to put together his best season playing next to Pro Bowler Grady Jarrett — and old Florida linemate Dante Fowler, Jr.. Bryan has one final shot to live up to his first-round draft status with the Jags. Greenard will be a situational player on the worst team in the league.

Slaton used a good camp and preseason to make the Packers’ active roster despite being a late-round pick and will have a role as a backup run stuffer. Ivie is not currently on a roster or practice squad, but it isn’t for lack of trying: He has been released three times by three different teams in 2021 alone.

In all, Ivie has had time in training camp or on the practice squad of eight different teams. It’s impressive persistence, if nothing else.

Linebacker

Starters: Jon Bostic (WFT), Keanu Neal (Cowboys), Dante Fowler, Jr. (Falcons), Alex Anzalone (Lions)

Backups: Lerentee McCray (Jaguars)

Practice Squad: None

IR: Jarrad Davis (Jets)

Can you name the top three tackling linebackers from Florida? Wilbur Marshall is probably easy, both because of his legendary Gators career and status as a starter on the greatest NFL defense of all time, the ‘85 Bears.

The other two are Mike Peterson and Andra Davis. Both had long, productive NFL careers and were a pleasure to watch in the middle of their defenses.

Next on the list, perhaps surprisingly, would be Bostic. Although he isn’t a three-down backer anymore, he’s had his two best seasons the past two years with over 100 tackles in each. He was named a captain for Washington this week.

Neal has been such a hard hitter so far in his career that the move to linebacker with the Cowboys isn’t too surprising, especially considering the hybrid looks now common across the league. Fowler has had moments as a dominant pass rusher but consistency has eluded him. Anzalone has a fresh start in Detroit.

McCray opted out last year but he’s back for his seventh season as a special teams ace for the Jags. Davis hopes to return to the Jets in about two months after an ankle injury.

Defensive Back

Starters: Joe Haden (Steelers), Marcus Maye (Jets), Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (Saints), Janoris Jenkins (Titans), CJ Henderson (Jaguars)

Backups: Vernon Hargreaves III (Texans), Marcell Harris (49ers), Marco Wilson (Cardinals)

Practice Squad: Teez Tabor (Bears), Donovan Stiner (Steelers), Shawn Davis (Colts)

IR: Brian Poole (Saints), Quincy Wilson (Jets), Duke Dawson (Broncos)

Unsigned: Quinton Dunbar

You would expect DBU to have produced a lot of talent, and it has: By sheer numbers, Florida has put more defensive backs into the league than any other position. But the best of them — Reggie Nelson, Haden, Bennie Parrish, Louis Oliver, and Jarvis Williams — don’t rank among the best in NFL history. And there have been a lot of disappointments, including recent picks Tabor, Wilson, and Dawson.

Still, this is by far the deepest active position group. Haden is within striking distance of Nelson’s Gators-record 38 picks, and has haunted the AFC North for a decade now. Maye has become one of the best free safeties in the game. Gardner-Johnson may lead the league in drawing unsportsmanlike penalties on receivers. Jackrabbit — c’mon, you know who he is — once again moves to a new team, but should remain a consistent playmaker. Henderson had a great start to his career before injuries slowed him last season.

VH3 has been maybe the biggest disappointment given how good we all expected him to be — and yet this is now his sixth season in the NFL, beating the average by a solid margin. Harris has a solid backup role with the Niners. Marco Wilson hopes his pro career is a lot better than his college one, and could use a start like his fine freshman year at Florida.

Poole is out for the season, but Dawson could return after six weeks. Tabor had a strong preseason in Chicago and hopes to get a chance to restart his career. Dunbar was waived in August by the Lions after missing all of training camp due to personal reasons. He missed most of last season with a knee injury, too — and if this is it for him, the converted receiver had a good, unexpected run in the league.

Kicker

Starter: Evan McPherson (Bengals)

Practice Squad: Eddy Pineiro (WFT)

Caleb Sturgis is the best kicker Florida has had in the NFL, but both McPherson and Pineiro have the talent and ability to blow past him. McPherson was drafted for and has earned the job in Cincinnati. Pineiro is still looking for a starting gig after performing well with the Bears in 2019; teams always need kickers, so he’ll probably field calls.

Punter

Starter: Tommy Townsend (Chiefs)

Practice Squad: Johnny Townsend (Ravens)

Per capita, the position group of former Gators that has generated the most Pro Bowls is punter. The aforementioned James made it in the ‘70s, along with Bobby Joe Green. There was a time when I would have bet money on Shayne Edge or Chas Henry joining them, too, but neither was able to stick in the league.

Now it’s a family affair. Johnny Townsend was drafted by the Raiders in 2019, but cut loose after only one season. His brother Tommy was undrafted in 2020, but appears to be the long-term guy in Kansas City, having edged out Dustin Colquitt — a dynastic brother topping a dynastic brother in a tale as old as time, and a Gator beating a Vol in the story of the last two decades.