Ranking Florida's 10 best players in the NFL
For the fifth consecutive season, at least 5 Florida Gators were selected in the NFL Draft, led by right tackle Jawaan Taylor, who was selected 35th overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars. In the past 10 years, only Alabama (an astonishing 46) and Ohio State (33) have had more players selected in the first and second rounds than Florida. At least one Florida player has been selected in every NFL Draft since 1952, the longest active streak in the SEC.
The 5 Gators selected in the 2019 NFL draft join the 38 Gators already on NFL rosters in 2018, the third-highest total in the SEC, behind Alabama and LSU. Florida’s NFL contingent includes multiple All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections as well as several Super Bowl champions.
Here’s our list of the top 10 Gators playing in the NFL, a list that includes some older faces at the tail end of tremendous careers and some newer faces that appear poised for future stardom.
1. Maurkice Pouncey, C, Pittsburgh Steelers
A former consensus All-American, national champion and Rimington Trophy award winner, Pouncey was selected by the Steelers in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft. He’s lived up to the hype ever since, earning 7 Pro Bowl selections and being named an All-Pro 5 times.
How valuable is Pouncey to Pittsburgh?
I asked longtime Steelers beat writer and Steelers radio network man Dale Lolley, who has watched his entire career unfold, that very question.
“Maurkice is a natural leader, one of the best I’ve been around. He’s been one of the Steelers leaders from the moment he stepped into the locker room, which is amazing considering how young he was when he arrived here in 2010,” Lolley wrote me this week. “Guys immediately gravitated towards him.”
Mike Tomlin agreed with Lolley last season, telling NFL Network that (Pouncey) “from a leadership and football smarts standpoint has been the key to our football team for many years, a classic All-Pro player who is headed to Canton.”
Lolley also thinks the Hall of Fame might be in Pouncey’s future.
“He’s already a 7-time Pro Bowler and 5-time All Pro,” Lolley wrote. “It’s tough for offensive linemen, though. A Super Bowl ring would probably cap things off for him.”
Hall of Famer or not, Pouncey remains the best Florida Gator playing in the National Football League.
2. Carlos Dunlap, DE, Cincinnati Bengals
Gators fans still wonder if the trajectory of Florida’s last decade of football might have been different had Carlos Dunlap, then an All-American defensive end and the key to Florida’s defense, not gotten a DUI and been suspended days before the 2009 SEC Championship game with Alabama.
Without Dunlap, Charlie Strong had to install a new defensive plan in one practice and the Gators were ultimately gashed by Alabama 32-13 as the Tide went on to win their first national championship under Nick Saban. Florida spent most the next 9 seasons wandering college football’s wilderness.
For his part, Dunlap recovered. The suspension caused Dunlap to slip to the second round, but he’s bounced back to play a decade with the Bengals, where he’s twice made the Pro Bowl and registered 73 sacks in his career.
Dunlap has started 72 consecutive games for the Bengals and last summer signed a $45 million contract extension that should allow him to retire in Cincinnati.
3. Trent Brown, LT, Oakland Raiders
Lightly recruited and ultimately a JUCO signee, Trent Brown didn’t start at Florida until 2014, when an injury to incumbent starter Tyler Moore forced him into the lineup. Still, his insane size (6-8, 350) led the 49ers to take a flier on him near the end of the 7th round of the 2015 NFL Draft.
It didn’t take long for many of the 49ers to realize they had a steal. In 2017, Broncos All-Pro Von Miller told ESPN that Brown was the blocker he had the most trouble with in the NFL.
An injury-filled 2017 led the 49ers to trade Brown to the Patriots for draft picks, however, and Brown made San Francisco regret the decision, putting together a dominant season after switching from right to left tackle for the Patriots. With Brown protecting Tom Brady’s blindside, the Patriots won the Super Bowl and this winter, Brown became the highest-paid offensive linemen in NFL history when he signed a 4-year, $66 million contract with the Raiders.
4. Mike Pouncey, C, Los Angeles Chargers
A 2-time first-team All-American at Florida, a change of scenery did the “other” Pouncey some good last season as he bounced back from some injury-riddled Dolphins campaigns to make his fourth Pro Bowl in his first season as a Charger. Pouncey narrowly missed All-Pro selection, slotting third among centers in the NFL, just behind his brother. When healthy, Pouncey is a dominant player who shares his brother’s leadership traits in the locker room.
5. Jarrad Davis, LB, Detroit Lions
Home state Georgia didn’t pursue Jarrad Davis, a 3-star linebacker out of high school, but Will Muschamp did and the Camden County product signed with the Gators, ultimately becoming the captain and All-SEC leader of a East division winning defense in Gainesville.
Davis missed the Combine due to a lingering ankle injury he played through during his senior year, but a huge pro day led Detroit to take a first-round chance on him anyway. Davis rewarded the Lions with an All-Rookie caliber 2017 and built on that campaign in 2018, finishing with a flourish that his linebackers coach Al Golden said should have resulted in his first Pro Bowl selection.
I asked Ty Schalter, who has covered the Lions and the NFL at places like Vice and 538, among others, what to expect from Davis moving forward.
“Since Matt Patricia’s taken over, Davis’ obvious athleticism has become all the more obvious. He’s been impressive, even dominant, when flying to the ball,” Schalter wrote last week. “The biggest question remains: will Davis ever be able to use that athleticism to shore up Detroit’s shoddy pass coverage?”
If the answer ends up being yes, you could be looking at another Florida All-Pro.
6. Joe Haden, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers
A consensus first-team All-American and the Sporting News National Defensive Player of the Year at Florida in 2009, Haden was selected No. 7 overall by Cleveland in the 2010 NFL Draft.
He immediately delivered, collecting six interceptions en route to NFL All-Rookie Team honors. By 2013, he was an All-Pro, ranked third among all corners in the NFL by Pro Football Focus.
Injuries slowed him in recent years, but he has revived his career in Pittsburgh, where he has been a consistent starter and last year rated among the top 40 of defensive backs in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus.
Selected to multiple Pro Bowls and All-Pro teams, Haden also does it off the field and has been nominated multiple times for the prestigious Ed Block Courage Award, which goes to the NFL player best exemplifying leadership and commitment to community on and off the field.
7. Keanu Neal, S, Atlanta Falcons
An All-SEC safety at Florida, Neal was a first-round draft pick in 2016 and a member of the All-Rookie team that season, with his terrific closing speed and penchant for the big hit making an immediate fan favorite in Atlanta.
Neal’s emergency was a big reason the Falcons made the Super Bowl in 2016. A year later, Neal made his first Pro Bowl, ranking in the top three in the league among strong safeties. Unfortunately, Neal tore his ACL in the first half of Atlanta’s season opener last fall. The injury sent Atlanta’s secondary into a tailspin and put Neal’s rising star on hold.
Still, the Falcons think they’ll have their big-hitting safety back for the 2019 campaign and if healthy, Neal should continue to be considered a player on the rise.
8. Quincy Wilson, CB, Indianapolis Colts
Very quietly, no Gators player improved more in their second season than Colts corner Quincy Wilson. An All-SEC corner and second-round draft pick in 2017, Wilson allowed a passer rating of only 65 over the Colts last 10 games, ranking 7th among NFL corners in that stretch.
On the season, Wilson was also one of the best 10 corners in the NFL in limiting completions on throws of ten yards or more (27.3%). Those are elite numbers. The question now is whether he can build on and sustain them. If so, he’ll quickly become the latest Pro Bowl caliber corner produced in Gainesville.
9. Dante Fowler Jr., DE/OLB, Los Angeles Rams
From a pure talent standpoint, Fowler’s ceiling seems limitless. He’s fast, strong, a physical freak and walking mismatch. He’s just never channeled it all at once as a pro.
The narrative Super Bowl week was that the former All-SEC Gators star had grown up and learned from the off-field issues that slowed his growth and star turn in Jacksonville.
Maybe. After all, Fowler had a productive month with the Rams after being traded from Jacksonville late last October, registering a handful of sacks and coming up huge in the NFC Championship game, when his hurry of Drew Brees led to John Johnson’s overtime interception.
A redemption story makes good copy, but it’s also possible Fowler didn’t so much mature as he simply benefited from playing with Cory Littleton and Aaron Donald, two of the best football players on Earth.
We will know more this year.
10. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, S, New Orleans Saints
The 2018 Peach Bowl Defensive MVP, Gardner-Johnson’s fall from projected first round draft pick to fourth-round pick was one of the surprises of the NFL Draft.
To me, it was all I needed to see to know Gardner-Johnson would be an NFL All-Rookie team caliber player in 2019. Gardner-Johnson always played better with a chip on his shoulder, and what better way to make him mad than have his draft stock tumble to Day 3.
How good was Gardner-Johnson last season in the SEC?
Of players targeted 50 or more times, Gardner-Johnson had the lowest quarterback rating against. He also converted 3 of his 9 career interceptions into touchdowns and ranked No. 1 in the country in downfield completion percentage against last season as a junior.
Famous concerns about his tackling were mostly solved last season, both through Gardner-Johnson’s own hard work and the revelation that Gardner-Johnson played most his sophomore campaign with a painful shoulder injury.
A versatile player who can play as the high safety, as a blitzer or as a physical cover guy in the slot, Gardner-Johnson was ranked as a “top 5 steal of the draft” by Pro Football Focus.
My guess is they end up being right.
Cover photo of Mike Pouncey (left) and twin brother Maurkice. Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports