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Sunday, May 29, 2022

Gators in the NFL

An update on former Florida athletes in the National Football League

Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts (8) runs against the New Orleans Saints during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)
Atlanta Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts (8) runs against the New Orleans Saints during the first half of an NFL football game, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

The 2021 National Football League season is now half over, and many former Florida Gators have made an impact for their teams. From rookie phenoms to veteran mainstays, here are 11 former Florida athletes tearing it up on Sundays.

OFFENSE

Kyle Pitts

The fourth overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Pitts took just a few weeks to get accumulated to the NFL. He had just one game over 50 yards in the first four weeks of the season, but since then, he has been nothing short of elite. The unicorn prospect has led Atlanta in targets and yards this season, including back-to-back dominant displays in October: He posted box scores of 10-148-1 and 7-163-0 against the Jets and Dolphins, respectively. 

Look for Pitts to continue to grow and remain a focal point during the second half of the season as Atlanta’s No. 1 wideout Calvin Ridley is out indefinitely to focus on his mental health.

Kadarius Toney

The human joystick also took some time to get adjusted to the speed of the professional game. Once he worked his way into the Giants’ rotation, though, he has been one of the top rookie receivers out there. He’s shown flashes of the electric moves Florida fans saw in The Swamp, leading the Giants with 352 receiving yards despite inconsistent play at quarterback. He has 10 receptions of 15 or more yards, 205 yards after the catch and 28 receptions. All these numbers occurred while he played just the fifth most snaps among New York pass-catchers. Look for Toney to have a big second half once given more opportunities to shine.

Van Jefferson

Talk about a breakout. Before the season, Jefferson seemed destined to be buried on the Los Angeles Rams receiving depth chart behind veterans Cooper Kupp, Robert Woods and Desean Jackson. Instead, the former Gator completely usurped Jackson in pecking order before the latter’s release from the team. In the WR3 role for the high-powered Rams offense, Jefferson has shown the ball skills that made him famous in Gainesville.

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Jefferson hauled in 27 passes for 433 yards and three touchdowns so far this year and will continue to play an important complementary role as the Rams look to make a Super Bowl push. 

Freddie Swain

Seattle boasts possibly the best wide receiver duo in the NFL in Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf, so Swain is sometimes overlooked. He has played an important role in the Seahawks aerial attack, however. Similar to Jefferson. Swain serves as a complimentary third option for Russell Wilson (lately Geno Smith), and he runs most of his route from inside, playing a team-high 67.7% of his snaps from the slot position, according to Pro Football Focus. Look for the former Gator to build on his 169-yard total as the season progresses.

D.J. Humphries

Offensive lineman love! Humphries has anchored the Arizona offensive line, protecting quarterback Kyler Murray’s blind side at left tackle. The 2015 first-round draft pick allowed just three sacks on nearly 600 snaps. He has also assisted in the Cardinals eighth-ranked rushing offense, opening up holes for Murray, James Conner, Chase Edmonds.

DEFENSE

Jonathan Greenard

Greenard filled the void left by former All-Pro JJ Watt, who signed with the Arizona Cardinals this offseason. The former Gator tallied a team-leading seven sacks this season, including back-to-back games with multiple sacks against the Colts and Cardinals in Weeks 6 and 7, respectively. It has been a tough season for the one-win Texans, but the 2020 third-round selection has been a bright spot on a depleted roster.

Carlos Dunlap

Dunlap may no longer be the game-wrecker he was earlier in his career, but the veteran is proving he is still very much capable of making plays. He tallied three sacks for the Seahawks this season, including two in the team’s Week 1 victory over the Colts. Dunlap serves as more of a rotational player at this point — 32 years old, 12th NFL season — but he still makes an impact for Seattle’s defensive line.

Chauncey Gardner-Johnson

It’s been an up-and-down season for Gardner-Johnson. The New Orleans Saints corner has shown flashes of greatness, such as allowing just three catches or less in four of nine games this season. However, the former Gator has offered some down moments, including giving up 126 yards in coverage against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 8. The 2019 fourth-round pick will look to tighten up in the back half of the season as the Saints make a playoff push.

Taven Bryan

This one’s personal. Bryan had been written off as a NFL draft bust entering this season. The former first round pick hadn’t topped 25 tackles or two sacks in any of his first three seasons, and he seemed to be on pace for another down year and free agency before this past Sunday. The player the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted ahead of Lamar Jackson and Darius Leonard finally showed up, tallying two sacks to help Jacksonville upset the Buffalo Bills. Will this game have any impact on his future with the team? Probably not, but it was still good to see the oft-maligned Bryan have his day. 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Evan McPherson

McPherson was drafted in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL Draft and immediately became the Cincinnati Bengals starting kicker. He drilled 11 of 14 field goal attempts this season and nailed two game-winners, one of which in his first career start.

Tommy Townsend

McPherson’s partner-in-crime for three years at Florida, Townsend signed with the Kansas City Chiefs as an undrafted free agent in 2020 and has retained punting duties since. He’s averaging 48 yards per boot and has downed 14 punts inside the 20-yard line. Townsend was recently awarded American Football Conference (AFC) Special Teams Player of the Week last week for his performance against the Green Bay Packers: He punted the ball six times and averaged nearly 57 yards per punt.

Contact Michael Hull at mhull@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Hull33.

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Michael Hull

Michael Hull is a third-year journalism major with a specialization in sports & media. He has a minor in business and leadership and is a struggling Jacksonville Jaguars fan.


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