North Carolina isn’t exactly a premiere college football destination for the type of talent that routinely goes high in the NFL Draft, but plenty of players have still found success. We have seen future Pro Bowlers, Super Bowl winners, and Hall of Famers get chosen in April and go on to find success at the highest level.
As we prepare for the 2017 NFL Draft, the Tar Heels could be offering one of the strongest draft classes in school history. Let’s look back on the success the school's alumni has seen in the past.
The NFL Draft started in 1936, but it took two years before a Tar Heel was even drafted. Andy Bershak, considered the school’s greatest end for several decades, was the school’s first draft pick when he was chosen by the Detroit Lions in the fifth round of the 1938 draft. Eighth round pick blocking back Tom Burnette was ultimately UNC’s first draftee to play professionally.
North Carolina was a regular presence in the draft from then on, with standouts like George “Snuffy” Stirnweiss giving the program a sense of legitimacy. A star in football, basketball, and baseball, Stirnweiss had a lot of options when he was taken in the second round of the 1940 NFL Draft. He would have turned pro too, if it hadn’t been for the New York Yankees offering him a better deal. Stirnweiss’ status as the first pick in the second round would not be topped for 25 years.
The 1950 draft featured the dynamic duo of wide receiver Art Weiner and halfback Charlie Justice. Weiner went as the second pick in the second round that year while Justice, a a two-time All-American and runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, was chosen in the 16th round. Both went on to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Linebacker Bill Koman was taken in the eight round of the 1956 NFL Draft and went on to become the University’s first Pro Bowler in 1962 and 1964 while with the St. Louis Cardinals. 1961 draft pick linebacker Rip Hawkins—selected by both NFL and AFL teams—made the 1963 Pro Bowl as a member of the Minnesota Vikings.
It wasn’t until 1965 that UNC produced its first first-round pick in running back Ken Willard. He was a four-time Pro Bowler with the San Francisco 49ers, while he was helping the team win several division titles. His former teammate linebacker Chris Hanburger was taken in the 18th round that same year, and he did even better. Nine Pro Bowls, four first-team All-Pro selections, and status as one of the greatest Redskins players in history made him North Carolina’s most successful draft pick for awhile.
It wasn’t until the 1981 NFL Draft that the program produced its first superstar in Lawrence Taylor. LT was taken second overall and put together an unforgettable career, making 10 Pro Bowls, 10 first-team All-Pro selections, six Defensive Player of the Year awards, and the MVP for the 1986 NFL season. He won Super Bowl XXI and XXV with the New York Giants to become the first player from UNC to do so. He is remembered as one of the best players to ever play for the Giants and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
This Super Bowl victory seemingly opened the floodgates for other UNC alumni titles. Amos Lawrence, Kelvin Bryant, Harris Barton, Antonio Goss, and Brian Bollinger all won championships with the San Francisco 49ers. Bucky Brooks and William Henderson won with the Packers in 1997. Many other former Tar Heels have been lucky enough to win a Super Bowl as well.
In the last 20 years, North Carolina has produced several memorable players. Cornerback Dre Bly was drafted in 1999 and went on to play in two Pro Bowls, was All-Pro in 2003, and won the Super Bowl in 2000 with the Rams. Tight end Alge Crumpler was taken in 2001 and went to four Pro Bowls during his career.
Defensive end Julius Peppers was a top recruit when he was taken second overall in 2002. Over the course of his career, he has nine Pro Bowl appearances, six All-Pro nominations, and two Defensive Player of the Year awards. He plans to make his return to North Carolina in 2017 after re-signing with the Panthers, the team that originally drafted him.
In 2009, former Tar Heel wide receiver Hakeem Nicks was taken in the first round by the New York Giants. He went on to win a Super Bowl in 2012.
The 2011 draft included the most UNC players at nine, however, far fewer former Tar Heels have found success in recent years. Several top picks in Brandon Tate, Bruce Carter, Greg Little, and Quinton Coples have failed to put up impressive numbers as professionals. No Tar Heels have been drafted in the last two seasons.
North Carolina has never been a school that produces endless superstars, but it has its own legacy of success. We are only weeks away from the 2017 NFL Draft, and we could be on the brink of a new legacy.
Mitch Trubisky could be the school’s first no. 1 overall draft pick if the Cleveland Browns decide to go with the quarterback. Players like Ryan Switzer, Elijah Hood, T.J. Logan, Bug Howard, Caleb Peterson, Nazair Jones, Mack Hollins, and Des Lawrence also look to be in the mix for the draft.
This could be a year to watch for the Tar Heels. While the talent level still needs to be proven, we could be witnessing a return to the solid draft classes the school used to enjoy.