By Daniel Thompson
As the NFL season kicks off tonight and this weekend, more rookies who played at Michigan will be starting their careers than any other season before. In 2017, 11 players from Michigan were drafted, which not only set a school record, but was also the largest amount players drafted from any school. No more than 3 players from Michigan were drafted in any other draft class since 2008. So now that there might be enough talent to do so, I’ve attempted to put together an NFL starting lineup, comprised exclusively of former Wolverines. Talent won’t be spread out evenly between positions and there won’t necessarily be a player available to plug every hole in the roster. I am going to limit myself to only choosing from players on NFL rosters or who are still actively seeking to join a roster, even if Charles Woodson might have 11 more years of experience than the entire defensive backfield combined. For the sole purpose of speculation, I will try to put together the best starting lineup I can and try to guess how well they might actually perform in the NFL. To make this doable, I’ll assume injuries don’t exist and that the starters could play every snap for the entire season.
For obvious reasons, this will be an extremely pass heavy offense. No former athlete to play primarily running back at Michigan is currently on an NFL roster or still listed as an active NFL player. Options at receiver are either unproven or underwhelming. Nonetheless, this offense could still put up above average NFL numbers thanks to the most famous Wolverine in football history occupying the most important spot on any NFL roster.
QB: Tom Brady
It doesn’t get any simpler than this. Brady has done more with less than possibly any other quarterback in NFL history. He turns rejects into Pro Bowlers and finds ways to win in almost any situation. He should have no problem thriving in spite of the lack of talent at skill positions.
RB: Denard Robinson
Going into this list, I knew I would have to get creative at a few positions. Thankfully the Jaguars already did that for me. Robinson isn’t actually on an NFL roster at this moment, but he might be at some point this season, he even worked out for the Cowboys on Friday, September 1st. I could have gone with Joe Kerridge, who is actually on the Packers’ roster. But Robinson has been by far the most successful former Wolverine ball carrier in the NFL over the past decade. With 1,041 career rushing yards and an average of 4.0 yards per carry in four seasons, Robinson’s numbers are good enough to justify a spot on an NFL roster. The last Wolverine to reach 1,000 career rushing yards in the NFL was Anthony Thomas, who hasn’t played since 2007. With defenses focussed on protecting against the pass, Robinsons speed could catch defenses off guard throughout the game and we could reasonably hope to see him put up starting running back numbers.
WR: Devin Funchess
Funchess is the obvious choice as the only Michigan receiver currently to have played a snap in the league. He has disappointed for a second rounder, but he’s the only Michigan wideout to play two full seasons in the NFL since Braylon Edwards and Mario Manningham both retried following 2013. While he’s far from a good first, or second, option at receiver in the NFL becoming the main target on a much more pass heavy offense would certainly boost his numbers, which currently sit at 27.2 yards per game for his career. Funchess’ 6’5” frame would also make him a great red zone target and allow him to play a tight end role like he did for MIchigan.I have a feeling he’d experience a Chris Hogan-esque leap forward in production once he starts catching passes for the greatest quarterback to ever play.
WR: Amara Darboh
The Seahawks took Michigan’s leading receiver at the end of the third round this offseason. Darboh and Chesson are the only other wide receivers on an NFL roster beside Funchess.
WR: Jehu Chesson
The quality of this wide receiver group will be mostly determined by how good Chesson and Darboh turn out to be, and there won’t be many options if they bust. Hopefully they’ll be impactful players long enough for Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black to arrive. Chesson was selected by the Chiefs in the fourth round, 33 picks after Darboh.
TE: Jake Butt
Butt was arguably the best tight end of the 2017 draft class. He was named a first-team All-American and the Kwalick–Clark Tight End of the Year in both 2015 and 2016, over OJ Howard, Evan Engram, and David Njoku, who were all selected in the first round. Even if Butt did not have as great of measurables as the first rounders, he certainly would’ve been selected much earlier than the fifth round if not for his second ACL injury. If the injury does not affect his play, he could easily be a starting NFL tight end.
LT: Taylor Lewan
Lewan has lived up to his expectations as the 11th overall pick in 2014. In 2016 he was selected for his first Pro Bowl appearance and was named number 72 on the NFL’s Top 100 players of 2017 countdown. Lewan’s emerging status as a top five tackle in the NFL makes him worthy of defending the GOAT QB’s blind side. Perhaps most importantly, he scored his first career touchdown on a three yard pass in 2016.
Maybe Lewan could line up as a slot receiver for the All-Michigan team as well.
LG: Michael Schofield
Schofield was a starter for the Broncos during their 2015 Super Bowl run in his second season, and started every game for the Broncos in 2016. Schofield was waived this offseason and joined the Chargers, but is clearly a player teams can win with.
C: Graham Glasgow
Glasgow played center at Michigan, but is now one of very many players to switch between guard and center in the NFL. As a rookie in 2016, Glasgow won the starting left guard job six games into the season. No former Wolverines are currently listed as a center, so Glasgow is the most logical choice to be the center for this team.
RG: Patrick Omameh
Omameh went undrafted in 2013 and spent the 2013 season on the 49ers’ practice squad. In 2014 Omameh started every game for the Buccaneers. He started the first seven games for the Jaguars in 2016 before suffering a season ending injury and re-signed with the Jaguars in the 2017 offseason, and should offer starting level guard play for the All-Michigan team.
RT: Erik Magnuson
Magnuson earned All-Big Ten first-team honors in 2016 and is another member of the impressive group of rookies Michigan sent to the NFL in 2017. Despite going undrafted, Magnuson made the 49ers 53 man roster. Although the 49ers’ roster is one of the worst in the NFL, Magnuson is the only other Wolverine tackle currently on an NFL roster. Former first overall pick Jake Long’s retirement this offseason prevents the All-Michigan team from having a line built entirely out of NFL starters.
The talent on defense is stronger but also more unevenly distributed. Due to an abundance of strong pass rushers, I chose to run a 3-4 defense to get as many great pass rushers on the field at once. This team’s front seven is probably their most complete position group, but defensive backs are certainly their least experienced. All four defensive backs are rookies. Jabrill Peppers’ linebacker skill sets also allows this defense to run a blitz heavy 3-4. The strength of the defense’s front seven means several early round picks such as Chris Wormley and Ryan Glasgow won’t make the starting line up.
DE: Frank Clark
Despite only starting five games last season Clark recorded 10 sacks in 2016 and emerged as one of the league’s top pass rushers in his second season. Of the 16 players to total 10 or more sacks in 2016, only three started less than 10 games. If Clark continues to improve headed into his third season, he could be the best pass rusher on nearly every NFL team, and the centerpiece of a very talented All-Michigan front seven.
DE: Taco Charlton
The Cowboys selected Charlton with the 28th overall pick in the 2017 draft after he recorded 10 sacks and 13.5 tackles for a loss for Michigan in his senior season. He’s not as proven as a NFL pass rusher as other Wolverines turned pro, but his 6’6” frame puts him at the size of an average NFL tackle, making Charlton a very exciting prospect.
DT: Alan Branch
Alan Branch is possibly the only Patriot who doesn’t get enough attention from the media. He’s one of the most underrated DTs in the NFL and is coming off of arguably his best season ever at the age of 32 where he posted a career second best 26 tackles and recovered Matt Ryan’s Super Bowl fumble. Branch has never made the Pro Bowl despite receiving second team all-pro honors from football focus in 2011, where he only recorded 21 tackles. He’s been very consistent since his third season in 2009, and can be expected to put up average starting defensive tackle number at the very least this season.
OLB: Brandon Graham
Graham has had a pretty volatile career, but he’s coming off his best season at 28 years of age. As the 13th overall pick of the 2010 draft, Graham suffered an ACL tear that shortened both his 2010 and 2011 seasons. In 2013 he transitioned to linebacker where he saw enough success to re-sign with the Eagles to a four year $26 million deal. After switching back to defensive end in 2016, Graham had a career high 41 tackles, was named an AP all pro second-teamer, and made the 2017 NFL Top 100 list at 93rd. It’s hard to look at that success this year and move him back to linebacker, but his numbers in 2015 and 2014 were nearly as good as 2016, averaging only .5 more sacks and 4 less tackles a season in 2015 and 2014 than in 2016. Moving Graham to linebacker will cause him to see a slight decrease in production, but will allow the All-Michigan team to put the most talent on the field as possible.
OLB: Ben Gedeon
In the 2017 draft, the Vikings used a 4th round pick on Gedeon and named him their starting Sam linebacker, making him their primary blitzing linebacker, on September 5th. The Vikings’ defense finished third and sixth respectively in yardage and points allowed among all teams in 2016.
ILB: David Harris
Since 2009, Harris has started 127 out of 128 possible regular season games, and is 28th among all active players on the games started leaderboard. Harris has been one of the most consistent yet least celebrated players over the past decade, with 708 career tackles going into tonight’s game. He’s arguably the best veteran never to have been named to a Pro Bowl and has only one AP second team all-pro to his name in 2009. The Jets released him in June as part of their tanking initiative and he was picked up by the Patriots. So don’t be surprised if he has a breakout season and finally gets the recognition he deserves.
ILB: Jake Ryan
In his second season he became a starting inside linebacker for the Packers and has recorded 132 tackles in his first two seasons. It appears Ryan should be a consistent starter at linebacker for the foreseeable future.
CB: Jourdan Lewis
If not for Peppers, Lewis would have been the star of the Wolverine’s defense in 2016. Despite missing three games to injury to start the season Lewis was named a first-team All-American in both 2015 and 2016, and was selected by the Cowboys in the third round of the 2017 draft, just three spots ahead of teammate Delano Hill. Lewis begins the theme of prospects with high ceiling that haven’t proven anything in the NFL yet in this All-Michigan defensive backfield.
CB: Jeremy Clark
Clark returned to Michigan as a redshirt senior only to suffer a season ending ACL tear in the fourth game against Penn State. This injury left him unable to run for scouts at the combine or Michigan’s pro day. In fact, he’s still on the Jet’s reserve/non football injury list on their roster. Despite this injury, the Jets still used a sixth rounder on Clark. In our fantasy world without injuries, Clark would have gone even higher in the draft and should be expected to be a decent NFL corner.
SS: Jabrill Peppers
Even though his versatility has been utilized all over the field, Peppers will have to stick with his best position due to a glaring lack of safety depth on this roster. Before 2017, Michigan hadn’t had a safety get drafted before the 7th round in the entire 21st century. Thankfully, a great defensive draft class in 2017 makes it possible to fill out a starting line up with starting caliber players. Jabrill would still be able to utilize his versatility on this team as his linebacker skill set and experience allows this defense to do what it does best: get in the backfield. The defensive line and outside linebackers can thrive knowing Peppers can function as a third linebacker if need be.
FS: Delano Hill
The Seahawks drafted Hill in the third round this offseason, largely thanks to his 4.47 40 time. Peppers ran a 4.46. The speed at safety would allow both of these players to keep up with nearly any receiver in the NFL. Despite a defensive backfield composed entirely of rookies the safeties will be two athletic players who went in the first and third rounds, which is above average draft stock invested in the safety group.
K/P: Kenny Allen
Allen served as both roles for the Wolverines last season and performed well enough to justify a spot on an NFL roster in both disciplines. He signed with the Ravens as an undrafted free agent, but was cut on September 1st. Allen still could make it in the NFL as some team will inevitably suffer an injury at either position or cut their kicker or punter over performance.
KR: Jabrill Peppers
Regardless of what you think about Peppers’ ability to play coverage in the NFL, his floor as an NFL player is an electrifying returner.
LS: Open Tryouts
Your guess is as good as mine.
Thanks to having the right talent in the right places, this team could actually be competitive in the NFL. The only three positions to be drafted with the first overall pick since 1997 are quarterback, defensive end, and tackle. It should be no surprise that the three most important positions in the NFL are the quarterback, the guy who rushes the quarterback, and the guy who protects the quarterback. Brady, Graham, and Lewan were the three Wolverines who made the 2017 NFL top 100 and received multiple votes for first team all-pro. The entire front seven of the defense as a whole would be an above average unit in the NFL. Obviously this team’s performance would be very hard to predict given that 10 rookies will have to start. If the front seven can stop runners before for small gains and keep quarterbacks uncomfortable, the risk of inexperience at defensive back can be minimized. Likewise, if the decent offensive line can keep Brady upright for a few seconds each play, he should be able to move the ball downfield and catch defenses off guard when the offense opts for a run. If players never got injured and teams only played their starters for the whole game, I would expect this team to win about nine games a season. I doubt many other colleges could put together such a strong NFL roster thanks to how difficult it is to find a franchise quarterback, much less produce the winningest quarterback in NFL history.