By Christopher Walsh
Seventh of 10 Parts
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — One of the best testimonies to a coach’s prowess is when there’s enough talent among his former players to fill an all-star team without having a significant drop at any position.
Doing so with Nick Saban, though, is different. He’s had so many consensus All-Americans and first-round draft picks that such a compilation would relegate several players to reserve or honorable mention status.
We’ve selected three all-time teams built by Saban.
The Alabama All-Active NFL Team
After Saban’s 10 years at Alabama there could be an NFL team comprised solely of former Crimson Tide players. At the start of training camps, NFL rosters included 53 players who suited up for Saban at Alabama. That’s the number of active players on an NFL roster.
With a little creative thinking, behold the 2017 Lake Burton Beasts, including the starting lineup.
QUARTERBACK | AJ McCarron (Bengals).
It hasn’t worked out that he’s a starter in the NFL yet, but it appears to be a matter of time. With no other Crimson Tide quarterbacks in the league, the problem is behind him. So Blake Sims, who is trying to latch on with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a running back, will be the reserve.
RUNNING BACKS | Derrick Henry (Titans), Mark Ingram Jr. (Saints) and Eddie Lacy (Seahawks).
While most NFL teams go three-deep at the position, the Beasts will have a three-headed monster that will punish defenses. They’d get the bulk of the carries, with Kenyan Drake (Dolphins) the third-down back and T.J. Yeldon (Jaguars) doing a little bit of everything.
WIDE RECEIVERS | Julio Jones (Falcons) and Amari Cooper (Raiders).
It would be tempting to have those two take every snap, plus Kevin Norwood (Giants) would be an excellent possession option and rookie ArDarius Stewart (Jets) a nice fourth contributor. The reserves would be Gehrig Dieter (Chiefs) and Richard Mullaney (Browns). DeAndrew White (Texans) is a recent training camp addition, as well.
TIGHT END | O.J. Howard (Buccaneers).
This is spot that will require a little cheating. Jalston Fowler (Titans) will help out as a half fullback and half second tight end, plus a reserve offensive lineman will be utilized in goal-line situations.
OFFENSIVE LINE | Cam Robinson (Jaguars), Chance Warmack (Eagles), Ryan Kelly (Colts), James Carpenter (Jets), D.J. Fluker (Giants).
If there was training camp, Robinson and Fluker would have to hold off Cyrus Kournadjio (Lions ) and Andre Smith (Bengals) for the starting tackle jobs, with Smith a strong sixth-man possibility. Anthony Steen (Dolphins) is the backup center, with Austin Shepherd (Vikings), Arie Kouandjio (Redskins) and Korren Kirven (Chiefs) the other reserves.
DEFENSIVE LINE | Jonathan Allen (Redskins), Marcell Dareus (Bills), Jarran Reed (Seahawks)/ A’Shawn Robinson (Lions)
Most Alabama defensive linemen end up playing in the interior in the NFL, but this group could play in a 4-3 or 3-4 by going with the hot hand between Reed and Robinson. Regardless, the unit will have a heavy rotation including Quinton Dial (49ers), Wallace Gilberry (Bengals), Damion Square (Chargers), Ed Stinson (Cardinals), Dalvin Tomlinson (Giants) and Courtney Upshaw (Falcons). Good luck running against that group.
LINEBACKERS | C.J. Mosley (Ravens), Dont’a Hightower (Patriots)/Reuben Foster (49ers), Mark Barron (Rams)/Ryan Anderson (Redskins).
This group is so talented and versatile it could excel in any defensive system, with Foster lining up either in the interior or outside as necessary. Reggie Ragland (Bills) is the primary reserve in the interior. Barron and Anderson could rotate, with Barron used more in passing situations and Anderson at the “Jack” hybrid end/linebacker spot that Saban helped make popular. Tim Williams (Ravens) contributes as a pass-rushing specialist.
DEFENSIVE BACKS | Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Packers), Landon Collins (Giants), Dre Kirkpatrick (Bengals), Kareem Jackson (Texans).
Rookies Marlon Humphrey (Ravens) and Eddie Jackson (Bears) are the two inserted for nickel and dime packages when extra defensive backs are needed, so they’d essentially be starters as well. Cyrus Jones (Patriots), Vinnie Sunseri (49ers) and Bradley Sylve (Bills) provide depth and play a lot of special teams.
SPECIAL TEAMS | Carson Tinker (Jaguars), Cyrus Jones (Patriots) and Eddie Jackson (Bears).
Tinker is set at long snapper, Jones and Jackson return punts, with Drake in the mix on kick returns. At kicker/punter there are three options:
- Take a page from the All-Madden Team from years ago and never punt.
- Find a way for JK Scott to be used as an intern.
- Use Steen, who kicked in high school. “I haven’t kicked in years,” he said in 2013.
The All-Decade Team (2007-16)
While it seems logical an all-Alabama NFL team would be similar to an All-Decade Team for Saban, the latter is more difficult to pick due to some key players no longer playing and the overall depth of talent he’s had with the Crimson Tide.
In this case, selections were primarily determined by accolades, and by what a player accomplished at the collegiate level.
Also, the positions are more rigid than the NFL team, per Saban’s preferred schemes. Thus, there are nickel and dime selections in the secondary, but no other defining within a position. For example, offensive tackles are not split into left tackle and right tackle, and the linebackers are not designated by Mike (middle), Sam (strong), Will (weak) and Jack (hybrid end).
QUARTERBACK | AJ McCarron.
The three-year starter was the only quarterback during the BCS era to win back-to-back national titles. He led the nation in passer efficiency in 2012, won Alabama’s first Maxwell Award for most outstanding player and finished second in the 2013 Heisman Trophy voting. Second team: Greg McElroy. Honorable mention: Jalen Hurts.
RUNNNING BACKS | Derrick Henry and Mark Ingram.
You really can’t do better than two Heisman Trophy winners. Second team: Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy. Honorable mention: Glen Coffee and T.J. Yeldon. Fullback: Jalston Fowler.
WIDE RECEIVERS | Julio Jones, Amari Cooper and Calvin Ridley.
Jones was better than his numbers indicate, with 179 receptions for 2,653 yards, 15 touchdowns and 3,084 all-purpose yards. Cooper won Alabama’s first Biletnikoff Award. Second team: DJ Hall, Kevin Norwood and ArDarius Stewart. Honorable mention: Marquis Maze, Matt Caddell, DeAndrew White and Darius Hanks.
TIGHT END | O.J. Howard.
The 2017 first-round draft pick will be remembered for his 208 receiving yards in the 2015 national championship game against Clemson. Second team: Mike Williams and Brad Smelley. Honorable mention: Colin Peek and Nick Walker.
TACKLES | Andre Smith and Cam Robinson.
Both won the Outland Trophy as the best interior lineman. Second team: Cyrus Kouandjio and D.J. Fluker. Honorable mention: James Carpenter and Austin Shephard.
GUARDS | Chance Warmack and Barrett Jones.
Warmack was a unanimous All-American as a senior and selected 10th overall in the 2013 NFL Draft. Jones won the 2011 Outland Trophy, the 2012 Campbell Trophy (academic Heisman) and Rimington Trophy (best center). Second team: Mike Johnson and Anthony Steen. Honorable mention: Arie Kouandjio.
CENTER | Ryan Kelly.
He won the 2015 Rimington Trophy and was subsequently selected in the first round of the NFL draft despite his position. Second team: Antoine Caldwell. Honorable mention: William Vlachos.
DEFENSIVE LINE | Jonathan Allen, Marcell Dareus and Terrence Cody.
Allen was Alabama’s first player to win the Bronko Nagurski and Chuck Bednarik awards as the nation’s best defensive player. Dareus was the third pick in the 2011 draft and Cody was a two-time consensus All-American. Second team: Jarran Reed, A’Shawn Robinson and Dalvin Tomlinson. Honorable mention: Wallace Gilberry, Josh Chapman and Da’Ron Payne.
LINEBACKERS | Rolando McClain, C.J. Mosley, Reuben Foster and Dont’a Hightower.
That’s three Butkus Award winners and a player who has won two national titles and two Super Bowls. Second team: Courtney Upshaw, Ryan Anderson, Reggie Ragland and Tim Williams. Honorable mention: Nico Johnson and Trey DePriest.
CORNERBACKS | Dee Milliner and Dre Kirkpatrick.
Both All-Americans were first-round draft picks. Second team: Kareem Jackson and Marlon Humphrey. Honorable mention: DeQuan Menzie and Ramzee Robinson.
SAFETIES | Mark Barron and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Barron was a three-year starter, twice named a team captain and finished his career with 237 tackles, 5 sacks and 12 interceptions. Both he and Clinton-Dix were first-round draft picks. Second team: Rashad Johnson and Eddie Jackson. Honorable mention: Vinnie Sunseri and Robert Lester.
STAR/MONEY (NICKEL/DIME) | Minkah Fitzpatrick and Landon Collins.
Both were consensus All-Americans and too good not to have significant roles. Second team: Cyrus Jones and Javier Arenas. Honorable mention: Simeon Castille and Marquis Johnson.
RETURN SPECIALIST | Javier Arenas.
Arenas finished 10 yards short of setting the NCAA record for career punt-return yards, and his 3,918 total return yards also ranked second all-time. Second team: Christion Jones. Honorable mention: Marquis Maze.
KICKER | Leigh Tiffin.
He’s Alabama’s all-time leading scorer. Second team: Jeremy Shelley. Honorable mention: Adam Griffith.
PUNTER | JK Scott.
He was named an All-American in 2014. Second team: Cody Mandell. Honorable mention: P.J. Fitzgerald.
The All-Saban Team
Saban coached at other places before arriving at Alabama in 2007, so an All-Saban Team would feature numerous Alabama players, but also include some from Toledo (1990), Michigan State (1995-99) and LSU (2000-04).
The criteria for consideration had to be tweaked due to how players might have developed after the coach departed. For our purposes, one had to be all-conference, All-American, drafted by an NFL team or won a major award when Saban was his coach. The time element was factored in with any achievement a year or more later.
QUARTERBACK | AJ McCarron (Alabama).
He was Saban’s first quarterback to be named an All-American (but was not a consensus selection). Second team: Greg McElroy. Notable players from other schools include Tony Banks (Michigan State), Josh Booty (LSU), Rohan Davey (LSU), Matt Mauck (LSU) and Russell (LSU).
RUNNING BACKS | Derrick Henry and Mark Ingram (Alabama).
There’s nothing better than two Heisman winners. Second team: Trent Richardson and T.J. Duckett (Michigan State). Notable others include Joseph Addai (LSU), Scott Greene (Michigan State), Sedrick Irvin (Michigan State), LaBrandon Toefield (LSU), Justin Vincent (LSU) and Domanick Williams (LSU).
WIDE RECEIVERS | Josh Reed (LSU), Julio Jones (Alabama) and Plaxico Burress (Michigan State).
Reed caught 94 passes for 1,740 yards in his junior season to win the Biletnikoff. Burress only played two seasons with the Spartans, but had 131 receptions, 2,155 yards and 20 touchdowns before being the eighth-overall selection in the 2000 draft. Second team: Michael Clayton (LSU) and Amari Cooper. Notable others include Dwayne Bowe (LSU), Bennie Brazell (LSU), Nigea Carter (Michigan State), Craig Davis (LSU), Skyler Green (LSU), Herb Haygood (Michigan State), Dervey Henderson (LSU), Rick Isiah (Toledo), Derrick Mason (Michigan State), Muhsin Muhammad (Michigan State) and Gari Scott (Michigan State).
TIGHT ENDS | O.J. Howard (Alabama) and Chris Baker (Michigan State).
Baker made 47 consecutive starts and had a string of 24 consecutive games with at least 1 reception. He set the school record for tight ends with 133 catches, 1,705 yards and 13 touchdowns, and was selected in the third round of the 2002 draft. Second team: Michael Williams and Robert Royal (LSU). Notable others include Jerry Evans (Toledo), Josh Keur (Michigan State) and Vince Marrow (Toledo).
TACKLES | Andre Smith (Alabama) and Flozell Adams (Michigan State).
Nicknamed “The Hotel,” Adams was a three-year starter for the Spartans, two at right tackle and one at left, and named both an All-American and Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year. Second team: Cam Robinson and Cyrus Kouandjio. Notable others include Craig Kuligowski (Toledo), Greg Randall (Michigan State), Andrew Whitworth (LSU) and Brandon Winey (LSU).
GUARDS | Chance Warmack and Barrett Jones (Alabama).
Warmack might have been the best blocker Saban has had and Jones won the most awards. Second team: Mike Johnson and Stephen Peterman (LSU). Notable others include Herman Johnson (LSU), Tupe Peko (Michigan State) and Scott Shaw (Michigan State).
CENTER | Ryan Kelly (Alabama).
He was the third Rimington winner that Saban has coached. Second team: Ben Wilkerson (LSU). Notable others include Rudy Niswanger (LSU), Jason Strayorn (Michigan State) and Louis Williams (LSU).
DEFENSIVE LINE | Jonathan Allen (Alabama), Chad Lavalais (LSU) and Glenn Dorsey (LSU).
Lavalais was the SEC defensive player of the year in 2008 and Dorsey won the Outland, Nagurski, Lombardi and Lott (defensive impact) awards during his senior season. Second team: Terrence Cody, Marcell Dareus and Marcus Spears (LSU). Notable others include Howard Green (LSU), Jarvis Green (LSU), Marquise Hill (LSU), Melvin Oliver (LSU), Chase Pittman (LSU), Josh Shaw (Michigan State), Robaire Smith (Michigan State), Dimitrius Underwood (Michigan State), Dan Williams (Toledo), Kyle Williams (LSU) and Claude Wroten (LSU).
LINEBACKERS | Rolando McClain, C.J. Mosley, Reuben Foster (Alabama) and Julian Peterson (Michigan State).
During his two years with the Spartans, Peterson recorded 140 tackles and 25 sacks in only 23 games before being a first-round draft pick. Second team: Dant’a Hightower, Bradie James (LSU), Ike Reese (Michigan State) and Courtney Upshaw. Notable others include Matt Eberflus (Toledo), Trev Faulk (LSU), Ali Highsmith (LSU), Josh Thornhill (Michigan State), T.J. Turner (Michigan State) and Lionel Turner (LSU).
CORNERBACKS | Corey Webster (LSU) and Dee Milliner (Alabama).
Originally a wide receiver, Webster became LSU’s first two-time All-American since 1987 (Wendell Davis). Second team: Dre Kirkpatrick and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Notable others include Darren Anderson (Toledo), Amp Campbell (Michigan State), Travis Daniels (LSU), Chevis Johnson (LSU) and Renaldo Hill (Michigan State).
SAFETIES | LaRon Landry (LSU) and Mark Barron (Alabama).
The No. 6-overall draft pick in 2007, Landry was a four-year starter who broke up 40 passes and made 12 interceptions. Second team: Landon Collins and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Notable others include: Norman LeJeune (LSU), Aric Morris (Michigan State) and Craig Steltz (LSU).
RETURN SPECIALIST | Javier Arenas (Alabama).
Second team: Derrick Mason (Michigan State). Notable others include Domanick Davis (LSU), Skyler Green (LSU), Herb Haygood (Michigan State).
KICKER | Paul Edinger (Michigan State).
He was an All-American and a sixth-round draft pick. Second team: Leigh Tiffin.
PUNTER | JK Scott (Alabama).
He was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award in 2014. Second team: Craig Jarrett (Michigan State).