With Ty Law joining eight other Pro Football Hall of Famers from Michigan last week, and Tom Brady continuing to push the bar for greatest football player of all time past the outer reaches of the Virgo Cluster, I figured our next Michigan All-____ team should focus on who made the best pro players.
This one got long and took a lot of research so here's Part 1.
- Ancient History: 1879 to 1968
- The 5-stars
- The 3-stars
- The Extracurriculars
- All-Numbers Team Part I: The Offense
- All-Numbers Team Part II: The Defense
- The Best of Michigan (the state)
- All-Name Team
- All-Small Team
Today's Rules: I'm creating a 53-man NFL roster with Michigan alumni based on their total contributions in pro football (mostly the NFL). It's not about the greatest Michigan players to go pro; in fact I'm going to include a few transfers best known for playing elsewhere. I'm judging based on things like years in the pros, years as a starter, Pro Bowl/All-Pro selections, a little bit on team success, and their impact on the game, all relative to when they played.
The goal is a bit different than normal because the idea here is to build a team, not reward the best players. A guy had to play a position in the pros to be be eligible for it, within reason: I expect a career left guard to be able to play right guard (but not necessarily center), and a 1950 flanker to not feel totally out of place as a modern slot receiver.
A * means he's in the Hall of Fame already.
Quarterback: Tom Brady (2000-present)
It doesn't seem to get old. I think we can skip the career rundown because you've no doubt been on this Earth the last few weeks. At this point Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are past trying and just making up challenges to keep things interesting.
Tom: Okay guys, don't even block Aaron Donald, Ndamukong Suh, and Dante Fowler for a quarter.
Bill: Betchya I can convince the whole league to go back to punting on 4th and short from the opponents' territory.
Tom: Oh yeah? Watch me make a short, bearded Jewish guy a Super Bowl MVP.
Bill: Ooh, that's a good one. Try this…I'm going to hold Jared Goff to the worst passing day of his career.
Bill: Using just zone defense!
Tom: That's good, but you know what would really be funny?
Tom: Okay, here it is: Not only do you have to hold the Rams under 7 points, but you also have to get McVay to forget he has the highest paid running back in the league for a half…
Tom: And then you've got to bust out your own 1st round RB from Georgia and salt the game away using nothing but double ISO and counter-trey.
Anyway the nice thing about the All-Michigan NFL Team is it will beat any other college's all-NFL team. I mean, what other school gets to put out a tweet like this every year?
— Michigan State Football (@MSU_Football) February 4, 2019
Backups: Benny Friedman* (1927-'34) and Jim Harbaugh (1987-'00). What's more incredible about the greatest quarterback of all time is he pushed down the Most Important. Without Benny the NFL would have taken much longer to get out of the college game's shadow. Benny also provides depth at RB, the secondary, and special teams. Former 1st round pick Jim Harbaugh was 49-22-1 as an NFL starter, mostly for the Bears, but had a long second career as a backup who doubled as a mentor and coach for young prospects.
Honorable Mention: Elvis Grbac (1994-'01), Brian Griese (1998-'08), Chad Henne (2008-present), Todd Collins (1995-2010), Larry Cipa (1974-'75), Jake Rudock (2017-present)
[After THE JUMP: a position that isn't as deep, and one that's deeper]
Running Back: Ron Johnson (1969-1975)
— New York Giants (@Giants) November 11, 2018
An All-Pro, two-time Pro-Bowler, and starter for seven seasons in the early 1970s, Ron Johnson is one of the best Michigan players that nobody ever talks about because the Michigan teams he played on were so disappointing. It's an unfortunate byproduct of how the Bo era began, and how the Bump Elliott era ended, that we only talk about the one blowout at the end of the season instead of the romp through the middle of it with a borderline Heisman candidate. Johnson, also Michigan's first African-American captain, would finish 12th in the voting.
Johnson was a late 1st round pick by Cleveland but after holding out they put him at fullback. That led to a trade to New York, which suited him well. A run-pass threat with incredible vision, Johnson was the first Giant to rush for 1,000 yards. He missed half of '71 with a thigh injury but picked up where he'd left off in 1972, adding 450 receiving yards to the almost 1200 on the ground (behind only O.J. and Larry Brown). His body began to give out afterwards and after another 1200 all-purpose yards in 1975 would be his last major contribution. That's life as a running back.
Tyrone Wheatley (1995-2004). Knee damage over his college and early pro careers probably did Wheatley no favors, as the magnificent track star was relegated to mostly burly inside runner as a pro. After going 17th overall he was limited behind Rodney Hampton and Tiki Barber with the Giants. He found new life as the Raiders' heavy back and the reduced load extended his career well into the 2000s.
Rob Lytle (1977-'83). I could use a couple more backs, preferably with some versatility. Also you would be hard pressed to find a guy who played harder, or a more beloved teammate. A second-round pick of the Denver Broncos, then known as the "Orange Crush," Lytle played in a two-back set where all three RBs often had to play the role of fullback.
Leroy Hoard (1990-'99) Hoard too was mostly a running back in the NFL, but a short-range running back. He once told his coach: "If you need one yard, I'll get you three. If you need five yards, I'll get you three." Other options for fullback are Askew, Jon Ritchie, and some old timers who were even more running back-ish than Lytle and Hoard. This option also had nearly 4,000 rushing yards and over 50 TDs as a pro.
Honorable Mention: Anthony Thomas (2001-'07), Butch Woolfolk (1982-'88), Tishimanga Biakabutuka (1996-'01), Justin Fargas (2003-'09), Bob Perryman (1987-'92), Harlan Huckleby (1980-'85), B.J. Askew (2003-'09), Jon Ritchie (1998-'04), Jarrod Bunch (1991-'94)
Wide Receiver: Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch* (1946-'57)
Crazylegs was called Crazylegs because his legs weren't the same length, so the faster he ran the more his legs would kick out and the more he would wobble. Watch the video above—it's pretty funny.
Crazylegs was probably less Michigan's than Wisconsin's—he ended up in Ann Arbor because of World War II, one of several Big Ten players Michigan managed to corral by having multiple officer training schools on campus. War profiteers of the most interesting kind, Michigan used connections in Washington to corner the market on all these training programs, from Japanese mathematics to teaching guys to enter a submarine without using the door. Then they'd target athletes for these programs and give them two options for physical training: lots of 4 a.m. calisthenics, or playing for the Michigan football team. Specifically his program was the Marine Corps V-12 Navy College Training Program. Hirsch was already a star, so Badger fans understandably thought it was unfair, like if Jonathan Taylor were to sign up to fight the Nazis, and Uncle Sam deployed him to Michigan's backfield. It only lasted a year; by 1944 Hirsch and much of Michigan's '43 haul were deployed to an actual military base (with its own football team).
As a pro he remains the first great Flanker, i.e. a wide receiver who's not on the line of scrimmage. The best part of his 7,029 receiving yards (in the 1940s and '50s!) is that at least half were after the catch, which means fans who got to see a newsreel of Mr. Hirsch got to see those legs a-churnin. His 1951 season would be considered incredible by modern standards: 1495 yards, 17 TDs, and a long of 91.
Wide Receiver: Amani Toomer (1996-'08)
Easily the most productive receiver in Giants history and probably the best pro receiver Michigan managed to produce in the modern age, Toomer was, amazingly, a return specialist his first few years with the G-Men. He had just one catch as a rookie on 10 targets, and just 263 and 360 yards the next two seasons as QB Danny Kannell favored fellow Wolverine Chris Calloway and 7th overall pick Ike Hilliard. But in 1999 the Giants put Kerry Collins under center, Calloway signed with Atlanta, and the 6'3" Toomer began a five-year streak of 1,000+-yard seasons.
Later in his career that speed began to leave him, but Toomer extended his effectiveness deep into the 2000s as more of a chain-mover and mentor for young Eli Manning. Toomer was the unofficial captain of the team that upset Tom Brady's bid at a perfection. Toomer played one more year, overlapping with Mario Manningham in 2008, before retiring as the franchise leader in just about every receiving category, but still 503 yards short of 10,000.
Wide Receiver: Anthony Carter (1985-'95)
AC was one of the best college football players in history when he graduated from Michigan, and was one of the biggest stars to join the USFL. After the league collapsed Carter signed with the Dolphins—the team that had originally drafted him in 1983—but was traded to the Vikings. There too Carter was an immediate success, being selected to the Pro Bowl in 1987, '88, and '89. The highlight of that time was a 1987 NFC semi-final in which AC caught 10 passes for 227 yards (none of which were touchdowns), had a 30-yard end-around (also not a touchdown), and returned a couple of punts for another 21 yards to knock off the Joe Montana dynasty 49ers.
Carter remained in Minnesota as his skills began to diminish and Ohio State's Carter moved into the role of #1 receiver. AC had a bit of a renaissance in '93, his last with the Vikings, and signed on for a couple of injury-plagued years with the Lions to finish out his career. Counting his USFL stats, AC accumulated 10,775 yards and 82 touchdowns over his decade as a pro after Michigan.
Derrick Alexander (1994-'02), Jason Avant (2006-'15), and Chris Calloway (1990-'00). I took a long time to decide on these guys over Braylon, and gave my reasons in a Twitter thread. Alexander is a no-brainer, and I took Avant because he was the premier possession receiver of his era, ending his career just a few years ago with an incredible-for-a-non-spread-splot 62% catch rating. And then Calloway had similar numbers to Braylon, accumulated over more time but fewer targets, and a higher catch rating.
Also I'm taking Desmond Howard (1992-'02) as my primary returner, duh.
Honorable Mention: Braylon Edwards (2005-'12), Glenn Doughty (1972-'79), Terry Barr (1957-'65), Devin Funchess (2015-present), Mario Manningham (2008-'14), Steve Breaston (2007-'12), Tai Streets (1999-'04), Jim Smith (1977-'85), Jack Clancy (1967-'70), John Henderson (1965-'72)
Tight End: Ron Kramer (1957-'67)
Vince Lombardi wasn't shy about whom he thought his best player was, but it took him awhile to warm up to his 4th overall pick in the 1957 draft. Kramer turned down an offer to tour with the Harlem Globetrotters to come to Green Bay, but couldn't turn down the Air Force in 1958, and the Packers went 1-10-1 without him. Then Lombardi barely used Kramer as more than a blocker for a couple of seasons. Finally in 1961 things turned around
Lombardi's favorite play was a sweep that ran off the tight end's block, because he could trust that 'Rugged Ron' would have consistently, if messily, dispatched whatever end or linebacker thought he had the edge protected. Kramer's terrifying blocking made him a favorite target when he went out for a pass, especially because the blocky tight end had a habit of hilariously running over the poor members of the secondary trying to stop him. They won championships in 1960, '61, and '62. Kramer signed with the Detroit Lions as a restricted free agent in 1965, costing Detroit a 1st round draft pick. Injuries caught up and he limped no further than 1967.
Backups: Jim Mandich (1970-'78) and Tony McGee (1993-'03). Mad Dog Mandich was the star of Bo's 1969 team and a star blocker for Don Shula's perfect 1972 Miami Dolphins. Though not often used as a receiver, Mandich was a mainstay for the Dolphins for eight seasons. I also wanted a receiver type so I grabbed Mr. McGee, the big Bengal target for most of the 1990s. After nine seasons in Cincy, McGee bounced around for a few years as a pass catching TE for hire. Unfortunately for him, that archetype didn't really take over the league until a decade after he retired.
Honorable Mention: Jay Riemersma (1997-'04), Doug Marsh (1980-'86), Derrick Walker (1990-'99), Mark Campbell (1999-'08), Aaron Shea (2000-'05), Jerame Tuman (1999-'08), Jake Butt (2018-present), Paul Seal (1974-'79), Paul Seymour (1973-'77)
Center: John Morrow (1956-1966)
A two-time Pro-Bowler and nine-year starter, Morrow is certainly the best actual center Michigan's sent to the NFL, even if he's not one of the five best offensive linemen (we're about to get filthy rich in a couple of positions). A very late round pick of the LA Rams, Morrow was best known as the center of the early 1960s Cleveland Browns, going to the Pro Bowl in 1961 and 1963, and leading them to the NFL Championship in 1964.
Backup: see backups for the guards
Honorable Mention: Steve Everitt (1993-'00), Graham Glasgow (2016-present), Matt Elliott (1992-'97), Walter Downing (1978-'83), George Lilja (1982-'87), Dennis Franks (1976-'79), Mason Cole (2018-present), David Molk (2012-'15)
Guard: Tom Mack* (1966-1978)
I thought about cheating here to give Michigan an all-Hall-of-Fame offensive line, but the thought of Tom Mack anywhere but left guard is unpossible. At Michigan Tom Mack was the star lineman for the 1964 team—that Bump Elliott team that popped out of the Bump Slump to win a Rose Bowl. He arrived as an end and grew into a tackle without losing any of his speed. Mack was drafted 2nd overall in the 1966 draft and took over at left guard the fifth game of that season. He would remain the starter at left guard for the Rams for 13 years, going to 11 Pro Bowls, third-most all time.
Guard: Steve Hutchinson (2001-'12)
Although Hutchinson didn't make the cut for the Hall of Fame class this year—his first—it's a given he'll make it in eventually, since offensive line people agree he was one of the best all-time at his position. I personally remember swearing when the Seattle Seahawks moved up in the draft to take Hutchinson over the Lions (who took Backus). I don't remember what the whole salary cap thing that went down with the Vikings was, but I think the gist of it is the Vikings offered Hutchinson a $Saban money to jump and Seattle couldn't match it.
So after 2005 it was Adrian Peterson rather than Shaun Alexander who looked like the best running back in the country. At least the people who vote for All-Pro sorts of things knew what was going on as well as the Vikings front office, as Hutchinson was invited to the Pro Bowl seven times, was a first-team All-Pro selection five times, and is a solid pick if you're trying to figure out who was the best guard of all time.
Reggie McKenzie* (1972-'84) The offensive line of the 1970s Bills was called "The Electric Company" because they "turned on the Juice." Get it? Yeah, that was coined by Reggie, the All-American Michigan guard who was drafted 27th overall and became Buffalo's magnificent pulling (left) guard for 11 years. While the Bills' opposite guard went to more Pro Bowls, McKenzie is acknowledged today as the engine who made that running game hum. His athleticism and intelligence made him perhaps the best puller the league has ever seen. He could move better than a linebacker, and loved to set them up for failure. And that underrates his ability as a drive blocker.
Pick any O.J. (as a player) tape and watch #67. Reggie was incredible.
Backup: Jonathan Goodwin (2002-'14). There are a lot more great OL to fit on my 53-man roster so I'll take a swingman and call it a day. The 5th round pick of the Jets was an unremarked starter, but after signing with the Saints in 2005 Goodwin took off, making the Super Bowl in 2009 and getting a Pro Bowl (reserve) invite the following year. Harbaugh then signed Goodwin to the 49ers, where he started another Super Bowl.
HM: David Baas (2005-'13), Patrick Omameh (2014-present), Chris Godfrey (1980-'88), Joe Cocozzo (1993-'97)
Offensive Tackle: Dan Dierdorf* (1971-'83)
We have now reached what is, by far, the most ludicrously deep position when it comes to Michigan's contributions to the pros. If you made a list of the 50 greatest offensive tackles, a good 25 percent of them might be Michigan alums. I had the hardest time getting down to just four guys, let alone picking the starters, but we might as well begin with the Hall of Famer.
The longtime Cardinal, Double-D proved his value initially by playing all over the line. By 1974 he was an established star at right tackle, and was named OL of the Year three years in a row beginning in 1976. Dierdorf and the Cardinals line set records in that span for fewest sacks, including a streak of zero sacks given up in 1976 and 1977. He missed the 1979 season with a torn ligament but came back in the '80s for another first-team All-NFL year, and even played center one season (the strike-shortened 1982), so I've got some positional flexibility.
Offensive Tackle: Mike Kenn (1978-'94)
Taken in the 1st round of the 1978 draft, Bo's All-Big Ten left tackle of the mid-'70s was an all-rookie. By his second year he led the league in fewest sacks and penalties per game/snap, and by 1980 he began a streak of five Pro Bowls. Though he never got to 300 pounds (most guys of his era didn't), Kenn remains a good pick for the best pass-blocking tackle in the history of the game (relative to his era), and the second-best player in Falcons history. Kenn isn't in the Hall of Fame (few OL are) but he makes all the smart guy lists of best players who aren't so he'll probably get in eventually.
Jake Long (2008-'16) The first overall pick in 2008, was an immediate star at left tackle for the Dolphins, and was selected to four straight Pro Bowls from 2008-2011. Before his back injury in 2011, Long was well on his way toward being the greatest offensive tackle in the history of the game. Then injuries ruined things. After signing with the Rams in 2012, Long suffered a torn bicep, then tore his right ACL in both 2013 and 2014. He tried to make a comeback with the Falcons in 2015 and then with the Vikings in 2016, but tore his achilles that season and called it quits. The injury period now puts a shadow on his career, but for half a decade he and Joe Thomas were the best two offensive tackles in the league.
Congressman Jon Runyan (1996-'09) barely edges out Jumbo Elliott and Jeff Backus as Mr. Longevity, starting 192 NFL games in a career that spanned 14 seasons. A fourth rounder by the Houston Oilers, Runyan became a starter by Game 6 and got to play in the Super Bowl after his All-Pro 1999. The Eagles gave him the biggest contract ever for an OL, and he made it worth their while, returning to the Pro Bowl in 2002 and extending his starting streak to 190 games, earning a reputation as one of the dirtiest players in the league.
HM: Jumbo Elliott (1998-'02), Jeff Backus (2001-'12), Jon Jansen (1999-'09), Jon Giesler (1978-'88), Bubba Paris (1983-'91), Maurice Williams (2001-'09), Taylor Lewan (2014-present), Steve Smith (1966-'74), Joe O'Donnell (1964-'71), Greg Skrepenak (1992-'97), Michael Schofield (2014-present), Rich Strenger (1983-'87), Willie Smith (1960-'61), Rudy Rosattie (1923-'28), Ed Muransky (1982-'84)
Seth's All-Pro Michigan Offense
|Pos||Player||Years Active||Primary Franchise|
|C||John Morrow||1956-1966||Ravens (Browns)|
|Pos||Player||Years Active||Primary Franchise|
|RB||Leroy Hoard||1990-1999||Ravens (Browns)/Vikings|
|WR||Derrick Alexander||1994-2002||Ravens (Browns)|