A lot of people recognize that UNC produced arguably the best NBA player of all time, in Michael Jordan. It gets brought up in probably most conversations about North Carolina as a historical sports blue-blood. What most of these conversations don’t include, though, is that UNC also produced arguably the best NFL player of all time. I’m talking, of course, about Lawrence Taylor.
While the argument for Taylor is certainly a little tougher to defend than the argument for Jordan, it’s definitely been made before. I get that a team’s football pedigree is about quantity just as much as it’s about quality, but I’d like to see North Carolina recognized a little more nationally for having had the greatest defensive player of all time.
Also, if you’re talking quantity, UNC doesn’t fare too badly in that department, either. The Tar Heels have had 215 players drafted into the NFL. All 32 teams have taken a player from Chapel Hill at some point in their history, the most recent team to fulfill that milestone being the Houston Texans in 2011 (the pick was TJ Yates). While many of them have been successful, a few have shone beyond the rest, and eight of those 215 have made multiple NFL Pro Bowls since the NFL-AFL merger. Here they are, the best of the best:
Koman was drafted in the 8th round of the 1956 NFL Draft back when the NFL Draft had 30 rounds with less than 15 picks apiece. He was selected 91st overall, the equivalent of a late 3rd round pick today. Koman was a two-way player in college but transitioned full-time to linebacker in the NFL. He played 12 years and made two Pro Bowls, in 1962 and 1964. He had a nose for the ball, finishing his career with seven interceptions and 21 recovered fumbles, the latter being a mark that remains top-100 in the NFL.
Willard was a two-sport athlete at UNC, playing on a football scholarship but playing baseball as well after turning down a career with the Red Sox to attend college. He led the ACC in home runs twice. Notably, Willard was Carolina’s first athlete ever named First Team All-America Academic.
In football, he was drafted to the San Francisco 49ers second overall in 1965 as a running back, more a fullback than a tailback. He spent nine years with them before leaving for the St. Louis Cardinals for a year. He was named to four Pro Bowls in his 10-year career (1965, ‘66, ‘68, ‘69) and finished it with 62 total touchdowns.
Hanburger is the first real underdog on this list, selected in the 18th round (245th overall) by the Washington Redskins in 1965. He had a very good college career, playing center and linebacker, and being named to the All-Conference team as a center in both his junior and senior years.
In the NFL, however, he was a linebacker, and he spent his entire 14-year career with Washington. He made a near-immediate impact, getting to his first Pro Bowl in his second year. He would go on to be nominated for eight more, accompanied by four First Team All-Pro selections, two Second Team All-Pro selections, and six All-NFC Team selections.
He earned the nickname “The Hangman” for his love of clotheslining opposing players across the middle of the field and was an integral part of the feared Redskins defense of the 1970’s. In 2011, Hanburger was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a senior candidate.
You already know how this one goes. After a senior year where the linebacker amassed 16 sacks, was named ACC Player of the Year and a First Team All-American, and generally wreaked havoc on all opponents he faced, Taylor was drafted 2nd overall in 1981 by the New York Giants.
His rookie year, he became the first (and to this day only) rookie to ever be named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He repeated his DPOY performance the next year and again in 1986, and was a First Team All-Pro for 10 straight years from 1981-1990. Pro Bowls are almost a side note for Taylor’s career, but for the sake of completion, he made one for every All-Pro team he made.
He carried his team to two Super Bowls, in 1986 and 1990, and his 1986 MVP season was one of only two in NFL history in which a defensive player won the award. In 1999, Taylor was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
Bly’s UNC career is nothing short of legendary, honestly. The cornerback is one of just five players in NCAA history to be a First Team All-American as a freshman, which he accomplished by intercepting 11 passes in a single season, most in the nation. He repeated All-American honors his sophomore year and finished his UNC career with a then-NCAA record 20 interceptions. Bly has since been enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.
He continued his ball-hawking ways after being drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the 2nd round of the 1999 draft, picking off 14 passes in his first four years. His career continued with the Detroit Lions from 2003-2006. In his first two years there, he was elected to the All-Pro team once and to the Pro Bowl twice. After four years in Detroit, he spent three years in Denver, and finished his 11-year career with 43 interceptions.
Crumpler was an All-ACC First Team selection his final three years at Chapel Hill before being drafted 35th overall by the Atlanta Falcons in 2001. After a solid, but unspectacular, first two years, Crumpler burst onto the scene as a premier tight end in the NFL in 2003. He finished in the top-10 for receiving yards by a tight end for four straight years and was named to the Pro Bowl four times consecutively from 2003-2006 while catching passes from Michael Vick.
After Vick was imprisoned, Crumpler soon left the Falcons for the Tennessee Titans, where he helped block for Chris Johnson’s 2000-yard rushing season. He also spent a season with the New England Patriots, where he was named as a team captain for the majority of the season, despite being a newcomer. Crumpler retired in 2011.
Again, you probably know how this one goes already. It’s hard exactly to describe how good Peppers was in college, so allow me to just paste this summary from Wikipedia:
Peppers led the nation with 15 quarterback sacks during his sophomore season (2000), and earned first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and second-team All-American honors. Following his junior season in 2001, he was a first-team All-ACC selection and was recognized as a unanimous first-team All-American. He also won the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation's top defensive player and the Lombardi Award as the best collegiate lineman and the Bill Willis Trophy as the nation's best defensive lineman. In the three seasons at North Carolina, Peppers started 33 of the 34 games in which he played. He is currently ranked second all-time in UNC history with 30.5 sacks. He accumulated 53 stops behind the line of scrimmage, 167 tackles, 5 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries, 5 forced fumbles, 13 passes deflected, and 42 quarterback pressures (hurries) and returned 2 interceptions and 1 fumble recovery for touchdowns.
And he played some basketball on the side, too, walking onto the 2000 Final Four team.
He was drafted second overall in the 2002 NFL Draft by the Carolina Panthers and proceeded to be just as much of a one-man wrecking crew at defensive end as he had been in college. His entire career has spanned eight years with the Panthers, four years with the Chicago Bears, and three with the Green Bay Packers, not to mention at least another year pending in Charlotte.
Peppers has amassed 143.5 sacks (fifth in NFL history), 47 forced fumbles (3rd), 13 blocked kicks (2nd), is the most prolific pass defending lineman in NFL history (passes defensed and intercepted), and is the only player in NFL history with 100+ sacks and 10+ interceptions. To show for this production, he has six All-Pro selections (three first team, three second team), a Defensive Player of the Year award, and nine Pro Bowl appearances, from 2004-2006, 2008-2012, and in 2015. And a lot of people still think he could have done more. Yeesh. Peppers is still active in the NFL at age 37 and is a near-surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer as soon as he is eligible.
Quinn is next in line as far as great North Carolina pass rushers go. He blew up in his sophomore year, with 19 tackles for loss and 11 sacks, both top-20 in the nation. For his efforts, he was named to the All-ACC first team and the All-American second team. After the NCAA ruled him ineligible to play his junior year, he decided to enter the 2011 NFL draft, where he was picked 14th by the St. Louis Rams in one of the most stacked 1st rounds of all time.
He has certainly been worth the pick, with 50 sacks in the five years that he has played from 2011-2015. He was named to the Pro Bowl in 2013 and 2014, adding first-team All-Pro honors to his 2013 campaign after a 19-sack season (Peppers’ season high is 14.5, for comparison’s sake). He missed the 2016 season with a concussion, but is still in his prime and considered one of the top pass rushers in the NFL.