Robert Griffin III, Adrian Peterson among All-Big 12 active alumni team
The Big 12 has been far from immune to college football's rash of conference movement, with Colorado, Nebraska, Missouri and Texas A&M all exiting stage left in recent season. So long as there are at least a few Big 12 teams in Texas and Oklahoma, though, the league will continue to produce NFL-level talent ... and do so in bunches.
The alumni team to follow is chock full of Pro Bowl and All-Pro talent, mixed together with a handful of rising stars.
Right out of the gate, we have drama.
No offense to guys like Geno Smith (West Virginia) or Josh Freeman (Kansas State), but the Big 12 QB battle came down to three names: Griffin, Dalton and Sam Bradford (Oklahoma). And Dalton had a very legitimate case for the first-team spot. He had a better 2013 season than Griffin, finishing with 4,293 yards passing, 33 touchdowns and a 88.8 QB rating to Griffin's 3,203, 16 and 82.2. More importantly, the Bengals won the AFC North and made the playoffs third straight season while Griffin's Washington team slipped to 3-13.
In the end, Griffin's potential -- and the memory of his remarkable rookie campaign -- won out. If you were starting a team today from scratch, wouldn't you rather have Griffin (even with all his flaws) than Dalton?
Bradford's injury and inconsistent history left him the odd man out. He has a critical season ahead of him as he tries to prove to the Rams that his balky contract is worth the financial trouble.
Whereas picking the Big 12 alumni quarterbacks was a bit tricky, the RB spots were about as easy to figure as any we've done so far in this series. Peterson once rushed for 225 yards in a Red River Rivalry over Texas; Charles answered the next season as a freshman with 116 yards on just nine carries. Since then, Peterson and Charles have established themselves among the top handful of backs in the league -- Peterson arguably alone at the top of that list.
Murray no doubt has the talent to join the upper echelon. He began tapping into that immense ability in full last season en route to nearly 1,500 total yards. Should he ever manage to stay healthy for a full 16 games, Murray might find his first All-Pro honor not far away. Sproles, now 31, may have lost a step off his prime, but he remains an entertaining all-purpose back. Now part of Chip Kelly's offense in Philadelphia, he could be on the verge of a huge 2014 season.
Wide receivers: Dez Bryant (Oklahoma State), Jordy Nelson (Kansas State), Wes Welker (Texas Tech)
Second team: Michael Crabtree (Texas Tech), Terrance Williams (Baylor), Kendall Wright (Baylor)
TBD: Justin Blackmon (Oklahoma State), Josh Gordon (Baylor)
Going to a three-wide set on this imaginary team. There still was not enough room to include Tavon Austin (West Virginia) or Danny Amendola (Texas Tech), and particularly the former appears to be on the cusp of NFL stardom.
Wright actually led this group last season with 94 catches, though he found the end zone just twice. Bryant was right behind him in receptions at 93 ... and far ahead in TDs at 13. Nelson surpassed both in yards, finishing at 1,314. All three, along with Crabtree, will enter the 2014 season as their respective team's No. 1 receiving option. Williams would be too, were he not behind Bryant on the Cowboys' pecking order.
Welker remains a slot receiver extraordinaire. He seamlessly moved from New England to Denver for 2013, with expectations equally high headed into his second Broncos campaign.
As for Blackmon and Gordon, well, the issue is not talent. In fact, were Gordon not facing a season-long suspension, he would have led the way onto this particular first team off his breakthrough 1,646-yard showing. Gordon paced the league in yards-per-game receiving at 117.6, 11 better than Detroit's Calvin Johnson. But the future is simply too murky for either Gordon or Blackmon to earn full marks.
Athletically, the edge here belongs to Pettigrew. The Lions are still waiting for his game to click on all cylinders -- they re-signed him for 2014 only to then use their top draft pick on Eric Ebron, who might eventually shove Pettigrew off the roster. Gresham is a steady-as-she-goes type of player, more than capable as a blocker and at least a short threat in the passing game.
Honorable mention here for Jermichael Finley (Texas), who was among the NFL's more dangerous TEs before a career-threatening injury. One to watch: Jace Amaro (Texas Tech).
Outside of the Charles-Peterson dynasty at running back, this probably is the Big 12's strongest position, with Oklahoma teammates Lane Johnson and Donald Stephenson knocking on the doorstep. Williams, off consecutive Pro Bowl honors, was a lock on the first-team here -- he graded out as Pro Football Focus' top OT last season. Collins claimed the other spot off the strength of his 2013, but the road-grading Loadholt could flip-flop with him and no one would bat an eye.
Okung has a Pro Bowl to his credit as well (2012). However, he has had issues staying healthy, including last season when he missed eight games.
Vasquez may be among the most underrated players in football. Granted, his move from San Diego to Denver just in time for a Super Bowl run certainly helped to elevate his profile. Chester swapped teams in 2011, moving down the Beltway from Baltimore to Washington, where he has not missed a start.
Pushed into starting duties at center mainly because Denver could not keep anyone else there healthy, Ramirez delivered a stalwart showing in 2013. One of the banged-up fellas he replaced, J.D. Walton (Baylor), will try to revive an injury-plagued career with the Giants this season. Sendlein anchored the middle of Arizona's line and passed most of his tests, especially in the run game.
The glory days of Smith, 33 mid-season, may be in the past. Houston should have a plethora to come, especially now that he has traded in his Raiders jersey for a starting spot with the Bears. Smith, on the other hand, is headed into Oakland's suddenly veteran-laden line following five seasons as a starter for the Texans' 3-4 front.
Redding has been an under-the-radar talent for more than a decade now -- he entered the NFL as a 2003 third-round pick of the Lions. Last season, he delivered 4.5 sacks and started 15 games in Indianapolis. Robison, playing opposite Jared Allen, averaged 8.5 sacks from 2011-13.
In part because Geno Atkins missed a chunk of 2013 with an ACL injury, no one was better from the DT spot last season than McCoy. The injury bug also felled Melton in '13, limiting him to three games; before that, he had starred for the Bears as a three-technique tackle. Taylor and Williams have about 650 pounds of line-stuffing girth between them.
Orakpo is the Big 12's headline at OLB, a franchise-tagged star for Washington. He racked up 10.0 sacks last season and could fly past that number in '14 with Washington saying it wants to commit to pass-rushing him more. Hughes matched that sack total, discovering new life for his once-stagnant career following a trade from Indianapolis to Buffalo. He will reprise his role as a hybrid edge rusher this season.
Irvin's production dipped in his second NFL campaign, from 8.0 sacks as a rookie to 2.0 in 12 games during Seattle's Super Bowl run. Even so, he's been better than most people expected him to be.
Washington's demotion comes from the same line of thinking as Josh Gordon's drop earlier -- the Arizona linebacker will sit out all of 2014 after his most recent violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. The misstep is an absolute shame, because Washington was a key cog on that Cardinals D and had been one of the more productive inside linebackers in the NFL.
No such worries (knock on wood) for Johnson, still a ball-hawking dynamo for the Chiefs at age 31. Lofton has a few more warts in his game but he's started all but one time during his six-year career, spanning stops in Atlanta and currently New Orleans.
Talib is a true No. 1 cornerback, which is the role he played for the Patriots and now will reprise in Denver. Brown is not even close to being on the same level, yet San Francisco will miss him now that he's in Oakland. Gilbert could reach shut-down cornerback status in the near future -- Cleveland is definitely counting on him to do so after jumping around in the draft's top 10 to land him.
Another stockpiled position, so much so that Griffin easily could have leapfrogged the rising star Vaccaro for that placement alongside Thomas. There is no such debate for Thomas: a linchpin of the Seahawks' dominant, title-winning defense, Thomas has teams all over the league hoping to find a carbon copy of him.
Bailey posted a slightly better FG percentage last season compared: 93.3 to Tucker's 92.7. Tucker, though, made 10 more field goals, highlighted by his last-minute 61-yarder on Monday night to crush Detroit's playoff hopes.
McAfee is a punter trapped in a linebacker's body. The 6-foot-1, 220-pounder demolished Denver return man Trindon Holliday during a nationally-televised game last season (then was drug-tested immediately by the NFL). Way is a name to remember as training camp opens; the former Sooner is battling Adam Podlesh for the punting gig in Chicago.