Imagining an 8-Team Tournament with NFL Players Sorted by Their College Programs
Georgia and LSU have produced some outstanding NFL players in recent years, but which one has the alumni to create the best 22-man roster?
The 2017 NFL draft is this week, but instead of sending players to the pros, let's imagine a world where colleges are able to bring back all of their NFL players for one eight-game tournament.
It won't shock anyone that there are several SEC schools among the top seeds in this tourney, but it was a bit of a surprise to find the Pac-12 was responsible for more than one-third of the 14 teams capable of putting together a legal roster. Not one of those schools makes it to the semifinals of this fictitious tournament, but it's a nice bragging right for the Conference of Champions.
Save for Georgia, each school has at least one glaring weakness. (Wait until you see some of the starting quarterbacks on these eight teams.) But is that enough for the Bulldogs to win this thing?
On the following slide, we'll run through how we chose and ranked the eight teams. The next eight slides are dedicated to listing each school's roster, as well as its biggest strength, biggest weakness and MVP. After that, it's predictions on how the tournament would play out.
We hope you'll reminisce and enjoy the ride. If nothing else, try to view it as a creative break from the deluge of mock drafts you've been devouring for the past three months.
Criteria Considered, Ranking Process and Honorable Mentions
Long story short, we're looking for schools that have produced enough active NFL players* to make legal 22-man rosters, then ranking them based on NFL production.
Ideally, the rosters would be one QB, two RB/FB, three WR/TE, five OL, three DE, four LB and four DB, but there's some obvious flexibility in the defensive formations, as well as the RB/WR/TE breakdown. But step one in this process was figuring out which schools actually have 11 offensive and 11 defensive players in the pros. Big thanks to ESPN's NFL Players by College page for making that possible.
From there, it was a matter of figuring out whether the players have actually provided value in the NFL, or whether they're career benchwarmers who wouldn't do much good in this tournament. For this step, the every-position player grades at ProFootballFocus.com were an invaluable resource.
Once the best 22-man rosters were assembled, each school was given a letter grade for each of the seven positional buckets listed above. That grade was then converted to a number ranging from zero for an F to 12 for an A+. Add those seven numbers together, sort in descending order and, voila, you've got a ranking of schools by how well-rounded their crop of NFL alumni is.
As far as honorable mentions go, both Oregon and Oklahoma came within a few points of making the cut thanks to some great QB and RB options. However, both schools received an F in the linebackers department and didn't have much of anything when it came to offensive linemen or receivers.
Four other schools (Auburn, Michigan State, UCLA and Utah) technically have the necessary players in the NFL to make valid 22-man rosters, but each one had far too many weaknesses to even bother assigning letter grades before eliminating them.
And while it's doubtful they would have made the top eight anyway, Clemson, Florida and Notre Dame are three noteworthy programs that never even made it past the second wave of cuts due to the fact that they don't currently have a quarterback in the NFL. Penn State was also eliminated at this stage in the game because it doesn't have an active running back at the next level.
*Active NFL players either means currently on a roster or regarded as one of the top 25 free agents still available. It does not include players who are in the 2017 draft, hence the lack of a QB for both Clemson and Notre Dame.
No. 8 Seed: Miami Hurricanes
QB: Stephen Morris
RB: Lamar Miller, Frank Gore
WR/TE: Greg Olsen*, Allen Hurns, Travis Benjamin
OL: Brandon Linder, Ereck Flowers, Orlando Franklin, Eric Winston, Jimmy Graham*
DL: Calais Campbell, Olivier Vernon, Allen Bailey
LB: Sean Spence, Denzel Perryman, Ray-Ray Armstrong, Anthony Chickillo
DB: Artie Burns, LaDarius Gunter, Deon Bush, Tracy Howard
Biggest Strength: Running Game
There are better individual running backs on this list, but this might be the best tandem of the bunch. Both Lamar Miller and Frank Gore rushed for over 1,000 yards last season, even though Gore is about to enter his 13th season. They're also great options in the flats with a combined 69 receptions in 2016.
Biggest Weakness: Passing Game
Stephen Morris has never played a down in the NFL and wasn't exactly a Heisman candidate in college, but he's the only option the Hurricanes have at QB. Moreover, their secondary leaves much to be desired, as Artie Burns (five interceptions last year as a rookie) is the only DB with a pick in the pros.
MVP: Greg Olsen / Jimmy Graham
Because Miami's options for offensive line are limited, one of Greg Olsen or Jimmy Graham would have to play tackle. However, they could swap back and forth at tight end and both rack up a ton of catches. Among tight ends, Olsen and Graham ranked No. 2 and No. 3 in the country in receiving yards last season.
Overall Thoughts: There are a lot of things to like about this roster. We haven't even mentioned the dominant defensive duo of Calais Campbell and Olivier Vernon. But the lack of a quarterback and the inability to stop opposing quarterbacks will be too much for Miami to overcome.
No. 7 Seed: Stanford Cardinal
QB: Andrew Luck
RB: Ty Montgomery
WR/TE: Doug Baldwin, Zach Ertz, Coby Fleener, Ryan Hewitt
OL: David DeCastro, Andrus Peat, Joshua Garnett, Cameron Fleming, David Yankey
DL: Trent Murphy, Henry Anderson, David Parry, Josh Mauro
LB: Blake Martinez, Brennan Scarlett, Shayne Skov
DB: Richard Sherman, Ed Reynolds II, Michael Thomas, Johnson Bademosi
Biggest Strength: Passing Game
Though it's an unorthodox breakdown of receiving options, Stanford has several good ones. Tight ends Zach Ertz and Coby Fleener have each amassed more than 2,700 career receiving yards over the past five years, and Doug Baldwin has been firmly established as the go-to receiver for the Seattle Seahawks. They get bonus points in the passing game for Ty Montgomery, who has more career receiving yards (484) than rushing yards (471).
Biggest Weakness: Middle of the Defense
Stanford's linebacker situation is kind of a disaster. Its only LBs with any NFL experience are the ones listed above, and it's beyond generous to say those guys are experienced. Between Blake Martinez, Brennan Scarlett and Shayne Skov, the Cardinal have a combined total of 94 tackles, one sack and one interception in the pros. Moreover, outside of Richard Sherman, there's little in the secondary to provide help over the top.
MVP: Andrew Luck
For the passing game to be a strength, the one throwing the passes has to be an important component. And of the quarterbacks on these eight teams, there's none better than Andrew Luck. He has at least one passing touchdown in 22 consecutive games and accounts for multiple scores more often than not.
Overall Thoughts: With just one running back and one wide receiver in the NFL, we had to get a little creative by loading the Cardinal up with two tight ends and a fullback. But given the various jumbo packages Stanford has used in recent years, it only makes sense that this be the one school in the tournament with a bizarre offensive set. The lack of both running backs and linebackers will be a problem, though.
No. 6 Seed: USC Trojans
QB: Carson Palmer
RB: Javorius Allen
WR/TE: Marqise Lee, Robert Woods, Nelson Agholor, Rhett Ellison
OL: Tyron Smith, Ryan Kalil, Matt Kalil, Marcus Martin, Xavier Grimble
DL: Leonard Williams, Jurrell Casey, Everson Griffen, Nick Perry
LB: Clay Matthews, Brian Cushing, Malcolm Smith, Devon Kennard
DB: T.J. McDonald, Nickell Robey-Coleman, Josh Shaw
Biggest Strength: Defensive Front Eight
Led by Clay Matthews, Brian Cushing and Leonard Williams, USC's run-stopping and pass-rushing defense is about as good as it gets. In a tournament where only a handful of quarterbacks can throw the deep ball with accuracy, that could be a huge advantage.
Biggest Weakness: Rushing
For starters, USC's only option at running back is Javorius Allen, and he has more lost fumbles in his career (two) than rushing touchdowns (one). Now consider that USC's OL consists of one tight end and two linemen who played fewer than 125 snaps in 2016 and it'd be a surprise if the Trojans gain a single rushing yard.
MVP: Clay Matthews
2016 was a down year for Clay Matthews with just 24 tackles, but the six-time Pro Bowl linebacker has recorded at least six sacks (including postseason) in each of his eight professional seasons. For USC to win any games, defense will be paramount. That makes Matthews the most valuable Trojan.
Overall Thoughts: USC is going to stop opponents from running the ball, but it unfortunately won't be able to move the ball on the ground on offense. In games involving the Trojans, expect a ton of passes from both teams. And if you're rooting for them, hope that Carson Palmer can make guys like Nelson Agholor and Rhett Ellison look great.
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No. 5 Seed: Florida State Seminoles
QB: Jameis Winston
RB: Devonta Freeman, Karlos Williams
WR/TE: Kelvin Benjamin, Rashad Greene, Nick O'Leary
OL: Rodney Hudson, Bobby Hart, Cameron Erving, Menelik Watson, Tre' Jackson
DL: Timmy Jernigan, Eddie Goldman, Letroy Guion
LB: Telvin Smith, Nigel Bradham, Lawrence Timmons, Vince Williams
DB: Jalen Ramsey, Ronald Darby, Xavier Rhodes, Lamarcus Joyner
Biggest Strength: Run-Pass Option
The one year that Jameis Winston and Devonta Freeman played together in Tallahassee, the former won the Heisman with more than 4,000 passing yards and the latter ran for over 1,000 yards with 14 TD. Freeman has since become a fantasy football darling as a guy with at least 1,500 combined rushing and receiving yards in each of the past two seasons. Factor in Winston's mobility and it's a given the Seminoles would have the most entertaining playbook in this tournament.
Biggest Weakness: The Trenches
It's a good thing those two guys are so elusive, because they're going to have defensive linemen in their faces all game long. Outside of center Rodney Hudson, Florida State doesn't have much of an offensive line. Moreover, Timmy Jernigan is the only defensive lineman that has made an impact in the NFL. The Seminoles will have trouble with both blocking and avoiding blocks.
MVP: Jameis Winston
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft will need to be more efficient than he has been thus far in his pro career, but he might be the biggest potential difference maker that any team has.
Overall Thoughts: The Seminoles have one strong option in each of the seven categories, but quality depth is not their forte. They're relatively average across the board.
No. 4 Seed: Alabama Crimson Tide
QB: AJ McCarron
RB: Mark Ingram, T.J. Yeldon
WR/TE: Julio Jones, Amari Cooper, Kevin Norwood
OL: Ryan Kelly, James Carpenter, Cyrus Kouandjio, D.J. Fluker, Anthony Steen
DL: Marcell Dareus, Quinton Dial, A'Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed
LB: C.J. Mosley, Dont'a Hightower, Mark Barron
DB: Landon Collins, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Dre Kirkpatrick, Kareem Jackson
Biggest Strength: Big-Play Prevention
A team with a strong rushing attack might be able to move down the field against Alabama's defensive line, but these linebackers and defensive backs are absurdly good. All seven logged at least 820 defensive snaps in 2016 for a combined total of 588 tackles, 52 passes defended, 20 interceptions and 8.0 sacks.
Biggest Weakness: Quarterback
AJ McCarron has spent the past three seasons stuck behind Andy Dalton on the Cincinnati Bengals depth chart. But when Dalton broke his thumb late in the 2015 season, McCarron wasn't too shabby. In five games (including a playoff game) he completed 63.5 percent of his passes with seven TD against just three INT. He's certainly not the best pro QB in this tournament, but he's nowhere near the worst, either.
MVP: Julio Jones
In the past decade, only four unique players have logged at least 1,620 receiving yards in a season, yet Julio Jones has averaged 1,624 yards over the last three years. With Central Michigan and Antonio Brown nowhere near this field of eight teams, there's no question that Jones is the most valuable receiver in the tournament.
Overall Thoughts: The Crimson Tide have a few weak spots in their offensive and defensive lines and a big unknown at QB, but they are one of the four legitimate threats to win this tournament regardless of draw. With more than 40 players in the NFL and nine consecutive college seasons with at least 10 wins, it's no surprise that Alabama is one of the favorites.
No. 3 Seed: LSU Tigers
QB: Zach Mettenberger
RB: Spencer Ware, Jeremy Hill
WR/TE: Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, Russell Shepard
OL: Andrew Whitworth, Trai Turner, Joe Barksdale, Vadal Alexander, La'el Collins
DL: Kyle Williams, Danielle Hunter, Michael Brockers
LB: Deion Jones, Kevin Minter, Kwon Alexander, Perry Riley
DB: Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, Morris Claiborne, Eric Reid
Biggest Strength: Defense
There are good defenses, and then there's LSU. The Tigers currently have 27 defensive players in the NFL, and there aren't many benchwarmers in the bunch. This team is so stacked that we had to leave out nine players who logged at least 100 snaps in 2016, including defensive backs Jalen Collins, Jalen Miller and Rashard Robinson. Good luck moving the ball against LSU.
Biggest Weakness: Quarterback
Zach Mettenberger has attempted a pass in 13 games in his NFL career. The Tennessee Titans went 0-13 in those games as he compiled 12 TD against 14 INT. But the Tigers are hoping that suiting back up in the purple and gold will spark a revival. In his final season of college ball, Mettenberger had the fourth-best QB rating in the nation, according to CFBstats.com.
MVP: Odell Beckham Jr.
It was tempting to go with Patrick Peterson here, but Odell Beckham Jr. is just too doggone talented. And at least he and Mettenberger have an established rapport, as their respective three years in the bayou overlapped entirely.
Overall Thoughts: With a sketchy offensive line and a quarterback who hasn't shown us much of anything in the past three years, it's hard to envision LSU scoring a ton of points in this tournament. But at least the Tigers have the defense to keep things interesting. If there were place kickers on these rosters, they'd be hoping for a lot of 9-6 games.
No. 2 Seed: Ohio State Buckeyes
QB: Cardale Jones
RB: Ezekiel Elliott, Carlos Hyde
WR/TE: Michael Thomas, Terrelle Pryor Sr., Ted Ginn Jr.
OL: Andrew Norwell, Corey Linsley, Taylor Decker, Jack Mewhort, Alex Boone
DL: Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett, Cameron Heyward
LB: Ryan Shazier, John Simon, Darron Lee
DB: Malcolm Jenkins, Vonn Bell, Kurt Coleman, Eli Apple, Bradley Roby
Biggest Strength: Offensive Line
Most of the teams had an abundance of offensive linemen, but only Ohio State ended up with a legitimate quintet of guys. According to Pro Football Focus, all five of Ohio State's big men played at least 660 snaps with a player grade of at least 76.5. No other team has more than three such players, as the other seven combined for just 10. Better yet, Ohio State's five OL actually consists of two tackles, two guards and a center.
Biggest Weakness: Quarterback
Cardale Jones might eventually be something special, but he went 6-of-11 with an interception against the Jets this past January in his only NFL appearance. He is Ohio State's only current QB in the league, but at least he has one heck of a supporting cast of linesmen and rushers/receivers. Jones doesn't need to be great for Ohio State to be great.
MVP: Ezekiel Elliott
The runner-up to Dak Prescott for the 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year, Ezekiel Elliott is arguably the most valuable player in this entire tournament, thanks in large part to the line blocking for him. Elliott led the NFL in rushing yards this past season and would easily be the top rusher in this field.
Summary: The Buckeyes are loaded in five of the seven categories, and they aren't exactly weak in the sixth (linebackers) with Ryan Shazier and John Simon at their disposal. With a better QB, they would easily be No. 1—which made it tempting to put Pryor at QB and bump either Corey Brown or Braxton Miller up to the third WR.
No. 1 Seed: Georgia Bulldogs
QB: Matthew Stafford
RB: Todd Gurley
WR/TE: A.J. Green, Chris Conley, Malcolm Mitchell, Benjamin Watson
OL: Ben Jones, David Andrews, Clint Boling, Cordy Glenn, John Theus
DL: Justin Houston, Geno Atkins, Abry Jones, Jordan Jenkins
LB: Thomas Davis, Alec Ogletree, Ramik Wilson, Jarvis Jones
DB: Shawn Williams, Reshad Jones, Corey Moore
Biggest Strength: Run Stopping
Several other schools have laid claim to the title of "Linebacker University" over the years, but Georgia currently has eight linebackers in the NFL—each of which was a starter for the majority of games played in 2016. Factor in the Bulldogs' eight professional defensive linemen and they've got a front eight that could shut down any rushing attack.
Biggest Weakness: Man-to-Man Coverage
While every other team on the list has at least one glaring problem, weakness is a relative term for the Bulldogs. All three of their defensive backs are starters in the NFL, but all three are safeties. In fact, Georgia doesn't have a single cornerback that appeared in a game last season. As a result, defending short passing routes would appear to be UGA's Achilles' heel.
MVP: Matthew Stafford
Alabama, LSU and Ohio State are all lacking in the QB department, but Matthew Stafford is the primary reason Georgia is our No. 1 seed. The fact that the 2009 No. 1 overall draft pick gets to hand the ball off to Todd Gurley and throw it to A.J. Green, Chris Conley and Benjamin Watson only adds to this team's allure.
Summary: In assigning letter grades to the seven positional buckets, Georgia had the best report card with a B- or better in each one. The Bulldogs are the most well-rounded team in this field by a country mile.
As you likely noticed, there are no punters, kickers or designated returners on our 22-man rosters. That's because in this tournament, you must go for it on fourth down, there are no extra points or field goals and teams begin drives at their own 30 after their opponent scores a touchdown. There simply aren't enough punters or place kickers in the NFL to expect schools to have produced one of each, so we had to improvise.
No. 1 Georgia: 60
No. 8 Miami: 6
If you've ever played the two-minute drill mini game on the rookie setting on Madden, this matchup will look familiar to you. With Stafford and Green teaming up against Miami's secondary, Georgia ought to score on every single drive. And after a quarter of watching Morris try to navigate this Bulldogs defense, we may need to institute a mercy rule.
No. 2 Ohio State: 48
No. 7 Stanford: 12
The combination of Ohio State's elite offensive line and Stanford's dreadful linebacker situation turns this game into an Elliott highlight reel. And poor Luck can't do much to keep pace against arguably the best secondary in the field.
No. 3 LSU: 30
No. 6 USC: 0
The two best defensive units in the tournament immediately face each other, and it doesn't end well for the Trojans. Their porous offensive line and lack of a running game repeatedly sets up the Tigers with great field position. We have our doubts about Mettenberger in the latter rounds, but he gets to ease into this alumni battle with a ton of short-field situations.
No. 4 Alabama: 24
No. 5 Florida State: 12
Apologies for the lack of first-round upsets, but there's a significant gap between the top four schools and the rest of the country. In this matchup, Alabama's dominance in the secondary proves to be too much for the Seminoles to handle. Winston and Freeman move the chains, but not well enough to make up for Julio Jones and the inevitable Alabama defensive touchdown.
No. 1 Georgia: 30
No. 4 Alabama: 12
These SEC foes are evenly matched in most areas. Both have outstanding sets of linebackers, as well as solid rushing options and great receivers. Neither one has a great offensive line, but it's not a significant source of weakness, either.
Where they differ, though, favors the Bulldogs.
Alabama's inability to penetrate with its defensive linemen proves to be its undoing. Stafford has all day to make decisions and Gurley faces minimal resistance while rushing down the field in six-yard increments.
Meanwhile, the Crimson Tide fail to capitalize on Georgia's slight deficiency in the secondary, as the safeties take away Julio Jones and dare McCarron to beat them elsewhere.
No. 2 Ohio State: 18 (2 OT)
No. 3 LSU: 12
In the most evenly-matched game of the tournament, it all comes down to the battle in the trenches.
(Both Ohio State and LSU got A+ grades for their defensive backs and either a D- or F at quarterback, so it seems safe to rule out the possibility of anyone putting on a passing clinic.)
Led by Andrew Whitworth and Trai Turner, LSU has a few solid offensive linemen. However, the Tigers have neither the depth of talent nor the positional cohesion that Ohio State has. As a result, Joey Bosa, Michael Bennett and Shazier cause some disruptions in the Tigers backfield, while Jones and Elliott have a little extra time to let things develop.
That doesn't make enough of a difference to decide the game in the first 60 minutes, but it's the X-factor that allows the Buckeyes to advance in the second overtime.
No. 2 Ohio State: 24
No. 1 Georgia: 18
First things first, these were unquestionably the two best teams in this exercise. LSU, Florida and Alabama have the most active players in the NFL, but only Georgia and Ohio State have at least 10 great options on both sides of the ball. Regardless of the draw, it's unlikely either team would lose before running into each other.
When the Buckeyes and Bulldogs finally come to blows, though, it's the former that has a few too many weapons for the latter.
Georgia has a clear advantage at quarterback when comparing Stafford and Cardale Jones head-to-head, but Ohio State's QB has more targets to find, the better offensive line to keep him safe and the easier secondary to work against.
As a reminder from a few slides ago, Georgia's Achilles' heel is defending short passing routes, as its defensive backs consist of three safeties and no corners. In the previous round against Alabama, the Bulldogs are able to get pressure on McCarron and focus all of their downfield energy on stopping Julio Jones. But in this matchup, either Thomas, Terrelle Pryor Sr. or Ted Ginn Jr. would eventually and repeatedly find openings over the middle.
And on defense, Ohio State's five-DB approach works wonders against Georgia's three-WR, one-TE singleback formation. Green does a fair amount of damage just because he's such a stud, but he's unable to carry Georgia to victory with Ginn and Pryor moving down the field, almost at will.
Maybe we're putting a little too much faith in Cardale Jones' ability to actually complete those 12-yard routes without throwing the ball directly to a UGA linebacker dropping back in coverage, but make this game happen and we'll gladly be proved wrong.
Kerry Miller covers college football and college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.
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