Best Players, Top Rookie, Fantasy Sleeper, More: Wolverines In The NFL
Michigan Wolverines football has 35 former players on NFL rosters, 13 of which are projected to be starters this fall.
Below, we've handed out some preseason superlatives for the 2021 campaign, where we predict how several standouts will perform this year, including best player, top offseason move, comeback player of the year and more.
Best Offensive Player: Tom Brady
He's still playing and, yes, he's still Michigan's top former player in the league.
Fresh off a seventh Super Bowl title, the 44-year-old might even be healthier this year than he was last — it was revealed that he played much of the campaign with a torn MCL in his left knee — when he completed 65.7 percent of his regular-season passes for 4,633 yards and 40 touchdowns with 12 interceptions.
Before last season, Brady's first with the franchise, the Buccaneers hadn't made the postseason since 2007. Now, the defending champs have 7-to-1 odds to win a second straight Lombardi Trophy, according to Vegas Insider, second only to the Kansas City Chiefs.
Best Defensive Player: Frank Clark
The Chiefs edge defender totaled 29 tackles, eight tackles for loss, six sacks and 15 hits on the quarterback during the regular season in 2020, before a stellar postseason in which he posted nine tackles, five stops for loss, three sacks and three quarterback hits in a trio of playoff games. In the process, he helped lead the Chiefs to their second straight Super Bowl appearance, before they fell short against Brady and the Buccaneers.
Despite suffering a hamstring injury during a training camp practice, Clark is on track to play Week 1.
Top Rookie: Kwity Paye
The Indianapolis Colts' starting defensive end is primed to have a big season, after being picked in the first round at No. 21 overall this past spring and becoming the highest-graded rookie edge defender in the preseason since 2013, according to PFF. In four years at Michigan, he totaled 100 tackles, 23.5 stops for loss and 11.5 sacks.
Two other rookie Wolverines — Washington long snapper Camaron Cheeseman (sixth round) and New England kicker Quinn Nordin (undrafted) — are projected to start heading into the year.
Second-Year Surge: Josh Uche
New England Patriots' offensive lineman Michael Onwenu might just be the best second-year former Wolverine, considering he made the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA) NFL All-Rookie Team last season after starting all 16 games.
But his teammate, outside linebacker Uche, gets the nod here because we expect him to take a big leap forward. He battled injury last season, playing in just nine games, but came away with nine tackles, two stops for loss and seven quarterback hits. He's listed as the backup behind star Kyle Van Noy but should receive plenty of playing time and was tabbed as PFF's No. 4 second-year breakout candidate in the entire league.
"From Week 8 — when Uche was awarded his first defensive snaps of the season — until the end of the year, his 77.6 PFF grade ranked second only to [Washington Football Team defensive end] Chase Young among rookie edge players," PFF's Seth Galina wrote. "That ranked 16th overall. A full season as a starter could see him put up big numbers"
One Play Away: Rashan Gary
This award goes out to a former Wolverine who is listed at second-string but is "one play away" from starting. In other words, the top backup who will see the field and could earn a starting spot at some point in the season.
We'll present this one to Gary, who was battling for a starting spot this preseason to begin with, before he suffered a minor goin injury that forced him to miss all three preseason games and some practice time.
He started during four of his 15 regular-season appearances in 2020, registering 35 tackles, five sacks and 11 hits on the quarterback.
Comeback Player: Devin Bush Jr.
Bush suffered a torn ACL in the fifth game of the year in 2020, cutting his season short. He's back healthy and remains the team's starting inside linebacker. During his rookie season in 2019, he recorded 72 tackles, nine tackles for loss, one sack, four fumble recoveries, one forced fumble and two interceptions.
According to BetOnline.ag, he has 33-to-1 odds to win the NFL' s Comeback Player of the Year Award.
Runner-up here goes to Tennessee Titans offensive lineman Taylor Lewan, who also tore his ACL in the fifth game of the year last season. The three-time Pro Bowler will start at left tackle.
Top Special Teamer: Jabrill Peppers
We love what second-year Colts linebacker Jordan Glasgow brings on special teams, but this one goes to New York Giants safety and punt returner Peppers, the club's special teams captain. He racked up 187 yards on 15 punt returns last season with a long of 20 yards. His 12.5 yards per return ranked fourth among all NFL players who brought back double-digit punts in 2020.
Fantasy Sleeper: Nico Collins
While Brady is the best fantasy player — he's projected to rack up 320.44 points in an ESPN standard scoring league — Collins is the second-highest-rated former Wolverine in fantasy (includes just offensive skill position players and kickers) and is a solid sleeper pick in fantasy drafts.
ESPN predicts that the rookie — who will be catching balls from newly named Texans starting signal-caller Tyrod Taylor — will notch 51 receptions for 664 yards and four scores, totaling 137.9 fantasy points (in ESPN standard scoring leagues).
Best Player At Each Position
• QB: Tom Brady (Buccaneers)
• RB: Chris Evans (Bengals)
• WR: Donovan Peoples-Jones (Browns)
• TE: Zach Gentry (Steelers)
• OL: Taylor Lewan (Titans)
• DT: Bryan Mone (Seahawks)
• EDGE: Frank Clark (Chiefs)
• LB: Devin Bush Jr. (Steelers)
• CB: Jourdan Lewis (Cowboys)
• S: Jabrill Peppers (Giants)
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