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Ranking the top 20 Rutgers picks in NFL Draft history

a group of baseball players on a field: New England Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty (30, left) and twin brother Devin McCourty (32) on the sideline at MetLife Stadium as the Pats play the New York Jets on Monday, November 9, 2020. The Patriots won, 30-27. The McCourty twins were stars at Rutgers.

© Andrew Mills | NJ Advance Media/Andrew Mills | NJ Advance Media
New England Patriots cornerback Jason McCourty (30, left) and twin brother Devin McCourty (32) on the sideline at MetLife Stadium as the Pats play the New York Jets on Monday, November 9, 2020. The Patriots won, 30-27. The McCourty twins were stars at Rutgers.

Rutgers has had 63 NFL draft picks dating back to 1940.

But who is the best?

We decided to tackle that question ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft, which begins Thursday night and runs through Saturday, by ranking the top 20 Scarlet Knight selections in history. Any ranking will be largely subjective, of course, but here’s a peek at the criteria we tried to weigh most when making our selections:

  • Pro Football Reference’s Career Approximate Value, which is a formula used to assign a number (the higher the better) to every player season since 1960).
  • Length of NFL career, as well as what type of NFL player – a starter? Reserve? A star?
  • Individual honors such as Pro Bowl invitations, All-Pro honors.
  • Where players were drafted. For example, a seventh-round pick who played several seasons in the league could be ranked ahead of a first-round pick whose career was of a similar length, but he never reached the prominence expected of most top picks.

NOTE: This is not a ranking of the best NFL players in Rutgers history. That can be found here. Several of the more prominent Scarlet Knights to play professionally — Gary Brackett, Deron Cherry and Shaun O’Hara, to name a few — went undrafted.

Here are the rankings …

1. FS Devin McCourty: McCourty has an argument as Rutgers’ best-ever NFL player. A first-round pick in 2010 (No. 27 overall), McCourty has won three Super Bowls with the Patriots and is a two-time Pro Bowler and three-time Second Team All-Pro.

2. RB Ray Rice: Rice’s career ended after his domestic violence incident in an Atlantic City casino, but he was one of the NFL’s best running backs for a period and helped the Ravens win a Super Bowl after his historic Rutgers career. Rice has since become an outspoken advocate against domestic violence and has spoken at Rutgers. Rice was drafted by Baltimore in the second round of the 2008 draft (No. 55 overall). He was a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time Second Team All-Pro selection.

3. OT Harry Swayne: Swayne was a seventh-round pick by the Buccaneers (No. 190 overall) in 1987 and started in the Super Bowl for three different teams – the Chargers, Broncos and Ravens. Swayne won three titles in his career playing for five teams (he also played for the Dolphins).

4. NT Bill Pickel: The Queens native had 56 sacks in a 12-year career with the Raiders and Jets, winning a Super Bowl as a rookie. Picked was taken by the Raiders in the second round of the 1983 draft (No. 54 overall) and was First Team All-Pro in 1986.

5. CB Jason McCourty: McCourty was a sixth-round pick by the Titans in 2009 (No. 203 overall) and is hopes to play his 13th season in the NFL in 2021. He is currently a free agent after three years with the Patriots, and he could end up signing with the Giants. McCourty also played for the Browns and has won one Super Bowl. Fun fact: Jason, and not brother Devin, was the more highly-regarded recruit coming out of high school.

6. C Jeremy Zuttah: The J.P. Stevens product, became one of the NFL’s top centers before the end of his career. Zuttah was drafted in the third round (No. 83 overall) by the Buccaneers in 2008 and made the 2016 Pro Bowl for the Ravens.

7. CB Logan Ryan: The Eastern High product has emerged as one of the Giants’ stars after a strong 2020 on a prove-it deal led to a three-year extension. Ryan was taken in the third round (No. 83 overall) by the Patriots in 2013. He won two Super Bowls there, then signed a free agent deal with the Titans, helping Tennessee reach the AFC title game last season.

8. WR Mohamed Sanu: The South Brunswick native bounced around last season, spending time with the 49ers and Lions after the Patriots cut him at the end of training camp. He has since re-signed with the Niners. Sanu was a third-round pick (No. 83 overall) by the Bengals in 2012.

9. TE L.J. Smith: The Highland Park native was a dependable receiving option for Donovan McNabb and the Eagles for several seasons. He was a second-round pick (No. 61 overall) by Philly in 2003 and spent six of his seven seasons there, finishing his career with the Ravens.

10. FS Duron Harmon: Harmon had a strong season for the Lions in 2020, his first as a full-time starter, and parlayed it into a one-year deal with the Falcons this offseason. He was a third-round pick (No. 91 overall) by the Patriots in 2013 and won three Super Bowls with the team.

11. CB Marcus Cooper: Cooper was cut by the Jets at the end of the preseason last year and remains a free agent. He was a seventh-round pick (No. 252 overall) by the 49ers in 2013 and has played for the Bears, Cardinals, Chiefs and Lions.

12. FB Brian Leonard: After becoming a legend at Rutgers, Leonard had an accomplished professional career as a fullback, catching 29-plus passes in a season three times. He was drafted in the second round (No. 52 overall) by the Rams in 2007 and also played for the Bengals, Buccaneers and Saints during his eight-year career.

13. TE Marco Battaglia: Battaglia returned to Rutgers after his playing career – he won the Super Bowl with the Buccaneers – and is an assistant athletic director for fundraising. Rutgers’ football practice fields are named after Battaglia. He was a second-round pick (No. 39 overall) by the Bengals in 1996 and spent most off his eight-year career in Cincinnati. He also played for the Buccaneers, Panthers, Redskins and Steelers.

14. DB Nate Jones: Jones, a Scotch Plains-Fanwood product, had a solid NFL career, playing in over 100 games over eight seasons with four teams. The defensive back was drafted in the seventh round of the 2004 draft (No. 205 overall) by the Cowboys and also played with the Broncos, Dolphins and Patriots. He now works as an NFL official.

15. WR Kenny Britt: Britt was a 2010 first-round pick, going No. 30 overall to the Titans. He had a 1,000-yard receiving season for the Rams in 2016, allowing him to land a big free agent deal with the Browns. But he was cut after less than a season in Cleveland and caught on with the Patriots, who then cut him before the 2018 season.

16. TE Tyler Kroft: Kroft has played a full 16-game season just twice in six years. But the durability issues have not kept him from getting deals, including most recently a one-year contract with the Jets. Kroft was a third-round pick (No. 85 overall) by the Bengals in 2015. He signed a big free agent deal with the Bills prior to the 2019 season and is still trying to regain his 2017 form (42 catches for 404 yards and seven touchdowns) after mustering just 16 catches and three touchdowns over two seasons in Buffalo.

17. OT Anthony Davis: The Piscataway native was a solid lineman before he retired in 2016 due to concussions. But he never really lived up to being the No. 11-overall selection by the 49ers in the 2010 draft. Davis applied to the league for reinstatement in 2019 but never signed with a team after being released by the Niners.

18. LS Clark Harris: Harris, a Manahawkin native, was a seventh-round pick (No. 243 overall) by the Packers in 2007. The Southern Regional product bounced around with the Lions and Texas in 2008 and ’09, but has been with the Bengals for 12 seasons and counting after signing a new one-year deal earlier this year. Harris made the 2017 Pro Bowl.

19. FB Michael Burton: The Long Valley native and former West Morris star is one of the league’s best fullbacks and recently signed with the Chiefs after spending last season with the Saints. He was drafted by the Lions in the fifth round of the 2015 draft (No. 168 overall) and has also played for the Bears and Washington.

20. DE Kemoko Turay: The Newark native (he played at Barringer) was a second-round pick (No. 52 overall) by the Colts in 2018. Turay has been hampered by injuries during his first three seasons in the NFL, but he has shown promise as a pass rusher.

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James Kratch may be reached at jkratch@njadvancemedia.com.

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