Ranking the Best Alabama Players over the Last 10 Years

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistDecember 30, 2021

Ranking the Best Alabama Players over the Last 10 Years

0 of 13

    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    The Alabama Crimson Tide were already one of college football's most decorated football programs before Nick Saban arrived, and he's built an extraordinary dynasty.

    The past 10 years have been especially incredible. Dating back to 2011, the Tide have won five national titles, and they are playing for another one this year. There have been some unbelievable players too.

    Picking the best ones is an arduous task, but we've ranked the best Bama players over the past decade.

    This list focuses on their full collegiate careers, and while statistics, awards and All-America honors play a factor, this ranking takes into account every aspect from talent to production to leadership. Sometimes, stats don't tell the full story.

    In order for a player to make this list, the majority of his career must fall into the 2011-21 window. NFL accolades (or lack thereof) have no bearing on the rankings. If a case arises in which a current player is on the list, his presence here may be lower than what it would be if he'd already finished his college career, so some trajectory projection is involved.

    For example, Bryce Young and Will Anderson—while certainly deserving of being here—likely would surge up the list if their time in Tuscaloosa were over.

    How good are the guys on this list? Players like Calvin Ridley, AJ McCarron, Mac Jones, T.J. Yeldon, Damien Harris, Henry Ruggs III, Evan Neal, Jonah Williams, Quinnen Williams, Jaylen Waddle and Marlon Humphrey didn't quite make it. Let's take a look at who did.

13. Patrick Surtain II, Cornerback

1 of 13

    Alika Jenner/Getty Images

    What position group is Saban known for? Defensive backs. Who is the best cornerback the Crimson Tide have churned out during his coaching tenure?

    That would be Patrick Surtain II.

    Does he have the stats to back up this ranking? No. But opponents largely stayed away from him during his career, which ran from 2018 to '20. He played in every single game, including 38 consecutive starts.

    Surtain is the son of the longtime NFL defensive back with the same name, and he marked yet another massive recruiting victory for Saban, who took an already all-world talent and made him elite. According to the Endless Hustle podcast, Saban (now famously) told Surtain during the recruiting process to go somewhere besides UA if he didn't want to compete.

    He was a freshman All-American and an honorable mention All-American in '19 as a sophomore.

    Then, in 2020, he ended his career as a unanimous first-team All-American and was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year by the coaches and the Associated Press. In three years in Tuscaloosa, he finished with 116 tackles, six tackles for a loss, four interceptions, 24 pass deflections and four forced fumbles.

    But make no mistake: Surtain was an elite playmaker.    

12. Jerry Jeudy, Wide Receiver

2 of 13

    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Picking which Alabama receivers have been the most remarkable is like deciding which Porsche has the prettiest shine.

    But Jerry Jeudy, who played for the Crimson Tide from 2017 to '19 before heading to the NFL, certainly belongs on this list. He won the Biletnikoff Award for the nation's top pass-catcher in the '18 season, and he did so while sharing a receiver room with DeVonta Smith, Henry Ruggs III, Jaylen Waddle and others.

    He likely would have won in 2019 if not for Ja'Marr Chase's otherworldly season during a national title run with LSU.

    Though Jeudy had 159 receptions (six on the school's all-time list), he is fifth in receiving yards with 2,742. He is also third in Alabama history with 26 receiving touchdowns and averaged 17.1 yards per catch. When the Tide needed a big play, they looked Jeudy's way.

    "We actually had to try to monitor his work outside of the work that we did so we wouldn't have overuse problems with him, which is not normal in a lot of cases," Saban told the Denver Broncos' virtual war room in 2020.

    He worked his way into being an all-time great.

11. Bryce Young, Quarterback

3 of 13

    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    If this list were being compiled a year from now, Bryce Young may just be No. 1. He'd almost certainly be higher, at the least.

    The sophomore signal-caller just won the Heisman Trophy in his only season as a starting quarterback, and he made the list over Mac Jones because he has a much higher Alabama trajectory. The true sophomore must return for at least one more year. He is here over AJ McCarron because of his elite ability.

    Yes, McCarron won two national titles, and Jones has one as the starter. But Young's ceiling is higher than either.

    So far this year, the 6'0", 194-pound quarterback has 4,322 passing yards, 43 touchdowns and four interceptions.

    He led a miraculous last-minute drive to tie the Iron Bowl against Auburn and send it into overtime, and his "Heisman moment" was a 41-24 thrashing of Georgia in the SEC Championship Game. 

    Consider this too: In a year in which Alabama was expected to have to do a little bit of rebuilding (by Tide standards, at least), Young was the nation's best offensive playmaker and led them to another shot at a national title.      

10. Cam Robinson, Offensive Tackle

4 of 13

    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    How do you choose an Alabama offensive lineman to put on this list? 

    Jonah Williams (who would have won the 2018 Outland Trophy if not for teammate Quinnen Williams), Evan Neal (who has never allowed a sack as a three-year starter), Jedrick Wills Jr., the Kouandjio brothers and others certainly have an argument.

    But Cam Robinson is the call, even if the 5-star didn't have the pro potential as some of the others. The Louisiana native had a terrific career from 2014 to '16.

    Starting as a true freshman at Alabama isn't easy, but he anchored the left tackle position in his first year and earned freshman All-America honors.

    In 2016, he had arguably the best single season for a Saban-coached Alabama offensive lineman, earning unanimous All-American honors and winning the Outland Trophy, leading him to forgo his final season and head to the NFL draft.

    He finished with multiple first-team All-SEC honors, helped Bama win three conference titles and was a national champion. He lived up to the massive expectations, meaning he gets the nod over Williams and Neal.    

9. Tua Tagovailoa, Quarterback

5 of 13

    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    The biggest "what might've been" on this list is quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

    He never won a Heisman Trophy, and his only national title from 2017 to '19 came when he was a true freshman backup to Jalen Hurts. Of course, nobody will ever forget the role he played in a miraculous comeback win against Georgia in the championship.

    With Hurts ineffective in the first half, Saban turned to Tagovailoa. After getting the team to overtime, he hit fellow freshman DeVonta Smith for a game-winning, walk-off touchdown.

    Tagovailoa had an argument for winning the Heisman as a sophomore in '18, when he threw for 3,966 yards, 43 touchdowns and six interceptions but came in second to Kyler Murray, who was on fire for Oklahoma down the stretch.

    Tagovailoa dealt with injuries throughout his final two seasons in Tuscaloosa, which hampered him and the Tide. In November 2019, he suffered a season-ending hip injury against Mississippi State and ultimately left for the NFL instead of returning for his senior campaign.

    The 5-star Hawaii native's body of work is extraordinary, even if the massive expectations were never fully realized. His career with UA is a bit polarizing, but it shouldn't be. He essentially authored the wide-open attack the Tide have now perfected.       

8. C.J. Mosley, Linebacker

6 of 13

    Dave Martin/Associated Press

    Calling Nick Saban's complicated, aggressive defense is no easy chore, and the Crimson Tide have enjoyed some brilliant linebackers who've excelled at that, including Rolando McClain and Reuben Foster.

    Perhaps none of them was as talented, relentless and as strong of a leader as C.J. Mosley, though.

    Part of Mosley's career doesn't fall within the past 10 years; he was at Alabama from 2010 to '13. But the best of those years do. And the 6'2", 232-pound middle linebacker from Theodore, Alabama, lived up to his billing as an elite prospect.

    He was a force in his final two seasons, registering 107 tackles as a junior and finishing his career with 106 stops in 2013.

    "I think C.J. Mosley is one of the finest football players and finest people I've ever had the opportunity to coach," Saban told ESPN shortly before the first round of the 2014 NFL draft began. "This guy actually makes more plays on the football field, plays faster, reacts more quickly than anybody that I've ever had the opportunity to coach."

    Mosley is third all-time in program history with 319 tackles and has the most of any Saban-coached player. The fact that he stayed an extra year when he could have gone to the NFL speaks volumes about who he was and the way he is beloved by Bama fans everywhere.

7. Will Anderson Jr., Jack Linebacker

7 of 13

    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    It's remarkable that Alabama sophomore sensation Will Anderson Jr. failed to sweep the major defensive awards this college football season.

    Yes, he won the Bronko Nagurski Award (which goes to college football's top defensive player) and is the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, but he should have added more, including the Butkus Award, Lott IMPACT Trophy, Bednarik or Rotary Lombardi Award. He also probably should have been invited as a Heisman finalist (instead he finished fifth).

    The Georgia native led the nation with an astounding 31.5 tackles for a loss and tied for first nationally with 15.5 sacks. In just two short seasons in Tuscaloosa, he's tied for fifth on the school's all-time list of sacks with 22.5. Unless he gets hurt, Anderson is going to be a generational playmaker.

    He is the most dominant individual defensive player on a consistent basis since Chase Young roamed the field for Ohio State from 2017 to '19.

    Saban recently told reporters that Anderson is the total package: "... It's always the intangible things that help you get to your full potential. Will's certainly got great intangibles with great ability, and that certainly makes for great players."

    The true sophomore will almost certainly be at Alabama for just one more season, but there's still plenty for him to do this year with a national championship on the line.

    Anderson is this high on this list because he's the most talented defender Saban has ever coached and still has eligibility to continue proving it. It wouldn't be surprising for him to finish his UA career at No. 1.

6. Jonathan Allen, Defensive Lineman

8 of 13

    David Goldman/Associated Press

    Another dominant leader from the recent past is defensive lineman Jonathan Allen.

    Whether he anchored the defensive end position in Kirby Smart's 3-4 defense or he shifted inside to play defensive tackle, he was a star. 

    Now he plays for the Washington Football Team, but before that, he finished his career second all-time in Alabama history with 28 sacks, a distant runner-up to the great Derrick Thomas' 52.

    Like Mosley, Allen stayed in Tuscaloosa for all four years, and he bolstered his stats with 12.0 sacks in his junior year and another 10.5 as a senior. 

    In 2016, he was a consensus All-American and earned multiple honors, including the Bronko Nagurski Award and the Bednarik Award.

    Allen has gone on to be an ambassador for the Crimson Tide program. 

    " ... When you get to the next level, playing at Alabama makes a difference. People look at Alabama players, and they know what kind of player they’re getting, on and off the field. They know you can play football, because if you can play football at Alabama with Coach Saban, you can play anywhere," Allen told Hannah Stephens of Roll Tide Wire last year.

    Allen finished his college career with 152 tackles, including 44.5 tackles for loss, three fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles.      

5. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Defensive Back

9 of 13

    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    It's hard earning praise from a tough customer like Saban, but he had nothing but positive things to say about Minkah Fitzpatrick.

    And whether he played nickelback, safety or corner, Fitzpatrick was a versatile playmaker who could do it all.

    He was voted permanent team captain as a junior, and he's arguably the best defensive back Saban has ever produced, which is saying something considering just how the Tide churns out stars. He won the 2017 Chuck Bednarik Award for the nation's top defender and the 2017 Thorpe Award as the best defensive back.

    He was the third player in history to win both awards in the same season, joining Charles Woodson and Patrick Peterson.

    "He's kind of a unique guy," Saban told Scott Petrak for BrownsZone in 2017. "A lot of times talented guys don't have overachieving personality types. He wants to be the best and goes out and works hard every day. He's the exact model you love to have as a coach. The guy is very talented. He's smart, bright, can learn. He really competed to be the absolute best at what he does. I don't even know if I can describe him well enough."

    The 6'1", 202-pound defensive back played three seasons, finished with 171 tackles, including 16.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, nine interceptions, 24 passes defended, two forced fumbles and four defensive touchdowns.     

4. Amari Cooper, Wide Receiver

10 of 13

    Icon Sports Wire/Getty Images

    Before Amari Cooper came to Alabama, Julio Jones was the gold standard for Tide pass-catchers.

    But Cooper soon became the face of Alabama football from 2012 to '14, beginning the productive pipeline of Sunshine State wide receivers in Tuscaloosa. 

    Cooper left the Tide as their all-time leader in receptions (228), receiving yards (3,463) and touchdowns (31), though DeVonta Smith took over those honors in 2020. He was a unanimous All-American in 2014 and won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver that year.

    He had an astounding 124 catches for 1,727 yards and 16 touchdowns that season. When Alabama needed a play, coaches called Cooper's number, and he answered.

    While the comparisons with Jones were evident during Cooper's days, Saban rightfully pointed out how different they are.

    "They're totally different guys," Saban told reporters in 2015. "Julio Jones is a fantastic big, strong, physical guy who has been very productive in the NFL. Amari Cooper's style is just a little different in terms of the quickness that he plays with, the running ability that he has. Great hands, smart player. Both guys are outstanding, but their styles are a little different."

    Both have translated just fine at the next level, but Cooper's career at UA was better than Julio's and exceptional enough to land fourth on this list.

3. Najee Harris, Running Back

11 of 13

    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    If you put Najee Harris second, nobody would blanch.

    As a 6'1", 232-pound rookie with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Harris is making a name for himself with his play as well as his engaging, infectious personality. But before that, he was a do-it-all running back for Saban at Alabama.

    The 5-star prospect from California lived up to the massive expectations. Not only was he a sterling runner, but he also developed into a terrific receiver out of the backfield. That versatility made him an invaluable weapon for Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones.

    The 2020 Doak Walker Award winner finished his Alabama career as the school's all-time leader in rushing yards (3,843) and touchdowns (46). He recorded 26 of those on the ground a year ago as the Tide cruised to the national championship.

    His receiving prowess was more than effective too. He finished his career with 80 catches for 781 yards and another 11 touchdowns. He's the program's all-time leader as a non-quarterback in yards from scrimmage (4,624) and scores from scrimmage (57).

    Saban believes he's an "exceptional player," according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's D. Orlando Ledbetter. Harris proved that time and time again.

2. Derrick Henry, Running Back

12 of 13

    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    The reason why Derrick Henry gets the nod over Harris is because he did all his damage in three years compared to Harris' four, and he did that while sharing a lot of carries.

    Henry also sort of revolutionized the position. He is built like a Mack truck, and despite being taller than you'd normally like at the position, it never hindered him. Not only could he hit the hole with authority, but once he got in the open field, the long strides also allowed him to separate from defenders.

    The 6'3", 238-pound back runs a 4.54-second 40-yard dash. Men that big simply shouldn't be that fast, but he is. 

    In three years with the Tide, he finished with 3,591 rushing yards, just 252 yards fewer than Harris' all-time record. He also is tied for second all-time behind Harris' 46 rushing scores with 42 of his own.

    While Harris was a phenomenal running back worthy of being either second or third on the list, Henry was the centerpiece of the offense. And the bulk of Henry's came in 2015, his final year.

    That season, he won the Heisman Trophy with 395 carries for 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns. He became the program's second winner of the award, joining Mark Ingram (2009). 

    He is truly dynamic, and he is one of those rare players who gets stronger as the game goes on as defenders weaken from tackling him.          

1. DeVonta Smith, Wide Receiver

13 of 13

    Alika Jenner/Getty Images

    You've got to be a special player to dominate games from the wide receiver position, and DeVonta Smith is certainly that.

    The 2020 Heisman Trophy winner is the SEC's all-time receiving leader with 3,965 yards throughout his remarkable four-year career from 2017 to '20. His 46 receiving touchdowns also are first all-time, shattering the shared record of Amari Cooper and Chris Doering (31 each). Smith also is third all-time in catches (235).

    His brilliant career basically started when he caught the game-winning touchdown from Tagovailoa during overtime against Georgia in the national championship for 2017. He was a hero before he was a household name.

    The Louisiana native enjoyed a huge junior season, catching 68 passes for 1,256 yards and 14 touchdowns. But his performance on the 2020 title-winning squad made him the first Heisman-winning pass-catcher since Desmond Howard (Michigan, 1991).

    Smith caught 117 passes for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns. It didn't matter what opponents did to scheme him. He dominated games, beating defenders deep and taking short passes to the house.

    He'll probably go down as the greatest college receiver of all time, and while that's debatable, his numbers are not. He was the best player consistently on the best team before going 10th overall to the Philadelphia Eagles in 2021.

    Is he undersized? Yes. But the 6'1" wideout played bigger than his 175 pounds. 

    "I would first off have to say that I think his performance speaks for itself," Saban said.


    All stats courtesy of CFBStats and Sports Reference. Recruiting rankings via 247Sports' composite rankings unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.