Tom Brady, Drew Brees headline All-Big Ten active alumni team
There were 16 Big Ten players selected within the first three rounds of this year's draft, representing nine schools. (The tallies are 17 and 10, respectively, if you include Maryland, which is now part of the B1G -- and thus, of our all-conference team -- yet officially represented the ACC at the draft.)
Those are respectable numbers to be sure, even more so on the heels of a 2013 Big Ten draft class that produced but one first-round pick: Travis Frederick. The conference's higher-ups still will be irked by the fact that Taylor Lewan, Darqeuze Dennard, Ryan Shazier and the rest of the lot slipped out of the '14 top 10, making it six straight drafts since a Big Ten player has been taken that high. The last, Jake Long, landed No. 1 overall back in 2008.
Perhaps it is fitting given those outcomes that arguably the most recognizable Big Ten NFL player, New England quarterback Tom Brady, carries the famous story of slipping into the sixth round before ascending to stardom. In similar fashion, the recent stars out of this conference have lingered on the draft board for a bit: Lavonte David at pick 58, Russell Wilson at 75, NaVorro Bowman at 91. This conference remains among the league's most reliable producers of talent, even if it has become less-obvious talent.
The latest in our series of all-conference alumni teams digs through the growing Big Ten:
Quarterback: Tom Brady (Michigan)
Second team: Drew Brees (Purdue)
If you had to pick one of these two quarterbacks to handle a must-win game, which would it be? If your pick is Brees, I'm not going to stop you.
Statistically, Brees has been better almost across the board in every season since Brady took home league MVP honors after New England's perfect 2007 regular season. That run includes 2011, when Brady threw for a career-best 5,245 yards only to be topped by Brees' 5,476. Yardage is but one measure of a quarterback's total performance that can be overemphasized; wins are another. Brady has the edge there over the past five years: 61-55, with the Saints' 7-9 mark in 2012 making the difference. More than that, Brady and the Patriots also have three straight AFC title game appearances plus a trip to Super Bowl XLVI in recent memory. Brees' Saints have not made it out of the divisional round since winning it all back in 2009.
Long story short, I'd give the slightest of edges to Brady if forced to choose one or the other (which is basically what is happening here). Even last season, when some would argue that he regressed in a receiver-starved offense, Brady helped the Patriots within a game of another Super Bowl appearance.
Of course, last year's Super Bowl-winning quarterback, Russell Wilson (Wisconsin) is a Big Ten alum. In a build-for-the-future scenario as opposed to the do-or-die pitch, Wilson might get the nod over the 36-year-old Brady or 35-year-old Brees.
Rice's inclusion offers an opportunity to remind everyone that these all-conference alumni teams are meant to recognize the best NFL players from programs based on the current NCAA alignment. In other words, just because Rice never played a down in the Big Ten does not mean that he gets bumped out here.
Dwindling production and a troubling offseason incident involving his then-fiance are far more problematic for Rice. He holds onto the first-team spot mainly because we have yet to see Ball in a starring role with the Broncos. He will have that chance in 2014 ... and bet on him to thrive alongside Peyton Manning. Ball and Bell may wind up battling Eddie Lacy, Gio Bernard and maybe Zac Stacy or Andre Ellington for the title of best second-year back. Bell posted more than 1,200 total yards over 13 games as a rookie.
Maryland and Minnesota are not the first two B1G schools that come to mind on the topic of producing NFL-ready receivers, but it's hard to deny either Smith or Decker given the competition. Players like Plaxico Burress (Michigan State), Braylon Edwards (Michigan) and Brandon Lloyd (Illinois) hardly have any claim to a first-team honor anymore.
Hartline, off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, easily made his way onto the second team. Holmes' position, on the other hand, is tenuous at best -- fellow Buckeye Ted Ginn and Rutgers' Mohamed Sanu are both just off the page. One of the most talented receivers from a current Big Ten school is on the verge of becoming a total NFL bust: Kenny Britt (Rutgers). He may be down to his last shot at a career revival as a St. Louis Ram.
A runaway victory for Davis, who jumped to the pros following a 51-catch season for the Terrapins back in 2005. Clark as Davis' backup is more of a lifetime achievement selection than based on the merits of 2013, which works a little against the general approach to these all-conference teams. Another Hawkeye, Scott Chandler, is the second-best Big Ten tight end headed into 2014.
Even with the spread offense running rampant and mobile quarterbacks stealing much of the show, the Big Ten remains at heart a conference built in the trenches. It should come as no surprise then that the next three categories, all along the offensive line, are loaded with talent.
Long bounced back from some injury woes to turn in a sturdy 2013 for the Rams, while Thomas remains an absolute rock along Cleveland's line. Whereas that pair has handled left tackle duties, both Davis and Strief have excelled on the right side for the 49ers and Saints, respectively. An up-and-comer at this position is the Lions' Riley Reiff (Iowa), who slid over to Matthew Stafford's blind side last season and played fairly well.
Again, no lack of bodies up front -- Rob Sims (Ohio State), Kraig Urbik (Wisconsin) and Jeff Allen and Jon Asamoah (both from Illinois) all should start in 2014. And perhaps the best guard of the bunch, Carl Nicks (Nebraska) simply has been unable to stay fit over the past two seasons. Boone, Yanda and Zeitler all are instrumental cogs in run-heavy offenses. Slauson does his fair share of run blocking as well in front of Matt Forte.
Mangold is a five-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro. He has missed all of two games since the Jets took him late in Round 1 of the 2006 draft. Raiola was selected five years earlier, at No. 50 overall by Detroit, and has sat out just four times since. The Lions' center enjoyed a resurgence last season, calling the shots for what was a vastly underrated line.
So ... pass-rushing is covered. Watt, the 2012 Defensive Player of the Year, is without question one of the best defenders in the entire league. Wake, meanwhile, has solidified himself among the top 4-3 ends after taking a roundabout path to the NFL through the CFL. The second-team does not look too shabby either -- Avril and Ninkovich combined for 16.0 sacks last season and 17.5 the year before.
Nebraska did not become a Big Ten program until 2011, one year after Suh departed and was made the No. 2 overall pick by Detroit. For all the criticisms of his offseason work ethic and in-season, on-field behavior, Suh probably would have no problem finding a starting job on all 32 teams. Starks is far less of a household name but is headed into year 11 of a productive career -- one that gained momentum once he arrived in Miami for the 2008 season. Odrick has played next to Starks on the Dolphins' D-line since he was drafted in 2010.
Short nabbed the final spot over the likes of Barry Cofield (also Purdue) and Domata Peko (Michigan State). The second-year player flashed some serious upside last season and should take a step forward this year.
Most of the all-conference teams so far have had one position where there was just too much talent to limit to the first- and second-team constraints. This is the Big Ten's gold mine.
There are at least a couple standout 4-3 outside linebackers available, clearly led by David with Levy, off a career year, following a couple steps back. Then, we have the strict 3-4 OLBs: Hali and Kerrigan, who combined for a staggering 98 quarterback hurries last season. Woodley was in that 3-4 outside linebacker group himself during his Pittsburgh days, but he'll fill more of a LB/DE hybrid role with the Raiders in 2014. Phillips will do the same for Tennessee after delivering 10.0 sacks off the edge for Denver last season.
Bowman and Lee, along with Bowman's 49ers teammate, Patrick Willis, arguably rank among the best two or three inside linebackers in football. Unfortunately, Lee has had all sorts of problems staying on the field -- he'll miss 2014 with a torn ACL -- and Bowman will sit out the start of this season after blowing out his knee during the NFC title game. The other players here are not nearly as dynamic but they are extremely productive. Posluszny finished second in the league last season with 162 tackles (only Vontaze Burfict had more); Harris and Laurinaitis combined for 240 tackles.
Not the conference's greatest positional strength, though there is depth -- Alan Ball (Illinois), Nolan Carroll (Maryland) and Bradley Fletcher (Iowa) are at least deserving of a mention. Davis and McCourty are both coming off exceptional showings in 2013. Amukamara tapped into his vast potential last year, too, and will pair with Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the Giants' secondary this season to offer a potential shutdown duo. Hall is steady in Cincinnati's secondary, but injuries have made his contributions less frequent of late.
Porter warrants a cream-and-crimson-colored honorable mention as the Indiana program's NFL beacon. Neither of the other choices, OT James Brewer nor G/T Rodger Saffold, made the all-conference list here (Saffold came close but was ultimately bumped down by injury). The Hoosiers are on the rise, at least in comparison to where they have been. The impact has not hit the NFL yet, though 2014 rookie Cody Latimer could help change that.
The second McCourty brother earns the family's second first-team nod. Not much to nitpick at the safety spot, shy of arguing for Pollard over Whitner on the first-team (meh) or for Malcolm Jenkins (Ohio State) over an aging Woodson on the second-team (perhaps).
No fewer than six B1G alums are scheduled to open the season as starting kickers. In addition to Novak (34-of-37 on field goals last season) and the reliable Gould (26-of-29), the conference also has sent Jay Feely (Michigan), Mike Nugent (Ohio State), Josh Brown (Nebraska) and Alex Henery (Nebraska) to the show.
As evidenced by his 2013 Pro Bowl selection and 42.6 net-yardage number (second in the NFL to Johnny Hekker), Fields has a case as the top punter in the league, period. Nortman might be in the mix soon if he can build on a 2014 season that saw him average 47.7 yards per kick.