5 SEC stars who could be next to lead team to Super Bowl
The baddest college football conference in the country was well-represented on pro football’s biggest stage on Sunday night in Santa Clara, California.
This was hardly a surprise, talent and excellence on one level swimming upstream to the highest level, with 23 players from the Southeastern Conference filling the active rosters for the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50.
Twelve were on the Panthers, including their MVP quarterback.
Eleven were on the Broncos, including their straight-to-the-Hall-of-Fame quarterback.
That means one large group of SEC alums will be fitted for a Super Bowl ring sometime soon, and the other large throng of SEC guys were on the doorstep.
So now, as the thrills of this Super Bowl fade into next fall, we look ahead and wonder: Who will be the next SEC star to lead his team to the Big Game?
We’ve narrowed what could easily be a longer list to five proven NFL talents, all of whom play for teams that were, as they say, “knocking on the door” in 2015.
Justin Houston, LB, Kansas City Chiefs
Houston has developed into a pass-rushing force for a rock-solid defense during his first five seasons in Kansas City. He is a state of Georgia product through and through, starring in high school in Statesboro before embarking on a standout career at the University of Georgia. He was a first-team All-SEC selection and a first-team All-American during his final season in Athens in 2010.
Houston fell to the third round in the 2011 draft, where the Chiefs grabbed him with the 70th overall pick. And oh are they glad they did. Houston has amassed 56 sacks and 264 tackles over five years in K.C., transitioning beautifully from Bulldogs red to Chiefs blood red. He’s already a four-time Pro Bowler and led the NFL in sacks in 2014 with 22.
Already with plenty of individual accolades, Houston is searching for that shiny team prize, and the Chiefs made a giant leap toward being on the Super stage last season under Andy Reid, winning 10 games in a row to end the regular season after a 1-5 start and beating the Texans in the wild-card round before falling to the Patriots in the divisional round.
A.J. Green, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
Another Georgia Bulldog turned supreme NFL talent, Green was a teammate of Houston in Athens and burst onto the pro scene in the same spring, except for one big difference: Green was the fourth overall pick of the 2011 draft after an all-SEC career at Georgia. He was expected to be a cornerstone of a team on the rise in the AFC that would make multiple runs at the Super Bowl.
Green has made good on his part, making the Pro Bowl in each of his first five seasons in Cincinnati. The South Carolina high school star has piled up an astounding 415 catches for 6,171 yards and 45 touchdowns, well on his way to an incredible NFL career. And he’s helped lead the Bengals to playoff appearances in all five of his seasons, with a disturbing one-and-done flameout trend resurfacing at the end of each year.
Still, if the Bengals keep getting chances to turn January heartache into February heaven, Green will almost certainly be one of the biggest reasons.
Sheldon Richardson, DE, New York Jets
Richardson has blossomed into a monster on the Jets’ lights-out defensive front since New York made him the 13th overall selection of the 2013 draft. The former University of Missouri mauler who was a second-team all-SEC pick in 2012 has 180 tackles and 16.5 sacks in three havoc-causing seasons for the Jets, being named AP Defensive Rookie of the Year followed by a Pro Bowl appearance in 2014.
The 6-3, 294-pound wrecking ball helped the revitalized Jets go 10-6 in 2015 and get to the brink of a wild-card berth. He did so after getting through a huge personal hurdle after being suspended for the first four games of last season following a positive marijuana test.
Richardson came back from his suspension with a vengeance, started the final 11 games and still finished with five sacks, even playing some outside linebacker later in the season as the Jets made their run at a playoff spot. They ultimately fell short, but they served notice to the Patriots and the AFC that they were moving in the right direction, and Richardson was a big reason.
Patrick Peterson, CB, Arizona Cardinals
There seems to be an accidental theme going on here. With Peterson, who is LSU proud, we have yet another member of that 2011 draft — where five of the first six players drafted were SEC stars. Peterson was taken fifth overall, one spot behind Green, one spot ahead of Julio Jones. And like Green, Peterson has been a Pro Bowler in each of his first five seasons, establishing himself right away as one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, some might say the best, for a Cardinals team that has become an NFC power.
Peterson and the Cardinals they fell hard to Cam Newton (the highest-profile SEC alum these days) and Carolina in the NFC Championship Game. Still, Peterson is a three-time first-team All-Pro who already has 17 career interceptions.
If the Cardinals keep rising and reach a Super Bowl, maybe next year, Peterson will undoubtedly be front and center. Oh, and Peterson returns punts, something he also did in his final season in Baton Rouge, when he was a first-team all-SEC selection and a unanimous All-America pick. Peterson is already quite super. Maybe soon he’ll be on the Super stage.
Eddie Lacy, RB, Green Bay Packers
Last on our list but certainly not the least likely to be wearing a Super Bowl ring soon, Lacy knows a thing or two about being on the last team standing. The Pack’s bulldozer of a back was Alabama’s first, and the all-SEC talent helped lead the Crimson Tide to national titles in 2011 and 2012. He was a fixture on loaded Bama teams, and now he gets to share a backfield with Aaron Rodgers, which is why he’s a threat every year to play and thrive in a Super Bowl.
Lacy has paid immediate dividends since the Packers grabbed the 5-11, 234-pound locomotive in the second round of the 2013 draft. He was named Offensive Rookie of the Year and made the Pro Bowl in his first season. Lacy has only missed two games in three seasons, has amassed 3,075 yards rushing and has 29 combined touchdowns rushing and receiving.
In 2014, only a Seattle Seahawks miracle in the NFC title game kept Lacy from being in the Super Bowl. With that Packers winning pedigree and that guy Rodgers handing the ball to him, Lacy will likely get a few more cracks at being in that final game of the season he became so used to playing in at Alabama.