Top 10 Thursday's: Top 10 NFL Players who went to Alabama
August 29, 2013 in NFL
With the college football season rolling into action this weekend, we thought that we would put the focus of this week’s Top 10 on one of the most storied programs in NCAA history – the Alabama Crimson Tide. After all, they are the reigning National Champion, a title that they actually have held going into three of the last four seasons.
Not surprisingly, Alabama has turned out a number of high picks in recent NFL drafts, including a total of eleven first rounders in the past three years alone. That prompted us to take a look at all of the Alabama players who made their way to the NFL over the years.
Again not surprisingly, a number of them enjoyed great success in the NFL. Some of those had what you would clearly consider to be exceptional careers. And a few of them, actually turned out to be iconic figures in the history of the NFL.
So, with that in mind, we thought we would take a stab at identifying and ranking the top 10 NFL players who came out of the University of Alabama. While there have been many very good ones, we were able to pretty quickly identify a handful of players who just stood out and were worthy of consideration.
Of course, a couple of them, recent 1st Round draft picks, Julio Jones and Trent Richardson, have had some early success in the NFL and appear headed for greatness. But, because of their limited body of work, we did not feel comfortable including them in our Top 10. Now, if we would do this list five years down the road, quite likely, these guys would be on it – but not this time around.
So, looking at what we had left on our original list of candidates, we found that we would have to make some tough calls. In the end, a couple of great ones failed to survive our cut, including Chris Samuels, Kenny Stabler and Bob Baumhower. Yeah, that’s right, “The Snake” didn’t make it. So who did? Well …
# 10 – Shaun Alexander – RB
After a highly productive career at Alabama, Alexander was drafted 19th overall by the Seattle Seahawks in the 2000 NFL Draft. By his second year, he established himself as one of the top running backs in the league.
Over five consecutive seasons, from 2001 through 2005, Alexander rushed for at least 1,100 yards. In 2005, he won the MVP Award after leading the league in rushing with 1,880 yards and touchdowns with 28. Alexander finished his 9-year career with a total of 9,453 rushing yards.
Alexander was a 3-time Pro Bowler and was named to the All-Pro Team once. He helped lead the Seahawks to five playoff appearances, one of which culminated in Seattle’s lone Super Bowl appearance in 2005.
# 9 – Lee Roy Jordan – LB
During Jordan’s three-year playing career at Alabama (1960-1962), the Crimson Tide lost a total of 2 games. In his Junior year, Alabama went undefeated and won the National Championship and in his Senior year, Jordan was a First-Team All-American.
The Dallas Cowboys drafted Jordan in the 1st Round (6th overall) of the 1963 NFL Draft. He quickly became a key component of what became known as the Cowboys’ vaunted, “Doomsday Defense”.
Over his 14-year career, Jordan was a 5-time Pro-Bowler and was voted to the All-Pro team once. He helped lead the Cowboys to ten playoff appearances. During his time with Dallas, the Cowboys went to one NFL Championship game and four NFC Championship games, advancing to the Super Bowl on three of those occasions.
# 8 – Cornelius Bennett – LB
Bennett is one of only two Alabama players to be named to the All-America Team 3 times. In his Senior year, he also won the Lombardi Award as the best linebacker in the nation.
Bennett was drafted in the 1st Round (2nd overall) by the Indianapolis Colts in the 1987 NFL Draft. However, he and the Colts could not come to agreement on a contract and in October of that season, he was traded to the Bills as part of a blockbuster, three-team trade that involved Eric Dickerson moving from the Rams to the Colts.
In 1988, Bennett was named to his first of five Pro Bowls and also earned All-Pro honors. Additionally that year, he was named the AFC Defensive Player of the Year.
Bennett played 9 seasons with the Bills, followed by 3 seasons with Atlanta. Ironically, he finished up his 14-year NFL career playing 2 seasons with the Colts.
During his stint with Buffalo, Bennett and defensive end Bruce Smith were mainstays on a defense that helped lead the Bills to seven playoff appearances. Bennett played in five Conference Championship games with the Bills, winning four of them to advance to the Super Bowl. He added a fifth Super Bowl appearance to his resume as a starter for the Falcons’ highly-ranked defense in 1998, his last season with Atlanta. Unfortunately for Bennett, none of his 5 trips to the Super Bowl resulted in a Lombardi Trophy for his team.
# 7 – Dwight Stephenson – Center
Often on lists such as this, it is difficult to find room for an offensive lineman. But Stephenson had such an impressive NFL career, that it wasn’t a hard decision to include him in our rankings. Stephenson is actually one of two offensive linemen to make our list. You’ll have to wait awhile to see the other one.
At Alabama, Stephenson garnered All-America honors and he was instrumental to the Crimson Tide’s 1978 and 1979 runs to the National Championship. In the 1980 NFL Draft, the Miami Dolphins selected Stephenson in the 2nd Round.
Stephenson took over as the starting center for Miami late in the 1981 season, and he would go on to start every game for the Dolphins through the 1986 season. When the unforgettable 1987 players’ strike ended after three “replacement players” games were played, Stephenson returned to the field and was well on his way to another remarkable season. However, in an early December game, Stephenson suffered a very serious knee injury that ended his season. As it turned out, the injury was so severe, that Stephenson never again snapped the ball in an NFL game.
In spite of the fact that his was a rather short career, Stephenson earned the reputation as being one of the best centers to ever have played the game. He was a 5-time Pro Bowler and was voted to the All-Pro Team 4 times. He helped lead the Dolphins to four playoff appearances. In three of those appearances, the Dolphins advanced to the Conference Championship game, winning twice to move on to the Super Bowl, both of which resulted in losses. In 1998, Stephenson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
# 6 – Joe Namath – QB
For a lot of people, the initial reaction here will be, why is Namath so low on the list? The short answer is – wait until you see what’s coming!
After leading Alabama to a National Championship in 1964 while playing on a badly injured knee, Namath came to the NFL in 1965 amid much fanfare. That hype was fueled by the fact that the NFL and the upstart AFL were engaged in bidding wars over the top collegiate players.
The high-profile signing of Namath by the Jets at the unbelievable figure of $400,000, not only commenced the building of the legend of “”Broadway Joe”, it also signaled the beginning of the transformation of the NFL. It was followed up by more intense bidding wars and the raiding of players by teams in both leagues. In order to restore some sanity, both financial and otherwise, the two leagues came to agreement on a merger that resulted in the NFL product we have today.
But of course that’s only part of the story. Namath’s exploits on the field (and actually off the field for that matter) were dramatic. He was the first quarterback to throw for over 4,000 yards in a season and he was consistently ranked in the top 10 in completions, passing yards and TD passes. Then there was Super Bowl III when, in the last AFL-NFL meeting before the merger took effect, Namath guaranteed a Jets victory over the favored Baltimore Colts – and delivered.
While some of his key stats were very good, others were not so impressive. Both his winning percentage as a starter and his completion percentage were only around 50% and he threw 47 more interceptions than he did TD passes. But, he did go to five Pro Bowls and he was voted to the All-Pro team once.
In 1985, Namath was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Some questioned that selection since his numbers and record were not comparable to other quarterbacks in the Hall. But when you consider the overall package, including the impact he had on the game, he was an iconic figure in the NFL and well deserving of Hall of Fame recognition.
# 5 – Ozzie Newsome – TE
Newsome, who was a four-year starter at Alabama, was voted to the All-America Team in 1977, his Senior year. He was selected by the Cleveland Browns in the 1st Round (23rd overall) of the 1978 NFL Draft.
During his 13-year career, all with the Browns, Newsome was the model of consistency. With the exception of the three “replacement” games in the 1987 strike season, he played in EVERY game of his career and was a starter in 191 of those 198 games.
In 1981 and again in 1984, Newsome had over 1,000 receiving yards, an elite milestone for tight ends in his era. In both 1983 and 1984, he had 89 receptions, which is a number that still has him ranked in the top 20 all time for receptions by a tight end.
Newsome was a 3-time Pro Bowler and was voted to the All-Pro Team once. In those 13 seasons with the Browns, he helped lead them to seven playoff appearances. In three of those appearances, the Browns advanced to the AFC Championship Game, only to lose all three to the Denver Broncos. Alas, if not for “The Drive” and “The Fumble”, we might also be talking about Newsome’s Super Bowl record.
Newsome was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999.
# 4 – Bart Starr – QB
Unlike the others on this list, Starr did not have a distinguished career at Alabama. He only started during his Sophomore year, when he led the Crimson Tide to an SEC Championship and a # 13 ranking in the final AP poll. Due to an injury his Junior year and a coaching change the following season, Starr saw limited action in a backup role his final two years at Alabama.
The Green Bay Packers selected Starr in the 17th Round (200th overall) of the 1956 NFL Draft. Late in the 1959 season, Vince Lombardi’s first year at the Packers’ helm, Starr was installed as the starter, a role he held all through Lombardi’s tenure with the Packers.
Starr had a 16-year career with the Packers and enjoyed his greatest success while playing for Lombardi. He won the league MVP Award in 1966 and was voted to the All-Pro team that year as well. Starr was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977.
Starr’s passing stats with respect to completions, yardage and TD’s were good, but generally they were not exceptional. But make no mistake, although his numbers were not elite, Starr was considered an elite quarterback throughout much of the 1960’s. There was Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr. They were the Peyton Manning/Tom Brady of their era.
Starr consistently ranked at or near the top in completion percentage and interceptions. He was an extremely accurate passer who took care of the ball. Most often, that is a recipe for success in the NFL.
And while having impressive numbers is great, winning is even better. That is exactly what Starr did. He had a 94-57-6 record as a starter and led the Packers to six playoff appearances. The first of those appearances was in the 1960 NFL Championship game which the Packers lost to the Philadelphia Eagles. The next five resulted in NFL Championship titles, the last two of which propelled the Packers into the first two Super Bowl games where they defeated the AFL Champion, Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders. (It’s also interesting to note that the winning quarterbacks of the first three Super Bowls were Alabama guys!)
# 3 – Derrick Thomas – LB
Thomas earned All-America honors while at Alabama and in 1988, he won the Butkus Award as the best linebacker in college football. Thomas was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1st Round (4th overall) of the 1989 NFL Draft.
Thomas was a 9-time Pro Bowler and 2-time All-Pro during his 11-year career with the Chiefs. Tragically, Thomas died in February of 2000 from injuries he sustained in a car accident the previous month.
In 1989, Thomas won the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award and quickly established himself as one of the fiercest pass rushers in the league. In 1990, Thomas led the league in sacks with 20. That was the same year that he set an NFL record by getting 7 sacks in a game against Seattle.
Over his career, Thomas recorded a total of 126.5 sacks, a figure that ranks him 12th on the all-time sack leaderboard. He had 10 or more sacks in a season seven times and had 27 multi-sack games in his career. He also recorded 45 forced fumbles over the course of his career. Throughout his time in the NFL, Thomas was one of the most, if not THE most feared defenders in the league. He was the type of impact player that opponents just couldn’t game plan around.
Thomas helped lead the Chiefs to seven playoff appearances, once reaching the Conference Championship game. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2009.
# 2 – John Hannah – G
Finally, we see our other offensive lineman. But, at a # 2 ranking? We would ask, why not?
At Alabama, Hannah helped lead the Crimson Tide to back-to-back SEC Titles in 1971 and 1972. After his Senior season in 1972, he was named a Consensus All-American. In the 1973 NFL Draft, Hannah was selected in the 1st Round (4th overall) by the New England Patriots.
Hannah played all of his 13-year career with the Patriots. He became known as a model of durability and consistency, playing every game in eight of those seasons. Known for his ability to play through pain, Hannah only missed a total of 5 games in his career due to injury.
Hannah possessed a great combination of speed, quickness, strength and aggressiveness that is not often packaged in an offensive lineman. His athleticism allowed him to excel in all facets of an offensive lineman’s game: pass protection, run blocking and pulling out to lead the power sweeps that teams often ran back in his time.
In 1978, the Patriots rushed for a then-record 3,165 yards and Hannah’s play was considered to be a major factor in that success. But truthfully, it’s difficult to quantify the level of performance of an offensive lineman, and that was especially true back in Hannah’s day.
The Patriots had a 100-91 record during Hannah’s years with them. They did make the playoffs four times during his career, which included a 1985 trip to the Super Bowl in Hannah’s last season. That was the year they lost to Mike Ditka’s Bears.
But on the flip side, Hannah played on more than a few mediocre to flat-out, bad teams. Regardless of the scenario however, Hannah was universally recognized as the best guard in the league throughout his entire career. That was clearly evidenced by his 9 Pro Bowl selections and the fact that he was a 7-time All-Pro. It all culminated with a first ballot induction into the Hall of Fame in 1991. Quantifiable indeed!
# 1 – Don Hutson – WR
Who? It’s a pretty safe bet that many of you who are reading this never heard of Don Hutson because his 11-year NFL career ran from 1935 through 1945. But in doing these rankings, we recognized that numbers alone could not be the determining factor as to where a guy should be ranked. We had to also consider the era in which the player performed and the overall impact he had on the game.
In his Senior year at Alabama, Hutson helped lead the Crimson Tide to the 1934 National Championship – at least in some circles. (Long story!) For his efforts, Hutson was named to the All-America Team that year. Since the NFL draft had not yet been implemented, players coming out of college were free to sign with whatever team they wanted. Hutson signed with the Green Bay Packers.
At the time Hutson entered the NFL, the offensive mindset for most every team was to run first and pretty much always – and to pass only out of necessity. But with the Packers, Hutson had the good fortune of playing for legendary coach, Curly Lambeau. Lambeau was one of the first coaches to view the forward pass as a potential offensive weapon instead of just a necessary evil.
As a speedy, sure-handed split end (that’s what they were called back in the day), Hutson took advantage of Lambeau’s willingness to be innovative. Working with his coach, Hutson developed a number of sophisticated pass receiving routes, many of which still form the basis for what is being run in today’s NFL.
But Hutson didn’t become known as the inventor of the modern passing game just for what he created. It really was the result of what he did with it on the field. Hutson was a perennial leader in just about every pass receiving statistical category during his career, including receptions, reception yardage and TD pass receptions.
While those numbers would not necessarily rival the kind of numbers put up by today’s receivers, throughout his career, Hutson’s stats usually far exceeded those of his nearest competitor. The truth was, teams just couldn’t figure out how to defend him.
During Hutson’s 11 years with the Packers, they never had a losing season. He helped lead them to 5 NFL Championship Game appearances, three of which resulted in wins. For his exploits on the field, Hutson won the league MVP Award in 1941 and 1942 and he received All-Pro recognition 8 times.
His immense success on the field combined with the significant impact he had on the way the game was played, made him an easy choice for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the 1963 charter class. And we think that is also ample reason why he should be our # 1 ranked NFL player to come out of the University of Alabama.