South Carolina Football: Top-15 Gamecock NFL Draft successes of all-time

South Carolina football's Travelle Wharton blocking for the Carolina Panthers. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
South Carolina football's Travelle Wharton blocking for the Carolina Panthers. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports /
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The NFL Draft is the talk of the football world this week as Kansas City will host the three-day event starting on Thursday. About 250 players will have their lives forever changed this week as they are selected in the draft and will begin their professional football journeys. For South Carolina football fans, names like Cam Smith, Darius Rush, and Zacch Pickens are expected to be taken in the 2023 NFL Draft, and several other Gamecocks have a chance to hear their names called late, as well.

The festivities in Kansas City will have many college football fans thinking of their favorite players’ NFL careers, both future and past. For the South Carolina football program, NFL success has been common, but which drafted Gamecocks had the best NFL careers relative to their draft position?

Honorable Mentions

Sidney Rice: Sidney Rice (Round 2, Pick 44, 2007 NFL Draft; Minnesota Vikings) was one of the best receivers in Carolina history from 2003-2005. His NFL started slowly due to some minor injuries and a log jam in the Minnesota receiver room, but Rice became a Pro Bowler in his first season as a full-time starter in 2009. More injuries derailed his career, but he managed another nice season in 2012 with the Seattle Seahawks. 2009 (1300+ yards, 8 touchdowns, Pro Bowl) was the best year of his seven-year career and one of the best receiver seasons of any NFL Gamecock.

AJ Cann: One of the best linemen to ever play for the Gamecocks, AJ Cann (Round 3, Pick 67, 2015 NFL Draft; Jacksonville Jaguars) became a fixture at guard for the Jaguars as a rookie and had a solid seven-year run with the team as the full-time starter. Cann had another good season on the offensive line in 2022 with the Houston Texans, but he is waiting on a new contract in free agency this offseason.

Ernest Jones: Ernest Jones (Round 3, Pick 103, 2021 NFL Draft; Los Angeles Rams) was a very good linebacker for the Gamecocks from 2018-2020. He has continued his success in the NFL as the starting linebacker for the Los Angeles Rams. He won a Super Bowl as a rookie in 2021 and would have been in the conversation for the game’s MVP had teammate Cooper Kupp not put together one of the best championship performances from a receiver in Super Bowl history. Jones seems poised to be part of this list in the not-so-distant future.

Hayden Hurst: An elite pass-catching tight end during his college career, Hayden Hurst (Round 1, Pick 25, 2018 NFL Draft; Baltimore Ravens) has been a solid NFL tight end. His Carolina career lasted from 2015-2017, but his NFL career is still going strong. After being a rotational tight end for two seasons in Baltimore, Hurst has been more of a focal point since then. Two good years with the Falcons and another with the Bengals led Hurst to a nice payday this offseason to return to the Carolinas to be the leading tight end for the Carolina Panthers.

Brad Edwards: Brad Edwards (Round 2, Pick 54, 1988 NFL Draft; Minnesota Vikings) was one of the best safeties to ever suit up in Williams-Brice Stadium. A college career that spanned from 1984-1987 saw Edwards become a starter late in his career, and he followed the same pattern as a pro. Edwards was not a full-time player until his 4th year in the NFL (2nd with the Washington Redskins) but had an excellent three-year run as the starter that included a Super Bowl XXVI performance that should have earned Edwards the MVP. His career in the League lasted a decade.

DJ Swearinger: A one-of-a-kind player, DJ Swearinger (Round 2, Pick 57, 2013 NFL Draft; Houston Texans) was the heart and soul of the South Carolina defense from 2009-2012 and became the same type of emotional leader in the NFL. A bit prickly with coaches, Swearinger bounced around the League for 9 seasons despite being a solid producer everywhere he went.

Kevin Long: Kevin Long (Round 7, Pick 195, 1977 NFL Draft; New York Jets) finished his college career as one of the best backs in South Carolina history after running (and blocking) all over opponents from 1971-1975. He then put together a good NFL career with 25 touchdowns as a hybrid running back/fullback but left the league to join the upstart USFL where he played as one of the best backs in the league until the USFL folded.

Willie Scott: The second Gamecock selected in the 1981 draft despite being a first-rounder, Willie Scott (Round 1, Pick 14, 1981 NFL Draft; Kansas City Chiefs) spent four years in Columbia from 1977-1980 before spending nine years in the NFL. His pro career mirrored his collegiate one as Scott was a very good blocker in the run game and was a situational pass catcher who did just enough to keep defenses honest. He didn’t quite live up to first-round expectations, but Scott had a nice 9-year career.

Dunta Robinson: Dunta Robinson (Round 1, Pick 10, 2004 NFL Draft; Houston Texans) was an immediate starter in the NFL after his 2000-2003 Gamecock career and won the 2004 Rookie of the Year. Robinson was very good for a long time both in coverage and as a tackler, exactly what a team hopes for out of their first-round pick. He never made a Pro Bowl in his career but was probably deserving a time or two.

Steve Courson: A great offensive lineman in his college career from 1973-1976, Steve Courson (Round 5, Pick 125, 1977 NFL Draft; Pittsburgh Steelers) was an even better professional blocker. He was a starter on two of the Steelers’ Super Bowl wins in Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XIV. Unfortunately, Courson admitted later in his life that he had used steroids in college and during his professional career, tarnishing a great career.

Alshon Jeffery: Alshon Jeffery (Round 2, Pick 45, 2012 NFL Draft; Chicago Bears) was a good pro. After a three-year run dominating college football from 2009-2011, the Gamecock standout seemed to be on his way to dominating in the NFL, too. He racked up more than 2500 yards and 17 touchdowns in his second and third years in the league, but injuries and a suspension held him back from continuing that torrid pace. After moving on to the Philadelphia Eagles, Jeffery was one of the Eagle’s top performers in their Super Bowl LII victory. His solid career lasted nine seasons.

Dennis Daley: Still in the NFL today, Dennis Daley (Round 6, Pick 212, 2019 NFL Draft; Carolina Panthers) just spent two years in Columbia in 2017 and 2018 before heading off to the pros. Daley has primarily been a starter (some at guard, but mostly at tackle) with the Carolina Panthers and Tennessee Titans. He signed a multi-year contract with the Arizona Cardinals this offseason and will look to continue his strong play in 2023. If he keeps it up, Daley will easily become one of the best values in Gamecock history as a 6th-round pick.

Duce Staley: Duce Staley (Round 3, Pick 71, 1997 NFL Draft; Philadelphia Eagles) was well on his way to NFL superstardom when injuries limited him after back-to-back 1000+ yard campaigns. His 1995-1996 college career prepared him for his post-injury role as he split carries and caught lots of balls out of the backfield for the Gamecocks, exactly what the Eagles (and later the Steelers) had him do as he shared backfields with players like Brian Westbrook, Jerome Bettis, and Willie Parker. A good playing career led him to a good coaching career.

Brandon Shell: After making 47 consecutive starts from 2012-2015 for the Gamecocks, Brandon Shell (Round 5, Pick 158, 2016 NFL Draft; New York Jets) became a very good NFL tackle, as well. He has been the primary starter for the Jets, Seattle Seahawks, and Miami Dolphins. Like fellow Gamecock tackle Dennis Daley, Shell is still in the league and will become one of the best late-round values in South Carolina history if he can continue his strong play in the league.

Harold Green: One of the top running backs to play under the lights of Williams-Brice Stadium with the Gamecocks, Harold Green (Round 2, Pick 38, 1990 NFL Draft; Cincinnati Bengals) went on to a productive NFL career. He made one Pro Bowl in 1992 but was a rotational back for most of the rest of his nine-year career in the League.

Alex Hawkins: Alex Hawkins (Round 2, Pick 13, 1959 NFL Draft; Green Bay Packers) was a standout at South Carolina from 1955-1958 but was released before ever playing for the Packers. The draft was split into two parts that offseason, with the first four rounds being held in December of the previous year, so Hawkins was more like a 6th-round selection. He provided pretty good value as a “6th rounder” as he played in the NFL for ten seasons, primarily with the Baltimore Colts.

Deebo Samuel: A budding superstar already at the NFL level, Deebo Samuel (Round 2, Pick 36, 2019 NFL Draft; San Fransisco 49ers) played at South Carolina from 2014-2018 and showed his elite ability when healthy. He has continued battling some minor injuries as a pro, but Deebo has been very good when available. If the versatile playmaker can stay on the field, he will make his way up this list very soon despite being a high pick in the draft.

Undrafted Successes

While this list is about NFL Draft successes, several Gamecocks have had very good professional careers despite going undrafted. These players deserve a shoutout even if they do not belong on the list. Some of the best undrafted Gamecocks include Darian Stewart (Undrafted 2010 NFL Draft; 10-year career, Pro Bowl, Super Bowl champion), Jamar Nesbit (Undrafted 1998 NFL Draft; 11-year career, Super Bowl champion), Dan Reeves (Undrafted 1965 NFL Draft; 8-year career, Super Bowl champion), and Damiere Byrd (Undrafted 2014 NFL Draft; 9-year active career).