Arkansas Razorbacks: Who Are the Best Razorbacks to Play in the NFL?

Wes BennettContributor IIIMarch 26, 2012

Arkansas Razorbacks: Who Are the Best Razorbacks to Play in the NFL?

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    Everyone has their favorite Razorbacks moment. The Razorbacks had memorable rivalries against the Texas Longhorns and Texas A&M Aggies in the old Southwest Conference. 

    Younger Hogs fans may favor the thrillers against LSU or Ole Miss that have come since the University of Arkansas' move to the Southeastern Conference in 1992.

    For the sake of brevity, I've narrowed my list of the greatest Hogs to play in the National Football League down to the last 25 years. These are the legends of the Arkansas falls who have made us smile and shake our heads with wonder as we pondered the greatness that we watched.

    We have spilled our popcorn as we leapt from our armchairs to high-five someone across the room.  We muted our televisions and turned up our radios so we could hear Paul Eels call out "Ohhh Myyyy! Touchdown Arkansas!".

    We have watched with pride as these men walked across the platform to shake the NFL commissioner's hand as they were drafted into the game that we watch on Sundays.

    Not all of these Hogs have had stellar NFL careers.  Some were not given a chance by the teams that drafted them, and some have simply not had time since being drafted to establish a legacy.

    But these are the outstanding Razorbacks of the last 25 years who have added their name to an NFL roster.

No. 10: Matt Jones

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    In 2005, the Jacksonville Jaguars made quarterback Matt Jones the 21st pick of the first round and slated him to play wide receiver.

    Jones "wowed" the NFL scouts at the combine by running a sub-4.4 40-yard dash, a 39'5" vertical jump, and a 10'10" broad jump. At 6'6" and 235 pounds, Jones was a fantastic athlete.

    Razorbacks fans will remember the two seven-overtime victories that Jones orchestrated over Kentucky in 2003 and Eli Manning and the Ole Miss Rebels in 2001.

    Other Hogs fans might reflect on the 2003 game in Texas against the Longhorns, when Jones ran for more than 100 yards, including a 60-yarder to hand the sixth-ranked Longhorns a bitter defeat 38-28.

    Matt Jones was not known for being enthusiastic or energetic in practice sessions, but when they turned on the stadium lights, you could count on Jones to play his heart out. After being drafted by the Jaguars, Jones was paired with old-school coach Jack Del Rio, who did not seem to understand his young receiver.

    Del Rio had been a fiery linebacker and did not tolerate Jones' apparent lack of effort in practice.  The Jaguars never seemed to have a quarterback who would throw to Matt Jones consistently in the games.

    As any Hogs fan knows, Jones shined brightest with the ball in pressure situations. He just never had the chance to gain the confidence of those in Jacksonville who made the decisions. 

    It all became a moot point after Jones' arrest for cocaine possession.  This gave the Jaguars management the room to cut ties with Jones, who had shown some promise in his first three seasons.

    Matt Jones will always be fondly remembered by Hogs fans, not for his brilliant passing, but for his will to win and his dazzling athleticism.

No. 9: Shawn Andrews

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    In 2004, the Philadelphia Eagles selected offensive guard Shawn Andrews from the Arkansas Razorbacks as the 16th pick of the first round. 

    The Camden Arkansas native was a two-time All American for the Hogs and gave up only two sacks in his 35 starts.

    Andrews won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the best blocker in the SEC in 2002 and 2003 and was a finalist for the Lombardi and Outland trophies in 2003.

    Shawn Andrews went on to become a three-time Pro Bowl selection for the Eagles and was named All-Pro twice. 

    All was right in the world for Andrews until he failed to show up for training camp in the summer of 2008.  After several unexcused absences, Andrews revealed that he suffers from depression and was being seen clinically by a professional counselor.

    After injuring his back, he missed the majority of the 2008 and 2009 seasons and was eventually released by the Eagles in 2010. 

    As with Jones, Shawn Andrews showed mercurial talent in college only to crash hard with unrealized expectations in his professional career. Hogs fans will always be nostalgic for those autumn Saturdays when Andrews lined up next to Jason Peters on the left side of the line to bulldoze a hole for Cedric Cobbs or Fred Talley.

No. 8: Ryan Mallett

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    In April, 2011, 6'7" quarterback Ryan Mallett of the Arkansas Razorbacks finally heard his name called in the third round of the NFL draft at No. 10. 

    The rifle-armed QB was disappointed in his draft position but not in the situation he found himself in as understudy to one of the game's finest leaders in Tom Brady.

    Razorbacks fans watched the 2009 season with anticipation after Mallett sat out the entire previous season because of his transfer from the University of Michigan. 

    The big, rangy gunslinger did not disappoint, as Mallett matched or broke 16 school passing records while leading the Hogs to an 8-5 season and a Liberty Bowl victory over East Carolina.

    Mallett threw for over 3,600 yards and 30 touchdowns against only seven interceptions.

    In 2010, Ryan Mallett finished seventh in Heisman Trophy balloting, throwing for 3,869 yards, 32 touchdowns and only 12 picks. Although national pundits talked about his late-game interceptions against Alabama and Ohio State, Hogs fans know that they never would have been in the BCS Sugar Bowl without Mallett's leadership that season.

    Mallett has not had his chance to shine yet on the NFL stage, but it is only a matter of time before he gets his shot.  Razorbacks fans were stunned when Mallett fell to the third round due to "character" concerns, mostly due to a public intoxication arrest and whiffs of rumors that he had used marijuana while at Arkansas.

    No one within the borders of the state of Arkansas will be surprised when Ryan Mallett proves the so-called experts wrong on the field.

No. 7: Felix Jones

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    In 2008, Felix Jones was selected with the 22nd pick overall by the Dallas Cowboys in the first round of the NFL draft.

    Although Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is a notorious homer when it comes to the Hogs, most insiders praised the pick as a sound one.

    While at the University of Arkansas, Felix Jones was used in many different ways for the Razorbacks. He lined up at tailback, slot receiver, wide receiver and kick returner.

    The Hogs would throw to him, pitch to him or hand the ball off to Jones in a variety of formations.

    When paired with two-time Heisman trophy runner-up and two-time Doak Walker award winner Darren McFadden in the Wildcat formation, Jones lit up opposing defenses for huge amounts of yardage.

    Jones averaged 7.6 yards per carry, piling up an impressive 1,168 yards and six touchdowns on only 154 carries in 2006. During that sophomore season, Jones was named All-American at kick returner while also lining up with future NFLers McFadden and Peyton Hillis. In his college career, he ran back four kickoffs for touchdowns.

    Jones had another impressive season in 2007, rushing for more than 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns on only 123 carries while averaging 9.1 yards per carry. He again earned All-American honors as a kick returner with two touchdowns.

    In Felix Jones first season as a Cowboy, he returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown against the Philadelphia Eagles. He has been a productive player running, receiving and returning kicks for the Pokes.

    It remains to be seen if Jones can hold off second-year player DeMarco Murray in Dallas for the starting job.

No. 6: Barry Foster

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    Barry Foster played fullback at the University of Arkansas on those run-oriented teams of head coach Ken Hatfield.

    Although he left after his junior season, Foster was not selected until the Steelers chose him at No. 19 of the fifth round in the 1990 NFL draft. 

    Foster only played five full seasons in the NFL because of injuries, but he made the most of his brief but glory-filled career.

    After two seasons on the bench, in 1992 he was given the opportunity to play by new head coach Bill Cowher. He rushed for a Steelers single-season record 1,690 yards while smashing Franco Harris' record of 100-yard games in a season with 12. 

    That season, Barry Foster finished second to Emmitt Smith for the NFL rushing title and made the Pro Bowl.

    In his second season, he was injured but still managed to gain 711 yards in nine games, which won him another Pro Bowl berth in 1993.  The Steelers loved the rumbling style of the 5'10", 223-pound Foster and probably gave him too much work between the tackles.

    The 1994 AFC Championship game was the last game that Foster played in, as his season was again sporadic because of injuries. 

    Because of the emergence of Bam Morris and concerns about Foster's injuries, the Steelers traded him to the expansion Carolina Panthers.  Foster was cut in training camp because of a failed physical.

No. 5: Wayne Martin

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    Wayne Martin heard the commissioner call his name as the 19th selection of the first round in the 1989 NFL draft.

    He would be headed down to Cajun country as a New Orleans Saint.

    Wayne Martin was a terror to Southwest Conference offenses as a powerful defensive lineman in his days as an Arkansas Razorback.

    He ranks third on the all-time Razorbacks list with 37.5 tackles for loss, and he's No. 1 on the all-time Hogs sack list with 25.5.

    Martin lived up to his first-round talent with a stellar 10-year Saints career that ended in 1999.

    When he was finished, Wayne Martin had amassed 82.5 sacks which is second only to his teammate Rickey Jackson.

    Big No. 93 was inducted into the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame in 2003.

No. 4: Billy Ray Smith Jr.

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    In 1983, Billy Ray Smith Jr. heard his name called as the fifth pick of the first round of the NFL draft by the San Diego Chargers. 

    As an Arkansas Razorback, Smith was a two-time consensus All-American and set the Razorbacks career record for tackles for loss at 63.

    Billy Ray Smith Jr. played 10 seasons for the Chargers and was very productive at linebacker.

    In 1996, he recorded the highest single-season sack total for his career with 11 sacks.

    Smith was named second-team All AFC by the UPI in 1986 and '87 and was also inducted into the Chargers Hall of Fame as one of the 50 greatest Chargers of all-time.

    In 1982, as a team captain for the Hogs, Billy Ray Smith Jr. led the Hogs to a 9-2-1 record and a Bluebonnet Bowl victory over the Florida Gators.

    Smith was inducted into the Arkansas State Hall of Fame and Razorbacks Hall of Honor in 1995, and the College Football Hall of Fame in 2000.

No. 3: Darren McFadden

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    Darren McFadden was the fourth player taken overall in the first round of the 2008 NFL draft by the Oakland Raiders.

    The only cause for concern among Hogs fans was the fact that Al Davis was still running the team into the ground as owner of the Raiders.

    As an Arkansas Razorback, D-Mac teamed with current NFL players Felix Jones and Peyton Hillis to give opposing defensive coordinators nightmares. 

    Quarterbacks coach David Lee had suggested to Houston Nutt and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn that with all of the talent in the backfield, why not run an old formation from another era to incorporate all three guys?

    It was the old Wing-T formation, but the Razorbacks dubbed it the Wild Hog or Wildcat formation. Teams have copied it to various degrees of success, but no one ever ran it like the Razorbacks. 

    Darren McFadden would line up at shotgun quarterback, Hillis would be on one side and Felix Jones on the other. Teams had to pick their poison and were rarely able to stop the Hogs from running wild.

    McFadden would throw touchdowns, burst up the middle for huge chunks of real estate or hand the ball to Jones or Hillis for big yardage.

    Darren McFadden was a two-time All-American at running back for the Razorbacks. He won the Doak Walker award as the nation's most outstanding halfback twice and was the runner up for the Heisman Trophy twice.

    D-Mac also won the Walter Camp award in 2007 as the nation's most outstanding player. McFadden rushed for 1,113 yards and 11 touchdowns in his freshmen season, 1,647 yards and 14 touchdowns in his 2006 sophomore campaign and finished his career as a junior with 1,829 yards and 16 touchdowns.

    Many fans may disagree with McFadden's position at No. 3, believing that he deserves the top spot. If this was just a list for college accomplishments, he would win hands down.

    But we have included professional success as a contributing factor for the list, and D-Mac has been slowed by injuries in his first four seasons as a Raider.

    With new ownership and management in place, I have no doubts that McFadden will develop into a Hall of Fame-worthy player.

No. 2: Steve Atwater

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    In 1989, the Denver Broncos made Steve Atwater the 20th overall pick in the first round.

    It paid off in a big way for the Broncos, as Atwater became one of the best defensive backs to ever play the game of football.

    At 6'3" and 220 pounds, Atwater earned his nickname of "The Smiling Assassin" with crushing hits on receivers who dared to cross the middle of the field.

    He was named All Southwest Conference three times and added to the All-American team twice.

    Atwater still holds the Razorbacks team career record for interceptions with 14 picks.

    After being drafted by the Broncos, he played immediately as a rookie and led the team with 129 tackles.

    From his second season on, Atwater was selected to seven consecutive Pro Bowls and finished his career with eight trips to Hawaii. He played 10 seasons in the NFL and helped the Broncos win two Super Bowls.

    Steve Atwater was inducted into the University of Arkansas Sports Hall of Honor in 1998 and was named to the Razorbacks All-Century team in 1994 as well as the All-Decade team of the 80s.

    In 2005, he was put into the Broncos' Ring of Fame and was a semifinalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2012.

No. 1: Dan Hampton

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    The Chicago Bears selected Dan Hampton of the Arkansas Razorbacks with the fourth pick of the first round in the 1979 NFL draft.

    In Hampton's stellar four years with the Hogs, he made 237 tackles with 32 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

    He was two-time All Southwest Conference and helped the Hogs whip highly favored Oklahoma in the 1978 Orange Bowl by the score of 31-6.

    Dan Hampton was voted to the Pro Bowl four times and selected as All-Pro at two different positions—defensive end and defensive tackle.

    He was part of a Bears defensive unit that is the co-holder of the record for most sacks in a game with 12 against the Detroit Lions in 1984.

    Hampton had 11.5 sacks in 1980 as a defensive end and tied his own career best with 11.5 sacks as a defensive tackle in 1984.

    In 1991, Dan Hampton was named to the University of Arkansas Sports Hall of Honor and the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1992. In 1994 he was voted to the Razorbacks All-Century Team and named one of Arkansas' 50 greatest athletes of all time.

    The crowning achievement was Hampton's election to the National Football League Hall of Fame in 2002.

    The football legacy at the University of Arkansas is distinguished and stretches back to the glory years of the 1960s, when Arkansas' 1964 team won its sole national championship. 

    That team had two famous players who earned their success in pro football—Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones. Barry Switzer was an assistant coach on that team as well. 

    Lance Alworth was a Hall of Fame receiver for the Chargers and Cowboys and should be considered when you are talking about all-time greats. But for this list, we have given you the 10 best Razorbacks of the last 25 years.