With the NFL draft coming up in just over a month and everybody talking about guys like Johnny Manziel, Jadeveon Clowney and Teddy Bridgewater, it’s easy to forget that there are dozens of other solid teams in the NCAA division I with solid players with good NFL potential. While most scouts for NFL caliber talent would probably prefer the simplicity of looking only in the SEC, Big 10, Big 12 and Pac-12 (arguably the four most consistently strong conferences), each year brings in successful draft picks from lesser known schools in less prominent conferences. Examples of former NFL players from the MAC include Jason Taylor, one of the best defensive ends of all time, who went to Akron, and Antonio Gates who attended Kent State. Looking to the Mountain West Conference, one of their most successful alumni is Brian Urlacher, who played for the New Mexico State Lobos. Basically, within NCAA Div I, a good scout can spot talent anywhere, even in schools that are seldom in Bowl games and rarely have winning seasons.
What is less common than a Division I player from a lesser known school being drafted is a player from NCAA division II being drafted, as Division II is often overlooked. This is due to a number of reason but the major two are that Division II generally has a lower skill level all around and a lack of large scale exposure beyond their own region. Rarer still than being drafted, is a Division II players actually making it on to the main roster of an NFL team rather than being kept on the practice squad. But it isn't news to anyone that just because a player was brilliant in college and was drafted in the first round, doesn’t mean that he will be successful in the NFL.
In some cases an ego gets in the way, in other cases he just isn’t a good fit for his new surroundings or can’t function within his new playbook. Conversely, there are many examples of guys drafted in the sixth or seventh rounds or even going undrafted, who have gone on to achieve great success in the NFL. Here is a list of ten successful NFL players who competed in NCAA Division II in college. These are ten of the best but by no means the only, so gently toss all opinions on list membership or ordering in the comments section.
Criteria for list membership includes number of starting seasons, overall stats and of course Super Bowl rings and Pro Bowl selections. Honorable mentions go to Delanie Walker, Todd Herremans, Reed Doughty, and John Kuhn; who are all solid NFL players from Division II but did not make the list.
10 Roberto Garza – Texas A&M - Kingsville
Garza came into the league in 2001 after being drafted by the Atlanta Falcons. Having been born to parents who were of Mexicanb descent, he was once told by a Marine recruiter that Mexicans don’t play in the NFL. I guess they do though, because Garza played four years for the Falcons before signing with the Bears. After his first season in Chicago, he was signed to a six year deal and continued to play there. He remains a member of the Bears to this day and was the cover athlete for the Spanish version of Madden ’09.
Though he has not been a Super Bowl winner or Pro Bowl selection he is here because of his steady record as a solid starting lineman who is capable of performing as a center or guard. USA Today named him to their 2012 All-Joe Team, of solid players who always perform but are overlooked by the media.
9 Danny Woodhead – Chadron State
Woodhead was an undrafted free agent who was signed by the New York Jets back in 2008. Prior to that he had torn Division II apart while at Chadron State; setting at the time records for both individual season and all-time and being considered the best player in the division twice. His all-time rushing record has since been broken. He was not invited to the combine, but performed shockingly well during his pro day, recording two forty yard times under 4.4.
If you haven’t watched much of Woodhead in the NFL, he’s quick out there. His time with the Jets was uneventful, but while with the Patriots he was a very solid second running back and a fantastic receiving back. His 2013 season with the Chargers was successful as well, as he had a career high 106 carries and 76 receptions with six receiving TD’s. In his time in the league, he has ran for just under 1700 yards, with twelve rushing TD’s. His receiving stats have been similar with ten TD’s and 1674 total receiving yards.
8 Danieal Manning – Abilene Christian
Manning originally played for Nebraska but transferred to Abilene Christian early in his college years. He was drafted by the Bears in the second round of the 2006 draft and played there until 2010. Until 2008, he played strong safety, but in that year he also became their primary returner, taking over for the awesome Devin Hester, when Hester began to get more snaps as a wide receiver. 2008 was arguably his best year as he was a designated All-Pro, and achieved his first kickoff touchdown in that year. In 2011, he signed with the Texans, and played there until yesterday (I am writing this on April 1st, 2014) when he was released. Throughout his career he has racked up over 500 tackles, 11 interceptions, 2 touchdowns (one defensive and the kickoff) and over 3000 kickoff return yards.
7 Brandon Carr – Grand Valley State
This year, in his second year with the Cowboys, Carr was able to rack up 71 tackles, twelve defended passes and three interceptions. These are solid numbers but none are career bests. During his time with the Chiefs from 2008-2011, he developed into a very reliable corner, able to keep up with most receivers and make plays when necessary. His sophomore and junior years in college saw his school Grand Valley, take two NCAA Division II National Championships. In his senior year, he was voted the defensive back of the year in Division II.
6 Brent Grimes – Shippensburg
Another cornerback checks in at number six on this list and it was tough to pick between Carr and Grimes. They have similar stats, and Grimes, despite a couple of seasons with injury troubles, has been named to more Pro Bowls (2010 and 2013) and has also been named the NFL Alumni Defensive Back of the Year. After six years with the Falcons, he was not re-signed after the 2012 season and the Dolphins signed him to a one-year deal in 2013. He played well in 2013, earning his second Pro Bowl appearance with 60 tackles, 17 passes defended, four interceptions; one of which was a pick-six. Recently Miami signed him to a new contract for four years and up to $32 million.
5 Jacoby Jones – Lane
The 2012 Pro Bowl selection and Super Bowl winning Raven, Jacoby Jones, is fifth on the list, having put up decent receiving numbers throughout his time in the NFL paired with significantly better punt and kickoff return numbers. Houston took him in the third round back in 2007 and he played there until 2011, when he signed a two-year deal with the Ravens. About three weeks ago, he signed a four-year, $12 million deal to remain a Raven. Jones holds kickoff and punt return records with both clubs for whom he has played.
4 Nate Washington – Tiffin
While at Tiffin University in Ohio, Washington, Nate Washington set just about every record that a wide receiver could set, including receiving touchdowns in a career, yards in a career, touchdowns in a season and receptions in a season. He was signed to the Steelers in 2005 as a free agent and didn't see much playing time until the next year when Hines Ward was injured. He performed well as a slot receiver for Pittsburgh, scoring 12 touchdowns between 2006 and his departure in 2008. The Titans have since been able to get even more production out of him. He signed a six year deal with them in 2009 and became their number one receiver back in 2011. Thus far in his career he has compiled a very respectable 37 receiving touchdowns and just over 5,200 yards. This on top of the fact that he is a two-time Super Bowl winner.
3 Vincent Jackson – Northern Colorado
After four record setting years at Northern Colorado as a wide receiver and returner, Jackson was selected in the second round by the Chargers back in 2005. His first two years in the league were not particularly productive, but inn 2007 started to become more steady and reliable. Since 2008 he has only recorded one season with less than 1000 receiving yards and less than 7 touchdowns, which was 2010, most of which was lost due to a contract dispute between Jackson and the Chargers. Since his signing to the Buccaneers in 2012 (five years and $55.5 million) he has posted two very solid seasons with 1384 yards and eight touchdowns in 2012 and 1224 yards and seven TD’s in 2013. In 2009, 2011 and 2012 he has been selected to the Pro Bowl.
It should be noted that Northern Colorado is currently a Division I school, but was in Division II when Jackson played there.
2 Adam Vinatieri – South Dakota
Possibly – probably the best kicker of all time was originally set to kick for the Army Black Knights in Division I, but after briefly attending West Point, he left and returned home. He completed his four years at South Dakota State with two Division II titles and the honour of being his school’s all-time scoring leader. For anyone who covers their eyes and shouts loudly during huge special teams plays: Adam Vinatieri is the only kicker in league history to have four Super Bowl wins and on top of that, who could forget the circumstances of the wins he earned with the Patriots? Yes indeed, three Super Bowls all won via field goal in the closing minutes (and seconds) of the fourth quarter.
1 Jahri Evans – Bloomsburg
While in college at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, he was recognized as one of Division II’s best blockers and most reliable offensive lineman in the run game. In 2006, he was selected in the fourth round by New Orleans where he has stayed since, building a name for himself as one of the best guards in the league. Since 2009, he has been selected to the Pro Bowl every year, making it five consecutive appearances. He was also a Super Bowl winner with the Saints back in the 2009/2010 season and after that season he was re-signed by the Saints to a seven-year, $56.7 million contract, making him the highest paid guard in the NFL at the time.