College football and NFL football are two completely different games. Among the long list of differences are the rules, the quality of players, and the differing styles. College football has wider hash marks than the NFL, meaning sometimes it is easier for an offense to run the ball because of the large amount of space it may have on the outside. Of course, the NFL has better players because it has less teams and gets to pick the best players from college, who then go on to mature as professionals. With so many teams, it is understandable that college football can have teams that are pass-heavy offenses, run-heavy offenses and balanced offenses. The defenses can be just as versatile, while the NFL often has gotten the reputation of being a copycat league, where teams try to mimmick what is successful at the moment.
So, with the NFL being a harder league to standout in, and with better players, how can players be better in the NFL than they were in college? Also, how can those players who dominated as collegians not shine in the NFL? A look at these eight NFL players who are better as pros, and seven who peaked in college, might provide some answers to those questions.
20 BETTER AS A PRO: Michael Bennett - Texas A&M
The Seattle Seahawks’ sack artist Michael Bennett was not always known for his ability to rush the passer. At Texas A&M, Bennett was credited with only 6.5 sacks in 47 career games. To put that in perspective, he has notched more than seven sacks in each of his last four seasons. His career high of 10 came a season ago. Bennett’s biggest recognition from his collegiate days was being named honorable mention All-Big 12 by the league’s coaches.
With that college resume, not surprisingly, Bennett went undrafted in the 2009 NFL Draft. The Seahawks signed him but before he had an opportunity to make an impact, they waived him and Tampa Bay signed him. His career took off in Tampa, as he recorded nine sacks in 2012. Bennett returned to Seattle in 2013 and continued to grow into the player and personality he is today.
19 PEAKED IN COLLEGE: Brandon Weeden - Oklahoma State
Similar to Chris Weinke a decade before him, some contributed Brandon Weeden’s success as a collegiate to his age. Weeden wrapped up his career at Oklahoma State as a 28-year old who had just outdueled Andrew Luck in a Fiesta Bowl win, and had led the Cowboys to a two-year record of 23-3. Whatever the reason for Weeden’s success, the fact is he was successful – as his two 4,000 yard and 30-plus touchdown seasons indicate. So, when quarterback-starved Cleveland selected Weeden with the 22 overall in 2012, Browns’ fans hoped they had finally found stability at the position.
However, what Cleveland got was far from experienced quarterback play. Weeden tossed 14 touchdowns as a rookie, but also threw 17 interceptions as the Browns went 5-10 in his starts. He spent just one more season in Cleveland, and now is hoping to carve out a long career for himself in Houston.
18 BETTER AS A PRO: Greg Olsen - Miami
Greg Olsen is one of the most prolific tight ends in the NFL, and Cam Newton’s go-to-guy for the Carolina Panthers. Olsen functions as a quasi wide receiver in Carolina’s offense and is averaging 74 receptions, over 900 yards, and six touchdowns over the last four years. So, considering his production and his skill set, surely Olsen was a dangerous receiving threat in college while playing at the University of Miami. If you agreed with that assessment, guess again.
Olsen played well enough in college to be picked 31st overall in the 2007 NFL Draft, but he did not exactly burn up the stat sheet for the Hurricanes. He only caught multiple touchdowns in a season in just one of the three seasons he suited up for Miami. While his 40 receptions in his final year with Hurricanes led the team, he only caught one touchdown pass that season.
17 PEAKED IN COLLEGE: Morris Claiborne - LSU
LSU has produced some big-time secondary players over the first half of the decade, claiming stars like Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu, and other high NFL draftees like safety Eric Reid and cornerback Jalen Collins. Perhaps, the draftee that was supposed to have the biggest impact was Morris Claiborne.
After winning the Jim Thorpe award for the best defensive back in college football his junior year, Claiborne was drafted sixth overall by the Dallas Cowboys in 2012. With Peterson already making a splash one-year earlier as a rookie in Arizona, and everything being bigger in Texas, including the hype, Cowboy fans dreamed of Claiborne being the lockdown cornerback Dallas had not had since perhaps Deion Sanders. What they have gotten instead is a player who has only 36 starts in four seasons, as injuries have contributed to him missing over 20 games. When he has played he has been underwhelming, notching just three career interceptions.
16 BETTER AS A PRO: Clay Matthews III - USC
It was not that Clay Matthews was not a good player at Southern California, it is that he has improved each season since entering college, and has reached his peak in the pros. Matthews was a walk-on at for the Trojans, attending the same school his dad and NFL great Clay Matthews Jr. starred at. He first made his mark in college on special teams, but by his senior year had carved out a nice niche as pass rusher. Still, he only finished with 5.5 career sacks. However, his upside was good enough for Green Bay to select him with the 26th pick of the 2009 Draft.
It was with the Packers where Matthew exploded into the national limelight, as he had 10 sacks as a rookie. In seven seasons, he has 67.5 sacks, racking up six or more in each of his professional seasons.
15 PEAKED IN COLLEGE: Glenn Dorsey - LSU
Another LSU product, defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey, was the 2007 SEC Defensive Player of the Year and Lombardi Award, Lott, Outland, and Bronko Nagurski Trophy Winner (he was simply thought to be the best lineman and defensive player in college football), before Kansas City selected him fifth overall in 2008. Dorsey also helped LSU to a BCS National Title in his amazing 2007 campaign.
Normally, when a top-five pick comes into the NFL with those accolades, he is expected to be a building block of a franchise. Well, Dorsey only lasted five seasons with the Chiefs. Despite his short stay, even more troubling was that he accounted for just four sacks in those seasons. After spending the last two seasons as a run-stopper in San Francisco, Dorsey now has six-career NFL sacks. That is still one shy of what he produced in his 2007 season at LSU.
14 BETTER AS A PRO: Marshal Yanda - Iowa
Offensive linemen sometimes get overlooked in college, but playing for a program that has turned out as many high-round draft picks as Iowa has at the position, and one has to ask how did the man who many feel is the best guard in the NFL last to the third round of the 2007 Draft? One reason maybe is that Marshal Yanda played tackle in his two seasons at Iowa after transferring from junior college. While he started 12 games at tackle for the Baltimore Ravens as a rookie, moving to guard has brought out the best in him.
Playing on the interior of the line, Yanda has been named First-Team All Pro the last two seasons, and has been selected for the Pro Bowl the last five seasons. If NFL teams knew in 2007 what they now know about Yanda, chances are he would have been a top-10 pick.
13 PEAKED IN COLLEGE: LaMichael James - Oregon
Current 49er and former Philadelphia Eagle head coach, Chip Kelly, had his greatest success as head coach of the Oregon Ducks. Under Kelly, the Ducks’ offense powered them to the BCS National Championship Game after the 2010 season. Oregon’s best player that season was diminutive, but fast running back LaMichael James. In Kelly’s spread system, James tore through defenses for 1,731 yards and 21 touchdowns rushing, with a 5.9 yards per carry average.
Those numbers helped James finish third in the 2010 Heisman voting, but his NFL numbers of 44 carries for 193 yards and zero touchdowns in 18 games over four seasons would not rank among his top college games. James was never thought to be a sure-fire NFL starter because of his size and adjustment out of Kelly’s system, but this NFL version of him is a complete 180 degrees from him as a collegiate.
12 BETTER AS A PRO: J.J. Watt - Wisconsin
J.J. Watt is another player who was no slouch in college. In fact, he was very, very good. It is another situation that he has been even better in the NFL. In his final season in college, Watt compiled over 20 tackles for loss, seven sacks, was named a Second-team All American, and won the Ronnie Lott IMPACT Trophy for being the nations’ best defensive representative of integrity, maturity, performance, community, and tenacity.
All of that is fine and dandy, but the J.J. Watt playing in the NFL right now would not last until the 11th pick of the draft, which he did in 2011. The NFL J.J. Watt is on a career trajectory that places him on the same plane as some of the great D-linemen in NFL history like Bruce Smith and Reggie White. Two 20.5, and a 17.5 sack season in five years will do that.
11 PEAKED IN COLLEGE: Nick Fairley - Auburn
The team that beat LaMichael James and Oregon for the national championship was Auburn, and the Tigers’ defense was led by Nick Fairley. Fairley led the SEC in sacks with 11.5 and tackles for loss with 24, and also brought an aggressive nature that some opposing fans called dirty. So, when Detroit drafted him with the 13th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, it looked like the Lions would have a dream pairing of defensive tackles, with Fairley and Ndamukong Suh.
Not that he was bad, but he did not have the impact that was expected of him. Fairley did not start a game as rookie, and was a part-time starter his second season, before becoming a starter his last two seasons with the club. Last season, he was a situational reserve in St. Louis and will now try to duplicate his college numbers in New Orleans.
10 BETTER AS A PRO: Aaron Rodgers - California
After transferring from junior college, Aaron Rodgers was good enough to lead his California Golden Bears to 18 wins and a bowl victory in his two years of starting under center. The main reason Rodgers was in junior college was because he was under recruited coming out of high school. So, when the slender quarterback threw for 43 touchdowns to just 13 interceptions at Cal, scouts and analysts did not know for sure that was because Rodgers was a special talent or he was just the latest product of head coach Jeff Tedford’s offense.
After Rodgers was still on the board during the 24th pick of the 2004 NFL Draft, Green Bay selected him to be the heir apparent to Brett Favre. Rodgers improved in practice each season, forced the Packers to move on from Favre, and has become widely respected as one of the top QB’s in the game.
9 PEAKED IN COLLEGE: Manti Te’o - Notre Dame
Perhaps even more so than his college or NFL career, Manti Te’o is more famous for being the catfish victim that brought the social dating pehenomon to a wider audience. However, those off-the-field subplots aside, Te’o was already a household name during his time on the gridiron at Notre Dame. Te’o came to Notre Dame as a much ballyhooed prep All-American and made an instant impact as a freshman in 2009, ranking second on the team in tackles.
Over the next three seasons, Te’o led the Fighting Irish in tackles, capping that run off with a senior season in which he led Notre Dame with seven interceptions, while leading his team to the BCS National Championship Game. While his career in the NFL is still young, and despite him being a starter with San Diego, he has an uphill climb to duplicate his collegiate feats and impact.
8 BETTER AS A PRO: Richard Sherman - Stanford
If you watch Richard Sherman play for the Seattle Seahawks and listen to him afterwards, you would think that the extremely confident defensive wiz was always a great cornerback. However, in college that was far from the truth. Sherman started his career at Stanford at wide receiver. It was not until before his redshirt junior season did Sherman move to cornerback. He played two seasons there for the Cardinal, but could only muster a honorable mention All-Pac 10 Team as a senior, watching fellow defensive back and teammate Delano Howell being named All Second Team after he finish with one more interception than Sherman – five to four.
A fifth-round pick in 2011, Sherman has earned a reputation as being the best cornerback in what many feel is the league’s best secondary. His deflected pass in the 2014 NFC Championship Game will be a lasting moment for years to come.
7 PEAKED IN COLLEGE: Sam Bradford - Oklahoma
Sam Bradford was extremely good in college, and had the good fortunate to be the last No. 1 overall NFL Draft Pick before the league put a cap on its rookie contracts. When the then St. Louis Rams drafted Bradford in 2010, there were those who thought the former Oklahoma Sooner and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback would be worth whatever the franchise paid him. Their hopes appeared to be validated when Bradford had a solid rookie season, throwing for 18 touchdowns to 15 interceptions.
However, he would spend three more seasons in St. Louis, with two of them being cut short due to injury, and has not improved greatly since leaving the Rams and arriving in Philadelphia. This is a far cry from the player who tossed 50 touchdowns for the Sooners in his 2008 Heisman season, after which he led the Sooners to an appearance in the BCS National Championship Game. A franchise quarterback he is not.
6 BETTER AS A PRO: Tom Brady - Michigan
Simply put, Tom Brady is currently the NFL’s most accomplished quarterback. The four-time Super Bowl winner, three-time Super Bowl MVP, and two-time NFL MVP has captured numerous records and achievements. So, to think that a lot of Michigan Wolverine fans preferred their team to start Drew Henson during Brady’s last two collegiate seasons and you have to ask were Michigan fans that blind or was this a different Brady?
Judging by him lasting until the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft, most teams in the NFL did not know what Brady was about to become as well. Nowadays, it takes Brady a little less than an NFL season to amass the 30 touchdowns he threw in his college career and about two seasons to equal the 17 interceptions he threw. Of course playing under head coach Bill Belichik, Brady has the benefit of one the sharpest minds in the NFL coaching him, but his rise to legendary status has been remarkable.