Arizona Football: Antoine Cason and the 21 NFL Products of the Mike Stoops Era

Casey CroweFeatured ColumnistAugust 16, 2011

Arizona Football: Antoine Cason and the 21 NFL Products of the Mike Stoops Era

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    By increasing the caliber of recruit Arizona brought to the grass for the last seven years, Mike Stoops is producing NFL-bound players at a level last seen when Dick Tomey owned the role.

    From the last class alone, Stoops saw three of his players drafted onto NFL squads, including Brooks Reed to the Texans, Ricky Elmore to the Packers and D'Aundre Reed to the Vikings.

    Under the previous regime in which the program saw success (go ahead and forget the torturous John Mackovic era altogether, please), nearly 60 Tomey players (58 by my tally), mainly from his trademark Desert Swarm defense, were rostered on NFL teams over 13 seasons.

    According to Pro-FootballReference.com, in seven years at Arizona, 21 Stoops players have either been picked in the NFL draft or made it onto NFL rosters via undrafted free agency.

    Come inside to see the 21 NFL players produced at the U of A under Stoops so far:

Antoine Cason, No. 27 Overall Pick, 2008, San Diego Chargers

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    Antoine Cason is the prototype.

    The highest-profile player produced under Mike Stoops thus far, Cason was the premier cornerback in the nation during his senior season at Arizona, claiming the Jim Thorpe Award.

    That resulted in the San Diego Chargers taking Cason, a native of Long Beach, Calif., off the draft board with the 27th pick in 2008.

    The pick is paying dividends.

    Cason is now the starting corner and punt returner for the Chargers, and he continues to emerge as one of the NFL's most complete secondary players.

    One of Arizona's richest positions through the years, the defensive backfield continues to be a main area of NFL production.

Rob Gronkowski, No. 42 Overall Pick, 2010, New England Patriots

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    Arizona barely got to know the most-hyped tight end in program history.

    Rob Gronkowski jetted for New England after his junior season, a year he lost completely to a back injury.

    In the two years he did play in Tucson, Gronkowski flaunted his NFL-caliber abilities, grabbing the first-team All-Pac-10 slot, as well as claiming third-team AP All-American honors, as a sophomore.

    Even despite his history of ailments, New England did not wait long in grabbing the 6'6", 265-pound Pennsylvania native, making him the 12th pick of the second round.

    In turn, he didn't wait long to make an impression, scoring 10 touchdowns and racking up 546 yards through the air in his first NFL season.

Mike Thomas, No. 107 Overall Pick, 2009, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Looking for the leading receiver in Pac-10 history? You'll find him in the picture above.

    In four years at Arizona, Mike Thomas racked up more receptions (259) than anyone in the history of the conference, displacing a former Sun Devil in the process (Derek Hagan).

    Standing just 5'8" and 198 pounds, Thomas' game is elusiveness, using his slight frame to his advantage.

    Jacksonville snatched up the speedster in the fourth round of 2009, and in his second season he became the leading receiver on the roster. Along with Jimmy Smith and Keenan McCardell, Thomas was only the third Jag to snare 66 or more passes in a season.

    The year before that, he set the franchise's rookie marks for catches (48) and yards (453).

Eben Britton, No. 39 Overall Pick, 2009, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Eben Britton wasted no time drawing controversy in the NFL.

    Upon being drafted by Jacksonville early in the second round, Britton let it be known that he felt snubbed by all of those that left him hanging. He was quoted as saying the following shortly after being drafted:

    "I've got my own agenda. First and foremost it's to take the Jacksonville Jaguars to the Super Bowl. Secondly, I'm going to be the greatest offensive tackle to ever play this game. Every team that passed on me is going to regret it for the rest of the history of that franchise."

    Britton was one of the most physically gifted linemen to ever come through Arizona, locking in a starting spot in his first season and winning AP Freshman All-American honors.

    Ultimately, he left the program early for a shot at the pros, where he is currently penciled in as a starting tackle for the Jaguars.

    Britton missed a large chunk of last season with a shoulder injury and he sat out the Jags' first preseason game.

Mike Bell, Undrafted Free Agent, 2006, Denver Broncos

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    Under trying circumstances, Mike Bell overcame the wreckage of the John Mackovic era and the rugged early years of Stoops' reign to transform into one of the school's all-time leading running backs.

    Even despite his strong production in a less-than-ideal situation, Bell went undrafted out of Arizona, signing on with the Denver Broncos as a free agent.

    Under then-coach Mike Shanahan and his running scheme, Bell put together his best season ever as a rookie, rushing for 677 yards and eight touchdowns with a 4.3 yards-per-carry average.

    Three years later, Bell was a crucial member of the Super Bowl-winning New Orleans Saints, totaling 654 yards and five more scores in 13 games.

    Bell fell off last year, totaling just 99 yards on 47 carries between stops in Philly and Cleveland. 

    He's attempting to revive his career with the Detroit Lions, the club that recently picked him up despite a weak 2010 campaign.

Earl Mitchell, No. 81 Overall Pick, 2008, Houston Texans

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    Earl Mitchell started his tenure at Arizona as a 6'2", 285-pound halfback/tight end, a rare breed of athlete.

    But in 2008, Big Earl flip-flopped sides of the ball and immediately became one of the program's top players on the defensive line.

    Mitchell, though somewhat under-hyped during his Wildcats career, parlayed that into becoming a third-round pick in 2008 via Houston, where he is a regular in their rotation.

    In 15 games for the Texans during his rookie season, Mitchell came through with 28 tackles and a sack, becoming a mainstay on a line that now also includes fellow Stoops product Brooks Reed (more about him later). 

Chris J. Henry, No. 50 Overall Pick, 2007, Tennessee Titans

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    Possessor of a freakish body type, Chris Henry faked out scouts at the NFL Scouting Combine by showing off high draft-pick worthy sprint speeds and weight lifts.

    That was enough to overlook his relatively un-NFL looking college numbers and his lack of instincts or cutback ability.

    When Henry announced that he was entering the NFL draft early after a slightly above-average career at Arizona, the message was met with a mixture of disappointment and skepticism by the Tucson spectators and media.

    Consider them justified.

    In his rookie season, Henry received 31 carries for the Titans, totaling 119 yards and two scores.

    Over the four years after that, however, he owned a grand total of one carry for three yards, having now bounced around to two more teams (Texans, Seahawks) with almost nothing to show for on-the-field success.

Michael Johnson, No. 224 Overall Pick, 2007, New York Giants

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    One of the best junior college products to ever play at Arizona, Michael Johnson made his presence felt quickly during his two years in Tucson.

    After his JUCO All-American days, Johnson almost immediately made an impact in the defensive backfield, taking a healthy chunk of playing time away from heavy-hitting Lamon Means early in the season, according to his Arizona profile.

    Johnson took full ownership of that safety slot as a senior, becoming one of the stars of a loaded secondary that also included future NFLers Antoine Cason and Wilrey Fontenot.

    After being picked up by the New York Giants late in the draft, Johnson started 35 games in four seasons before recently moving over to an emerging Detroit team.

Chris Jennings, Undrafted Free Agent, 2009, Cleveland Browns

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    A  walk-on at Arizona who developed into an NFL-caliber rusher, Jennings is among the main feel-good stories of the Stoops era.

    Jennings went the JUCO route out of college, playing at Arizona Western in Yuma before deciding to force the issue in Tucson.

    Although he was no superstar for the Wildcats (totaling just 607 rushing yards on 158 carries in two seasons), Jennings was always a tireless worker, which eventually caught the eye of the Cleveland Browns.

    In 2009, Jennings totaled 220 yards on 63 carries, nine catches for 56 yards and a touchdown.

    While he has not seen any game action since then, he is currently on the New York Jets' training camp roster. 

Spencer Larsen, No. 183 Overall Pick, 2008, Denver

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    Larsen's likability combined with his on-the-field output made him one of the faces of the program.

    Known for his ferocity and physical nature with a helmet on, Larsen also wove himself into the community closely during his days at Arizona when he was not busy racking up one of his Pac-10-leading 131 tackles in 2007. 

    And Denver thought enough of his football skills/high character combo to take him with a late-round selection in 2008.

    Although he played sparsely as a special teamer and linebacker in his first two years, he saw some extended action in 2010, starting five games at fullback. 

Chris Gronkowski, Undrafted Free Agent, 2010, Dallas Cowboys

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    Chris Gronkowski came aboard at Arizona as something of a package deal with his brother, Rob, one year after his younger sibling joined the program.

    A Maryland transfer, Chris Gronkowski made a sudden rise up the halfback depth chart at Arizona, claiming seven starts in his first full year of eligibility under Stoops.

    A blocking specialist by trade, Gronkowski averaged 24.8 yards per catch as a sophomore (ignore the fact that he did it on just eight catches, all right?). 

    And Chris ended up proving his value to the extreme, so much so that Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys took notice and brought him onto the roster as an undrafted free agent last year.

    Not bad for the most overshadowed of the Gronks.

Syndric Steptoe, No. 234 Overall Pick, 2007, Cleveland Browns

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    Arizona seems to always have a dangerous little man floating around the receiving corps: Dennis Northcutt, Bobby Wade, Mike Thomas, etc.

    During his stay with the Wildcats, the 5'9" Steptoe became a legitimate threat. 

    In his senior season, he totaled 568 yards receiving on 55 catches and also served as one of the most dangerous kick returners in the Pac-10.

    While not necessarily the owner of sprinter-type speed (he ran a 4.52-second 40-yard dash, according to NFLDraftScout.com), Steptoe's footwork was excellent and his ability to cut was the key to his success.

    Those skills snared the attention of the Browns, who drafted him in the seventh round four years ago.

    In 2008, he totaled 19 catches for 182 yards, and he also filled in on the kick and punt return squads.

Lionel Dotson, No. 245 Overall Pick, 2008, Miami Dolphins

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    Solid if unspectacular while at Arizona, Dotson is continuing that theme in the NFL.

    After being picked up by the Dolphins in 2008, the 6'4", 252-pound Dotson has racked up a grand total of five tackles in three seasons, seeing action in seven total games during that span.

    Nonetheless, Dotson was able to translate a collegiate career under Stoops watch into a legitimate professional career that he is looking to extend as a member of the Buffalo Bills.

Nick Folk, No. 178 Overall Pick, 2007, Dallas Cowboys

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    The most prolific kicker of the Stoops era, Folk was a force with his foot while in Tucson.

    But there has been some turbulence for Folk at the pro level. After going ice cold in 2009 as a member of the Cowboys, the team that drafted him then also released him.

    Rex Ryan took Folk off the rebound, making him the starting kicker for the New York Jets.

    Folk's range can be a serious weapon, as evidenced with a 56-yard field goal last year. But his accuracy will waver at times, as he went 30 for 39 with Jets in 2010.

    However, Folk is money on extra points, going a perfect 168 for 168 from there in his NFL career.

Wilrey Fontenot, No. 212 Overall Pick, 2008, Arizona Cardinals

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    Constantly overlooked as the 'other' corner opposite Antoine Cason during his stay at Arizona, Fontenot was a very effective defensive back in his own right.

    While not the owner of the same size, speed or skills as Cason, Fontenot was extremely reliable, considering he was normally the target with the Jim Thorpe winner playing on the other side of the field.

    The Arizona Cardinals thought enough of the 5'10", 169-pound Fontenot to grab him in the seventh round of 2008, but he has yet to see any regular-season game action.

    Right now he is a free agent.

Kili Lefotu, No. 230 Overall Pick, 2006, Washington Redskins

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    Kili Lefotu is probably the second most-complete lineman of the Stoops era at this point, though not on the same level as Britton.

    Unfortunately, the 6'4", 315-pound Lefotu's pro career did not go nearly as planned.

    Perhaps his most famous moment to this point came when he was found unconscious in his hotel room during training camp before his rookie season. 

    He is currently a free agent.

Copeland Bryan, Undrafted Free Agent, 2007, Chicago Bears

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    That's Copeland Bryan on the right, lunging futilely after Vikings star back Adrian Peterson.

    Though there is no way he made this tackle, all things considered, Bryan is still living the dream, going from an Arizona walk-on to a member of the National Football League.

    After compiling a potent four years under Stoops, Bryan was able to catch on with the Chicago Bears out of college, though not as a draft pick.

    Instead, he came on board via free agency, and after not seeing any action in Chicago, he moved on to Buffalo, where he played in 17 games over two years before moving on to Detroit.

    His last game action came in 2009 for the Lions, including one start.

    Bryan's younger brother, Courtney Bryan, a former New Mexico State standout, also went the undrafted free-agent route, playing parts of two seasons with the Dolphins. 

Gilbert Harris, Undrafted Free Agent, 2007, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Don't remember Gilbert Harris?

    The truth is that his Arizona career was not exactly the stuff of legend as he spent the bulk of his days in Tucson as a backup.

    Never really considered the featured back during his time in a Wildcats uni, Harris' best asset was his powerful frame (6'2", 235 pounds) for a rusher.

    But his physicality from the position was enough for the Chiefs to take a shot at him, which gave him nine carries for nine yards in 2007.

Brooks Reed, No. 42 Overall Pick, 2011, Houston Texans

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    Brooks Reed doesn't stop.

    That was his key to gaining notoriety at Arizona. Besides the obvious physical gifts (6'3", 263 pounds), Reed was a relentless pursuer from his defensive end slot, and he owns good speed (4.63 40) for a man of his size.

    Considering the Texans took him with a second-round selection, it's fair to say that he figures into their plans long term on the defensive front. That was confirmed when they signed him to a four-year deal worth $4.7 million.

    A local product out of Tucson's Sabino High School, Reed is certainly at the forefront of Stoops' shining examples for keeping homegrown talent in the state. 

Ricky Elmore, No. 197 Overall Pick, 2011, Green Bay Packers

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    Ricky Elmore will emerge as one of the true value picks of the 2011 NFL Draft. 

    One of the most-feared pass rushers in the conference for the duration of his career at Arizona, Elmore came into the process underrated and he was drafted as such.

    A sack machine at times (he led the Pac-10 as a sophomore and junior), Elmore will specialize in attacking QBs, his area of expertise.

    The Packers did the right thing in yet another shrewd move by the defending champions.

D'Aundre Reed, No. 215 Overall Pick, 2011, Minnesota Vikings

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    Largely unheralded during his time at Arizona, Reed was something of an afterthought on an Arizona defensive line that included both Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore.

    Largely because of the depth on the ends at Arizona, he only started eight games during his four years with the Cats.

    But Minnesota obviously appreciated his physical abilities, as the Vikings front office was willing to cough up a seventh-round pick to snare Reed.

    Though Minnesota is shorthanded along the defensive line currently, Reed will have to prove himself over and over to claim a regular NFL role.