Shawn Kopelakis drops off a review of playoff performances — and postseason all-star games for the Gators who want to make NFL plays of their own one day — and a preview of what we may see from the Gators greats in Super Bowl LVI...
The two-week break between the conference title games and the Super Bowl allows everyone a chance to catch their breath. It also hopefully allows the Bengals Pro Shop to restock a certain jersey.
“Siri, where can I buy an Evan McPherson jersey?”— Kyle Yates (@KyleYNFL) January 30, 2022
And, yeah, five former Florida Gators are on the active rosters of the Rams and Bengals heading into Super Bowl LVI, three had significant impacts in helping get their respective teams to the game, and while two are likely to remain inactive, either outcome of the game gives two Gators a Super Bowl ring. But the full Super Bowl preview is at the end of this post, so scroll down if that’s what you’re here for.
The meantime featured three “all-star” events. Graduating college seniors were trying to improve their draft stock in the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Game, and a couple of NFL guys celebrated successful seasons in the Pro Bowl. And that’s part of the Florida in the NFL story, too.
Kyle Pitts became the first rookie tight end to earn a Pro Bowl berth in 20 years. He is just the ninth rookie tight end to ever make it. Obviously, barring injury, this is going to be the first of many games for Pitts — although it is probably generous to call the Pro Bowl a game at this point. Still, nabbing a touchdown, after only one all season, was unexpected and neat.
Pitts wasn’t alone among Gators at the Pro Bowl, either. D.J. Humphries made his first Pro Bowl after he was named an injury replacement. Humphries was a bit of a surprise when he was selected as an alternate, but it was likely due to his fantastic 2020 season more than what he did in 2021. Either way, it’s a special honor for the sixth-year left tackle. He played a lot for the NFC squad.
Dameon Pierce and Zachary Carter had a week in Mobile to move up draft boards — and they both probably did. (Jeremiah Moon was invited but had to withdraw.)
Pierce’s usage by Dan Mullen was a constant lament by Florida fans this past season and probably left him a bit underrated by the NFL scouting community. I’m not sure that’s the case at this point, after all the glowing praise for the week he put in.
You can feel how hard Dameon Pierce runs. Forces defenders to tackle him. Classic case of a prospect that will be a better pro than college player. Underutilized at Florida and was the best pass protecting RB all week at the Senior Bowl.— Jordan Reid (@Jordan_Reid) February 5, 2022
Powerful runner? Check.
I love Dameon Pierce. He’s an angry dude. pic.twitter.com/nK8McojGRJ— Alfredo Brown (@AlfredoBrownGM) February 6, 2022
#Florida RB Dameon Pierce was the fastest offensive player in the #SeniorBowl game.— Luke Winstel (@lukewinstel) February 6, 2022
Per @ZebraSports, he hit 20.66 MPH as a ball carrier in the second half.
The fast and physical runner convinced many he was the best RB in Mobile this week.@InsideTheGators #NFLDraft pic.twitter.com/9HIN3tbEuq
Dameon Pierce— Derek Brown (@DBro_FFB) February 2, 2022
Good reps in 1-on-1s today flashing quickness & solid mitts in the passing game pic.twitter.com/nnY4Q3zRiR
Pass protection? Check.
I’m force feeding the TL Dameon Pierce pass pro. He didn’t allow a single pressure the entire 2021 season. pic.twitter.com/ziJBUR196k— King of Phinland (@KingOfPhinland) February 3, 2022
Even his fur babies moved up the prospect rankings.
There is still a long way to go in the draft process and the combine, and Florida’s Pro Day will play a big part in evaluations of Pierce. But it’s not a stretch to say he is on everyone’s radar now, and has a chance to climb into the second or third round as one of the top running backs in this draft class.
Not to be outdone, Zachary Carter had some very good moments in Mobile as well. He showed strength and quickness against the run from the inside.
On the edge, he flashed the ability to collapse the pocket.
Zachary Carter’s power can be a mismatch on the outside. Don’t let him get inside your torso, or he’s sending you backward. pic.twitter.com/s72o9wrPpZ— Ian Cummings (@ian_cummings_9) February 4, 2022
And as a sixth-year senior, his football IQ was going to impress. Great chase-down speed from the backside here, too.
Florida DE Zachary Carter with some instinctual play here, redirecting on the screen to get a TFL. He has been turning it on. Game film is outstanding. pic.twitter.com/YaFIlHBFda— Matt Alkire (@mattalkire) February 3, 2022
Carter’s experience playing in multiple defensive fronts, his ability to line up inside and outside, and his natural gifts of length and strength make him a likely Day Two pick.
East-West Shrine Game
I was in Las Vegas for the Shrine Game with a collection of college prospects not quite at the level of those in the Senior Bowl. Jean Delance and Tyrone Truesdell represented the Gators. James Houston, who transferred to Jackson State after four years in Gainesville, also spent the week in Vegas.
Delance, part of one of the final batches of transfers prior to the portal being established, had a good week of practice in front of NFL scouts and coaches. When our production team met with the West coaching staff, they praised Delance’s quick feet. He showed off some strong hands as well.
Jean Delance with the prettiest reach block I've seen at the Shrine Bowl practices. Jean has looked solid in pass pro, but this is just art. pic.twitter.com/DicKNOQQLi— Matt Alkire (@mattalkire) January 30, 2022
Delance was named one of the practice players of the week for his exploits. And after a strong week, he has a genuine chance to be drafted, something that didn’t appear likely based on his up-and-down play at Florida and something that might well shock Twitter.
Truesdell was a late add to the Shrine Bowl, which limited his impact for the week. He assisted on a nice tackle that was part of a goal line stand. But he’s still a longshot to be drafted.
Houston made a lot of plays all week. He flashed in the middle of the defense — where he played for the Gators.
And he showed quickness and burst on the edge — where he made his mark at Jackson State.
James Houston IV was flying off the edge here. Swats the hands and this is a sack in live play for the Jackson State product. HBCU edgerushers doing well today. pic.twitter.com/sFWvOQeasc— Matt Alkire (@mattalkire) February 1, 2022
He will have to battle the tweener label, and possibly the perception that he was able to star only at a lower level of competition, but Houston has a chance to move up draft boards by showing off his freak athleticism during workouts.
Super Bowl LVI
Of course, all of those Gators are aspiring to be where five in Los Angeles will be in a matter of hours.
There are three former Gators on the Cincinnati Bengals — Evan McPherson, of course, but also Vernon Hargreaves III and Fred Johnson — and two on the Los Angeles Rams, Van Jefferson and Brandon Powell. The total of five is tied for most from one college in this year’s game, and places Florida nicely in the mix for discussions about pro-producing programs during a Super Bowl that will have SEC products quarterbacking both teams.
Most players in Super Bowl 56 (active rosters):— Pick Six Previews (@PickSixPreviews) January 31, 2022
4- Ohio St
3- Texas A&M
2- Cinci, Colorado, Delaware, FAU, FSU, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan St, NC St, ND, PSU, Pitt, Stanford, TCU
But this is old hat for Gators ex-pats, the 20th straight season the Gators are represented in the NFL’s ultimate game. UF has had at least one representative every year since 2003. With these five players factored in, Florida moves into a tie for 14th among all colleges with 93 Super Bowl appearances by alums.
The Gators are also currently tied for 11th with 49 former players having won a Super Bowl ring — a number that will cross the half-century mark tonight. And at least one former player will take home a Super Bowl ring this year, something that’s happened eight out of the last 10 years.
It’s a pretty safe bet that Florida will add to its total of 68 points scored by former players in Super Bowls. The Gators rank third behind Miami (84) and Penn State (81) in that stat, thanks largely to Emmitt Smith, and a big day in L.A. could conceivably vault them into first. McPherson alone may get them close.
Let’s take a look at each player in order of expected impact and what to expect from them on Sunday. Will any of them make a play for the ages like Trey Burton?
Money Mac is having a moment. And I’ve been trying hard to come up with examples of former Florida athletes capturing the professional sports zeitgeist like Evan McPherson.
The best recent example I can remember is Caeleb Dressel’s five golds during the 2020 Summer Olympics — but that’s a Gator dominating the Olympics, which happens from time to time. Tim Tebow’s comeback wins with the Broncos in 2011 culminating in the dramatic walk-off touchdown pass against Pittsburgh in the playoffs was the last NFL moment that has matched what we’ve seen with McPherson over the past few weeks.
Evan McPherson has made all 12 of his field goal attempts this postseason, +2.9 more FGs than he was expected to make (most in NFL).— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) February 10, 2022
Five of McPherson's FG attempts gave the Bengals the lead, fueling his playoff-leading +61% FG win probability added.#SBLVI | #RuleTheJungle pic.twitter.com/JPadoD8d5K
And McPherson’s postseason exploits have been not just dramatic but historic. He is the first player in NFL history to enter the Super Bowl with 40 points scored in the postseason. He’s the first kicker ever with back-to-back games with four field goals in the playoffs — and he actually has back-to-back-to-back games with four makes and no misses. For now, he has the most made field goals without a miss in a single postseason. He’s set the NFL record with 12 kicks over 50 yards in a single season including the playoffs. He’s three field goals away from setting the mark for most made kicks in a single postseason.
The list goes on and on and on and on and on.
Some are even asking if McPherson is the playoffs MVP — and it doesn’t sound absurd.
My Head Says Rams. My Heart Says Bengals.— Jason Gay (@jasongay) February 11, 2022
Super Bowl Preview! Will Bengals fans overwhelm LA? Is Matthew Stafford Ready? Is Evan McPherson the Playoff MVP? Will I Ask Any More Open Ended Questions in this Tweet?
Not only is he a media darling, Vegas — and/or the gambling world — loves him, too.
I don’t ever remember a SuperBowl where a kicker (Evan McPherson) created more buzz in the prop market— Todd Fuhrman (@ToddFuhrman) February 11, 2022
Many people, including my friend and NFL Network colleague Kay Adams, are picking McPherson to once again nail the game-winning kick.
Among former Florida players, McPherson has already passed Emmitt Smith for most points in a postseason. Smith had 36 in 1995, including two touchdowns in the Super Bowl XXX win over the Steelers. Smith is the all-time leader in Super Bowl rushing touchdowns.
Most Super Bowl Rushing TDs (career):— NFL Analytics & Stats (@gofbanalytics) February 10, 2022
Emmitt Smith - 5
Thurman Thomas - 4
Franco Harris - 4
John Elway - 4
Terrell Davis - 3
James White - 3
Marshawn Lynch - 2
Ottis Anderson - 2#SBLVI
And yet, the Bengals surely hope that don’t have to rely on McPherson as much as they have: A field goal is, after all, a failure to score a touchdown. You can bet Evan won’t be too upset if he personally falls short of records because he’s only asked to kick extra points in this game.
But the rest of the sports world can’t wait to see what the rookie does next. A kicker — a kicker — has captured our hearts and minds. Incredible.
SUPER BOWL BOUND!!!! LFG!!!!!— Van Jefferson (@VanJefferson12) January 31, 2022
Jefferson has been battling a bum knee for weeks now. He finally was listed as a full participant in practice on Thursday and will play, although still not at 100 percent. You could see he was slowed by the knee in the NFC Championship when he was targeted five times but had only two grabs for nine yards.
Even if he’s limited, the opportunity to put up some big numbers is there. The Bengals’ top two corners — Mike Hilton and Chidobe Awuzie — have been excellent, especially in the postseason. You can expect their attention to be on Cooper Kupp and Odell Beckham. The Bengals will look to roll coverages and bracket Kupp. Jefferson could benefit, as Calvin Johnson mentions around the 1:50 mark of this clip from Good Morning Football.
You may also be aware that the Bengals’ third corner for this game is probably Eli Apple. So, yeah: Opportunity may rap on Jefferson’s door in this one.
Jefferson has flown well off the Super Bowl radar for the most part, due somewhat to his injury, but also because Kupp and Beckham are superstars. That said, it doesn’t make sense why there’s been more hype for Bengals’ third WR Tyler Boyd than for Jefferson.
Tyler Boyd— Squints (@squints3000) February 10, 2022
But only one is being talked about…
Brandon Powell was unemployed in early November after being cut from the Dolphins’ practice squad. This was nothing new for the undrafted receiver/returner: He’s been with five teams in four years and spent more time on practice squads than active rosters.
Powell was signed to the Rams’ practice squad on November 4th and made his debut on December 5th. His first touch, the opening kickoff of his first game, went for 65 yards.
What. A. Debut.
Returner Brandon Powell has ignited a remarkable turnaround for the Rams special teams. And it started the first time he touched the ball in a game. https://t.co/Y80ayc9PbT— Daniel Popper (@danielrpopper) February 11, 2022
Powell has electrified the Rams’ dormant return game. In Powell’s six regular season games, the Rams were first in punt return average and fourth in kick return average. Now, after spending two months and nine whole games with the Rams, he has a legit chance to have a moment like Percy Harvin.
Incredibly, Powell was in attendance in Miami for Super Bowl XLI and saw Devin Hester — perhaps the greatest return man ever, even if the Hall of Fame just snubbed him — run a kick back for a touchdown in Super Bowl. It wasn’t enough for Rex Grossman and the Bears to beat Peyton Manning and the Colts, but it’s a significant part of Hester’s legacy.
Had a chance to catch up with Brandon Powell tonight. Good stories on Stafford making an effort to get him a 100-yard game as a rookie and being in the stands for Devin Hester's Super Bowl kickoff return. Powell will handle kickoffs for the Rams Sunday: https://t.co/DVCfcDQX9M— Justin Rogers (@Justin_Rogers) February 11, 2022
It wouldn’t be that strange for the fellow South Florida native — Powell is from Deerfield Beach, Hester from Riviera Beach — to recreate one of the seminal memories of his childhood, would it?
Vernon Hargreaves III
Hargreaves was inactive in the Divisional and AFC Championship games. The expectation is he’ll remain on the sidelines for the Super Bowl. Since coming to Cincinnati after the Texans released him, he’s played in only five games and has five tackles.
Johnson’s been inactive throughout the postseason and will also likely not play. He played in just five games all year, including one start. It seems the Bengals are not confident he can help their porous offensive line protect Joe Burrow.
Here are all of the Gators’ playoff stats (ranked and tiered in order of performance):
Super Bowl Bound
- Evan McPherson, CIN, K
Wild Card: 4/4 FG, Long 43, 2/2 XP
Divisional: 4/4 FG, Long 54, 1/1 XP
AFC Championship: 4/4 FG, Long 52, 1/1 XP
- Van Jefferson, LAR, WR
Wild Card: 1 rec (1 target), 41 yards, 39 snaps (65%)
Divisional: 2 rec, 29 yards, 1 rush, 15 yards, 65 snaps (90%)
NFC Championship: 2 rec, 9 yards, 67 snaps (87%)
- Brandon Powell, LAR, WR
Wild Card:: 2 punt returns, 9.5 avg, 2 kick returns, 14.0 avg
Divisional: 3 punt returns, 20.0 avg, 1 kick return, 19.0 avg
NFC Championship: 1 kick return, 24.0 avg
- Vernon Hargreaves III, CIN, CB
Wild Card: 1 QB pressure, 3 snaps (4%)
AFC Championship: Inactive
- Fred Johnson, CIN, G/T
Wild Card: Inactive
AFC Championship: Inactive
Other Playoff Performances
- Demarcus Robinson, KC, WR
Wild Card: 4 rec (5 targets), 76 yards, 33 snaps (51%)
Divisional: 1 target, 0 receptions, 49 snaps (64%)
- Tommy Townsend, KC, P
Wild Card: 4 punts, 34.5 avg
Divisional: 2 punts, 44.0 avg
- Joe Haden, PIT, CB
Wild Card: 6 tackles, 64 snaps (98%)
- Janoris Jenkins, TEN, CB
Wild Card: Bye
Divisional: 2 tackles, 1 pass defended, 64 snaps (100%)
- T.J. Slaton, GB, DT
Wild Card: Bye
Divisional: 1 tackle, 1 TFL, 11 DEF snaps (20%), 6 ST snaps (26%)
- Trent Brown, NE, RT
Wild Card: 63 snaps (100%)
- D.J. Humphries, ARI, LT
Wild Card: 55 snaps (98%)
- Max Garcia, ARI, C/G
Wild Card: 56 snaps (100%)
- Marco Wilson, ARI, CB
Wild Card: 1 tackle, 51 snaps (85%)
- Marcell Harris, SF, LB/S
Wild Card: Inactive (Achilles)
Divisional: Inactive (Achilles)
- Keanu Neal, DAL, LB
Wild Card: Inactive (Chest/Elbow)
- Kyle Trask, TB, QB
Wild Card: Inactive
- Shawn Davis, GB, S
Wild Card: Bye
- Bryan Cox, Jr., BUF, DE
Wild Card and Divisional: Injured Reserve (Achilles)
Playoff Practice Squad
- Jon Halapio, SF, G
- Donovan Stiner, PIT, S
- Chaz Green, PIT, T