Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck star on All-Pac-12 NFL alumni team
The Pac-12 (née Pac-10) will not be all that bothered to see the BCS era fall by the wayside. The conference captured but one BCS championship, won by USC in 2004 and later vacated as part of that school's sanctions. The Trojans did claim a split title the year before as well, despite not playing the BCS title game. Still, college football's Super Bowl was often bereft of Pac-12 representation -- after USC's win to close the 2004 season, just two more Pac-12 appearances occurred in the title game (USC again in 2005 and Oregon in 2010).
As was more or less the party line for our Big Ten alumni team, however, the lack of titles do not signal a complete absence of talent from the conference. In fact, as you'll see in our latest NFL conference alumni team, the Pac-12 is loaded from top to bottom with superstars.
The usual reminder before you dive in: The all-conference alumni teams have been chosen based on current conference alignment, and they highlight players based on their NFL careers as opposed to what they accomplished in college.
Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers (Cal)
Second team: Andrew Luck (Stanford)
Fortunately, the first- and second-team Pac-12 QBs jumped off the page because there was minimal space separating those behind Rodgers and Luck -- including Nick Foles (Arizona), Alex Smith (Utah), Carson Palmer (USC) and, to a lesser extent, Jake Locker (Washington). Foles and Smith both joined the Rodgers-Luck combo in the playoffs last season, while Palmer has had the longest, most statistically productive NFL career of the group.
Heck, Philadelphia fans might push for Foles over Luck anyway based on the 27 TD-to-two INT performance the former delivered after supplanting Michael Vick as a starter last season. A repeat of that performance in 2014 and we will have no choice but to discuss Foles' place among the best quarterbacks in this league.
But if you were to poll a random selection of NFL front office folks about which player they would pick to start a franchise, Rodgers and Luck would be two of the most popular responses. Both are among the top five MVP favorites this season, according to the recent odds. Rodgers already has one such award, plus a Super Bowl MVP, under his belt.
Running backs: Reggie Bush (USC), Marshawn Lynch (Cal)
Second team: Steven Jackson (Oregon State), Maurice Jones-Drew (UCLA)
No shortage of talent here either, and Jackson, off a career-worst season, holds a particularly tenuous spot on the second team. Chris Ivory (Washington State), Shane Vereen (Cal), Toby Gerhart (Stanford) and Jonathan Stewart and LeGarrette Blount (both Oregon) also hail from Pac-12 schools, and all are expected to take on heavy workloads this coming season -- Gerhart as a starter for the first time.
Bush's best days appear to be behind him but he actually finished top 10 in total yards from scrimmage last season, just two spots and 61 yards back of Lynch. Jones-Drew was next among the names listed in that category, nearly 400 yards behind Bush.
Fullback: Marcel Reece (Washington)
Second team: Jed Collins (Washington State)
Special inclusion for the fullbacks here since this is a position of strength for the Pac-12. At least five players from this conference currently are penciled in as FB starters for 2014. Reece is by far the most effective all-around player, but Collins has been steady for multiple seasons. Erik Lorig (Stanford), Stanley Havili (USC) and Will Ta'ufo'ou (Cal) also have established themselves as legitimate NFL talents.
Wide receivers: DeSean Jackson (Cal), Steve Smith (Utah)
Second teams: Keenan Allen (Cal), Doug Baldwin (Stanford)
Say what you will about Jackson's alleged off-field antics, but he remains one of the most exciting on-field talents throughout the league. While Philadelphia may not miss him in the long run, Washington deserves to be excited that he has joined the fold there. Smith has had his ups and downs, too, notably during a 554-yard 2010 season in which Jimmy Clausen and Matt Moore were throwing (term used loosely) him passes. He also ventured over 12,000 career yards last season and is in prime position for a resurgence with the Ravens.
Allen may wind up being the best of the bunch. He certainly took the league by storm during a remarkable rookie season. And don't sleep on Baldwin, who caught 50 passes during Seattle's Super Bowl season and will see an uptick in responsibility this season.
Tight end: Rob Gronkowski (Arizona)
Second team: Jordan Cameron (USC)
Lifetime achievement award: Tony Gonzalez (Cal)
With Tony Gonzalez's NFL career over (it is over, right?), the baton officially has been passed to Gronkowski and Cameron. Not too shabby. The Pac-12 has produced a plethora of familiar names at tight end outside of those listed above: Coby Fleener (Stanford), Zach Ertz (Stanford), Joseph Fauria (UCLA), Zach Miller (Arizona State) and Fred Davis (USC) among them.
Offensive tackles: Tyron Smith (USC), Nate Solder (Colorado)
Second team: Matt Kalil (USC), Mitchell Schwartz (Cal)
Hard to go wrong at this spot. Smith was a Pro Bowl pick last season, his third year in the NFL; Solder allowed more sacks in 2013 than the Patriots would have liked (10) but remains Tom Brady's blindside protector; neither Kalil nor Schwartz has missed a start since joining the league via the 2012 draft. USC and Colorado have a couple more wild-card choices between them, too: Charles Brown from the former, David Bakhtiari from the latter.
Guards: Andy Levitre (Oregon State), David DeCastro (Stanford)
Second team: Zane Beadles (Utah), Kyle Long (Oregon)
DeCastro and Long could lead the charge at this position, league-wide, for years to come. The Steelers' DeCastro was excellent last season after an injury limited him to just four games during his rookie campaign. The raw Long struggled in spurts in his first NFL go-round yet claimed a deserved Pro Bowl bid nonetheless. Beadles and Levitre now occupy the same division after recent defections -- Levitre from Buffalo to Tennessee prior to 2013, followed by Beadles from Denver to Jacksonville this offseason.
Center: Alex Mack (Cal)
Second team: Ryan Kalil (USC)
If Mack is not the top center in football, then he remains at least in the discussion, which is why it was so critical for Cleveland to prevent him from bolting via free agency. Kalil has not ascended to that level during his NFL career, so a vote for Brian Schwenke (Cal), Khaled Holmes (USC), Brian de la Puente (Cal) or Max Unger (Oregon) would carry weight. Kalil had a more consistent 2013 than any of those contenders.
Defensive ends: Everson Griffin (USC), Cameron Jordan (Cal)
Second team: Tyson Alualu (Cal), Datone Jones (UCLA)
With all due respect to Jordan, an emerging superstar up front for the Saints, and the three players joining him on the All Pac-12 alumni team at DE, the most notable development for this position involves a missing name: Dion Jordan. The No. 3 overall pick in '13, Jordan went through the motions as a rookie -- thanks in no small part to a convoluted plan for him employed by the Dolphins -- and will open the 2014 schedule serving a four-game suspension. He at least is renting in Bust City if he hasn't purchased permanent residence there.
Griffin is an underrated talent, with a chance to become more of a household name this season now that he has taken over Jared Allen's vacated starting gig in Minnesota.
Defensive tackles: Jurrell Casey (USC), Haloti Ngata (Oregon)
Second team: Brandon Mebane (Cal), Paul Soliai (Utah)
How much defensive talent have the Pac-12 schools produced recently? Look no further than DT for the answer, because this is a loaded spot ... and it may be the third- or fourth-strongest defensive position for this conference alumni team.
Ngata, now in his 30s, remains a rather irreplaceable cog up front for Baltimore. Soliai might soon occupy the same sort of reverence in Atlanta, even if he was squeezed out by Jared Odrick, Randy Starks and the salary cap in Miami. Casey is already there, his role changing in the Tennessee defense as it shifts to a 3-4 -- he produced 10.5 sacks while moving around the Titans' line last season.
Outside linebackers: Clay Matthews Jr. (USC), Terrell Suggs (Arizona State)
Second team: Akeem Ayers (UCLA), Paul Kruger (Utah)
Matthews and Suggs combined for 17.5 sacks last season, despite Matthews missing five games; they have 144.5 sacks between them over their careers. There is a drop-off to the second-team choices -- Kruger was not nearly as effective as a starter in Cleveland as he was as a situational pass-rusher for the Ravens. But don't sleep on Ayers. The 25-year-old needed surgery on both knees this offseason, so his availability for the start of 2014 is in question. Tennessee has its fingers crossed, as Ayers' versatile game might make him a star outside in a 3-4 attack.
Inside linebackers: Kiko Alonso (Oregon), Brian Cushing (USC)
Second team: Vontaze Burfict (Arizona State), Donald Butler (Washington)
Alonso's season-ending injury was about as disheartening a piece of news as there was to come out of OTAs and mini-camps. The Bills' defense will not be the same without him in 2014, and those of us who were excited to see how Alonso might follow up a brilliant rookie season now must wait until 2015. Cushing has had his fair share of injury issues, too, missing 11 games in 2012 and another nine last season. Can Houston keep him on the field for a full slate?
Burfict, undrafted because of a few character red flags, has wasted little time becoming a star himself. Technically, he is an outside linebacker in Cincinnati's 4-3 look. Eventually, he might slide back to his natural MLB spot. The impending new contract that Cincinnati has to hand Burfict soon likely will surpass what Butler received: a seven-year, $48 million deal that really works out to be three years and around $20 million, with a pricey club option in year four.
Cornerbacks: Richard Sherman (Stanford), Alterraun Verner (UCLA)
Second team: Jimmy Smith (Colorado), Desmond Trufant (Washington)
True lock-down cornerbacks are increasingly rare in the NFL these days. The Pac-12 has produced two of the best -- arguably, the best in the brash Sherman, with Verner, highly sought after in free agency this offseason, not trailing by as much as folks might think.
Smith last weekend became the last Raven arrested (five so far this offseason). Fortunately, it does not sound as if he will face any league discipline, so he can hit the ground running in 2014 after a breakthrough 2013. Trufant's own emergence was masked by the Falcons tumbling down the standings last season; he led the league in pass break-ups with 15.
Safeties: Troy Polamalu (USC), T.J. Ward (Oregon)
Second team: Jairus Byrd (Oregon), Eric Weddle (Utah)
For all the skill present above, this is the money spot for the Pac-12. Not only do we find four NFL starters at this position, Polamalu, Ward, Byrd and Weddle all probably are at least top-10 safeties in this league when healthy. Polamalu's spot was most at risk heading into 2013, mainly due to nagging injuries. He bounced back with a rather typical Polamalu showing, flying around the field against both the run and pass.
The next spot on the first-team is a six-of-one, half-dozen-of-the-other situation. Ward, Byrd and Weddle all earned Pro Bowl nods last season, with Weddle standing as one of the most criminally overlooked players in the NFL.
Kicker: Nick Folk (Arizona)
Second team: Mason Crosby (Colorado)
Folk drilled 33-of-36 field-goal attempts last season, besting Crosby (33-of-37) by one. The Packers won't complain about those four misses from their kicker, not after Crosby nearly lost his job during a putrid 2013 season.
Punter: Johnny Hekker (Oregon State)
Second team: Bryan Anger (Cal)
Spurred on by Rich Eisen's "Punters are people, too" campaign, Anger, a stunning third-round pick in 2012, became something of a household name. While the Jaguars probably would have been better off spending that pick elsewhere, Anger has not disappointed as a specialist. However, despite pinning 33 punts inside the opponent's 20, he also was not as effective overall as Hekker. The Rams' punter averaged a league-best 44.3 net yards per punt, with return men gaining fewer than 80 yards total against him.