Position U: Ranking the Top DB Schools of All Time
Welcome to the most contentious string of debates among college football fans: It's Position U week.
Bleacher Report writers David Kenyon and Kerry Miller are identifying the college programs that have generated the most productive NFL players at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, defensive line and defensive back since 1970.
In this edition of a five-part series, the focus is on defensive backs. Please note we're not necessarily looking to form the best possible five-man secondary from each school, though. In other words, if a school's five best alumni are all strong safeties, it wouldn't negatively impact its ranking.
At every position, the discussion has several possible angles. Is your preference total NFL alumni? Number of players drafted from a certain position group? Actual NFL production? All of these measures are reasonable to use as the guide.
Throughout this Position U series, B/R's focus is on the latter point. While the total number of players is considered, on-field production since 1970 shaped the final order.
Alabama Crimson Tide
It's little surprise that Alabama has been a factory for defensive backs over the past decade since Nick Saban puts together one of the best recruiting classes every year. Landon Collins, Eddie Jackson, Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick have each earned All-Pro honors once in the past five seasons. There's hardly any history here, though. Roman Harper was the only Alabama DB to be named to the Pro Bowl from 1955 to 2014.
Similar to Alabama, the past decade has been rich with LSU alumni in NFL secondaries. Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, Jamal Adams and Tre'Davious White are excellent active defensive backs. The Tigers might have cracked the top three if more of Johnny Robinson's career counted in this exercise. The six-time All-Pro Hall of Famer dominated the 1960s.
Miami (FL) Hurricanes
Ed Reed is an all-time great, and over the years Miami has had a bunch of defensive backs who provided better-than-average value. Reed was the only All-Pro, though, earning that distinction five times. Definitely worth noting and considering that Sean Taylor likely would have gotten there (several times) if he hadn't been killed at age 24.
Aside from USC's duo of Ronnie Lott and Troy Polamalu, good luck finding any school with a better one-two punch than Charles Woodson and Ty Law. Michigan had a few other Pro Bowl defensive backs in the 1970s and 1980s, but no one particularly unforgettable. And aside from Leon Hall and arguably Jabrill Peppers, Michigan hasn't produced a good DB since 1998.
Earl Thomas has been outstanding over the past decade, and Bill Bradley was a two-time All-Pro DB in the 1970s. Not a particularly deep or rich collection for the Longhorns compared to the teams in our top three, though. Thomas is the only one with Hall of Fame potential. If we went back to the pre-1970 era, though, Texas would have had a much better case because of Bobby Dillon and Tom Landry.
Only one UCLA defensive back (Fabian Moreau) has appeared in an NFL game in the past two seasons, and Alterraun Verner (2013) was the only Bruins DB in the past two decades to make a Pro Bowl. Suffice it to say, I was shocked UCLA had the numbers to even enter this conversation. But Jimmy Johnson, Kenny Easley, Carnell Lake and Eric Turner gave the Bruins an impressive top tier of talent. Shame they haven't been able to tap into that pool since the pre-Y2K world.
3. Florida State Seminoles
How bad was the rest of Florida State's roster in 1988 that it couldn't win a national championship with Deion Sanders and LeRoy Butler anchoring the defense? (The Seminoles finished No. 3 in the AP poll that year.)
Prime Time is obviously the biggest star here. He was the No. 5 pick in the 1989 draft, had 53 career interceptions, was named to eight Pro Bowls and six All-Pro teams—all while still enjoying a career as a Major League Baseball player.
But Butler was also named All-Pro four times, which is an incredible feat. I can only find eight defensive backs in the past half-century to receive that honor at least four times, and six of the other seven are in the Hall of Fame—Ronnie Lott (six), Rod Woodson (six), Sanders (six), Reed (five), Brian Dawkins (four) and Polamalu (four). The seventh (Darrelle Revis was a four-time All-Pro) will probably land in the Hall one day, too.
In more recent history, Samari Rolle, Antonio Cromartie, Xavier Rhodes, Jalen Ramsey and Derwin James each received All-Pro honors once, which makes Florida State the only school in the past 50 years with at least seven different All-Pro defensive backs.
Rhodes, Ramsey and James are still relatively young, though, so their career value-added numbers don't yet reflect how good they are. If that trio continues to thrive, Florida State may gain ground in this debate—or at least create more separation between itself and the gaggle of teams vying for fourth place.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
Quality is generally more important that quantity in debates like these. For instance, we'd rather have two defensive backs with 50 career interceptions than five defensive backs with 20 career interceptions, even though they both sum to 100.
But Ohio State's quantity is a bit out of control.
The Buckeyes have had 64 defensive backs drafted since 1965, which is at least 10 more than every other school. Of those 64 picks, 20 were first-rounders. No other school has more than 13.
Though there might not be a Hall of Fame DB in the bunch, most of them panned out pretty well.
Jack Tatum, Antoine Winfield and Malcolm Jenkins were each selected to three Pro Bowls. Donte Whitner and Marshon Lattimore have two selections each. Nate Clements, Shawn Springs, Tim Fox and Denzel Ward all received that honor once. And four of the other first-rounders are still in their mid- to late 20s and have time to get there eventually.
Fourth-round pick Todd Bell (1981) and 10th-round pick Shaun Gayle (1984) also went to one Pro Bowl, giving Ohio State 11 Pro Bowl DBs in the past half-century. That is the most of any school.
However, those 11 players combined for "only" 19 Pro Bowls, which is a far cry from USC's six players who garnered 39 selections.
Give it another couple of years, though, and the Buckeyes will probably leave the Trojans in the dust. There were 11 Ohio State alumni who played defensive back in 2019, plus 2020 first-round picks Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette. USC only had three DBs who saw NFL action in 2019.
1. USC Trojans
As discussed, the quantity isn't anywhere near what it is for Ohio State, especially in regard to current players.
But goodness gracious is USC loaded up top in its defensive back history.
Among DBs drafted since 1965, there are 25 players who have been selected to at least six Pro Bowls. Only two schools are represented multiple times on that list: Arizona State twice and USC five times.
Both Lott (10 Pro Bowls, six-time All-Pro) and Polamalu (eight Pro Bowls, four-time All-Pro) are already in the Hall of Fame. Joey Browner (six Pro Bowls, three-time All-Pro) likely would be in the Hall if his career had lasted more than a decade. And both Dennis Smith and Tim McDonald went to six Pro Bowls. The Trojans also produced three-time Pro Bowl DB Mark Carrier.
Though all six were taken within the first 34 picks of their respective drafts, Polamalu is the only one on that list who has played since 2000. Thus, you're forgiven if you're younger than 40 and didn't realize (or forgot about) the mud-stomping footprint USC left in NFL secondaries throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Beyond that sextet, there's a deep chasm before the next tier of USC defensive backs, which features guys like Jason Sehorn, Brian Kelly and Daylon McCutcheon. If you're of the mindset that quality depth is of the most importance in this type of debate, there's a good chance you're furious about USC being at No. 1.
But if you think there's another school with a better six-man collection of NFL defensive backs, you're dead wrong.