20 For 20: The Best NFL Players of the Kirk Ferentz Era -- Part 4

By RossWB on July 9, 2018 at 7:22 pm
YANDA TIME

© Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

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Every player who made this list has had an at least solid NFL career, with several of them having good careers. But the remaining names on this list have had great careers -- or in the case of one player, some truly great moments

Previously: 20-16 | 15-11 | 10-6

* BONUS: SHONN GREENE (2009-2014)

Shonn Greene didn't have the NFL career we hoped he would have after he wowed us with the greatest performance by a running back in Iowa history in 2008. But... he didn't have a bad NFL career, either, particularly by running backs standards (and especially by Big Ten running back standards). And, yeah, he should have made this list. He hasn't had a Top 5 NFL career among KF-era Hawkeyes, but I'm including here because I erred in not including him on one of the other lists. Greene parlayed his unbelievable 2008 season into a third round draft pick by the New York Jets in 2009, but he didn't get a lot of opportunities immediately because he was stuck in time shares, first with Thomas Jones in 2009 and then with Ladanian Tomlinson in 2010. He ran for 540 yards (5.0 ypc) and two touchdowns as a rookie in 2009 and 766 yards (4.1 ypc) and two touchdowns in 2010. He finally became a starter in 2011 and had his best season as a pro, accumulating 1265 yards from scrimmage (1054 on the ground at 4.2 ypc) and six total touchdowns. He had a near-identical season in 2012, racking up 1214 yards from scrimmage (1063 yards rushing at 3.9 ypc) and eight total touchdowns. Alas, the end came swiftly for Greene after that; he played just two more seasons, both for Tennessee, appearing in 24 games and starting games. His production wasn't too different from what it had been (around 4.0 ypc), but he was no longer getting the volume of carries he had been previously. Still, Greene had two good years and a few other pretty good years; as running back careers go, that's not too bad. 

And now, the Top 5... 

5) NATE KAEDING (2004-2012)

It's unfortunate that the enduring memory of Nate Kaeding's NFL tenure may be some high-profile misses in the playoffs. Because the reality is that Kaeding was one of the best and most reliable kickers in the NFL during his 9-year career; he just had some misses at some very inopportune times. Kaeding was drafted in the third round of the 2004 NFL Draft by the San Diego Chargers and he played almost his entire career with the Chargers (he spent two games with the Miami Dolphins in 2012). During his 9-year tenure, Kaeding was selected to the Pro Bowl twice (2006, 2009) and was named second-team All-Pro in 2006 and first-team All-Pro in 2009. He converted 88% of more of his field goal attempts in four seasons and he ended his career as the second-most accurate regular season kicker in NFL history (86.2, behind only Mike Vanderjagt), though he's since fallen to seventh-place in the field goal accuracy rankings. The postseason is a definite blight on his resume -- he was just 8/15 (53.3%) on field goals in the playoffs, including a handful of critical misses -- but the rest of his career was very, very good and that's worth recognizing. 

4) BOB SANDERS (2004-2011)

I wrestled with this placement a lot. How do you compare burning brightly for a very short amount of time versus burning less brightly but for a much longer stretch of time? There's value in both scenarios. Bob Sanders is the quintessential supernova -- he burned brighter and hotter than almost any other ex-Iowa player ever has in the NFL (KF era or not)... but he didn't do it for very long. His greatness is really confined to just two seasons, 2005 and 2007. Sanders nominally had an 8-season NFL playing career, but in six of those eight seasons he played six games or fewer. Injuries limited Sanders again and again over the course of his career. But on those rare occasions when the health gods smiled upon him... he was something special. In the two seasons when Sanders played at least 14 games (2005 and 2007) he was named a Pro Bowler; he was also named first-team All-Pro each season. In 2007, a season in which he racked up 96 tackles, 3.5 sacks, six passes defended, and three interceptions, he was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year.

No other Iowa player -- in the Ferentz Era or otherwise -- has ever been named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. (It's also probably the most significant single-season achievement a former Iowa player has achieved in the NFL on either side of the ball; no former Iowa player has ever won an MVP award or Offensive Player of the Year award.) 2005 and 2007 were clear peaks in Sanders' NFL career, but 2006 was significant as well -- despite playing in just four regular season games that year, he played in all four of the Colts' playoff games and was a key factor in their run to a Super Bowl triumph that year, including hauling in a game-icing interception in Super Bowl XLI. Peyton Manning probably doesn't have a Super Bowl ring with the Colts if not for Sanders' play in 2006. In terms of quantity, Sanders' NFL career doesn't stack up, but in terms of quality? At his best, he was arguably as good in the NFL as any former Iowa player has ever been in the league. 

3) DALLAS CLARK (2003-2013)

Speaking of former members of the Indianapolis Colts... Clark was drafted by the Colts a year before they took Sanders, taken in the first round of the 2003 NFL Draft, and he proved to be another very valuable pick. Clark earned some NFL All-Rookie team honors in 2003 and was a staple of the Colts' passing game from 2003 through 2011. During that span he played in at least 10 games seven of eight seasons and caught at least 30 passes in six of eight seasons. His peak came from 2007-2009: he caught 58 passes for 616 yards and a career-high 11 touchdowns in 2007, 77 passes for 848 yards and six touchdowns in 2008, and 100 passes for 1106 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2009. Those sizzling '09 numbers earned Clark his first (and only) Pro Bowl appearance, as well as first-team All-Pro honors and the NFL's Tight End of the Year award. Two things likely held Clark back from earning more awards or postseason recognition: the fact that the Colts ran an offense with a multitude of offensive weapons (and that Peyton Manning wasn't shy about throwing to any of them) and the fact that he played at the same time and in the same conference as Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates, two future Hall of Fame tight ends. But Clark had a tremendous NFL career, recording 505 catches for 5705 yards and 53 touchdowns over the span of 11 seasons. He was Peyton Manning's safety blanket for the better part of a decade and he performed that job very well. 

2) CHAD GREENWAY (2006-2016) 

The Chad Greenway story has only gotten better -- and more improbable -- as it has unfolded over the last 15ish years. We all know how it started, with Greenway as a barely-recruited nine-man football star out of South Dakota who became a three-year starter, team leader, and eventual All-American at Iowa. But NFL history is littered with former college stars whose games couldn't quite translate to the pro level. That didn't happen to Greenway. He was selected with the 17th pick of the 2006 NFL Draft by the Minnesota Vikings and instantly became a fixture in their defense for the next decade. Greenway missed the entire 2006 season due to a preseason injury, but that would be the last time that injuries would slow him down in a significant way. He started all 16 games in 2007 and, in fact, he played in all 192 games he was eligible to play in over the first seven years of his career, starting 191 of them. All told, Greenway played in 156 of a possible 160 regular season games during his career and started 144 of those games.

But Greenway's career went far beyond just being a relative ironman who was reliable and consistently present; he was also the tackle-happy heart of the Viking defense for years. He led the NFL in tackles in 2010 (144) and bettered that with 154 stops in 2011, but his peak years came in 2012 and 2013, when he averaged 141 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions, and four passes defended per season. He was named to the Pro Bowl each season and also earned second-team All-Pro honors in 2012. For his career, Greenway totaled 1101 tackles, 18 sacks, 11 interceptions, eight forced fumbles, 32 pass deflections, and two touchdowns; not bad for a kid from South Dakota. Greenway also made an impact off the field, receiving the Byron "Whizzer" White NFL Man of the Year Award in 2015 for his efforts in serving his team, community, and country with his Lead the Way Foundation. Most guys just try to survive in the NFL; Greenway absolutely thrived and put together an excellent career over the course of a decade. 

1) MARSHAL YANDA (2007-present)

And so we reach the end... and there's no other choice for the top spot than Yanda, who has emerged as one of the NFL's best offensive lineman, period, over the past decade. Of any Iowa player from the Ferentz Era, Yanda is far and away the best bet to possibly earn enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Few people saw that coming when he was at Iowa. At Iowa Yanda was a JUCO transfer from North Iowa Area Community College who earned second-team All-Big Ten in 2006 and was best known for a pulverizing block delivered in the Iowa-Iowa State game in 2006.  

Although his college career didn't hit the heights that other standout Iowa linemen like Robert Gallery, Bryan Bulaga, and Riley Reiff did, he was good enough to be drafted in the third round of the 2007 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Ravens. Yanda's pro career didn't start off with a bang, either -- he played in all 16 games as a rookie, starting in 12, but he was limited to just five games in 2008, and started just nine of 16 games in 2009. But in 2010 things started to click. The Ravens moved him to right guard full-time and Yanda absolutely flourished. In 2011 began a six-year run as arguably the best interior lineman in the NFL, full stop. Yanda was named a Pro Bowler every season from 2011 through 2016 and he earned first-team All-Pro honors in 2014 and 2015 as well as second-team All-Pro honors in 2011, 2012, and 2016. In 2014 Yanda ranked eighth among all players in the NFL in terms of Approximate Value, a stat created by Pro Football Reference to boil down each player-season to a single number to enable comparisons across years and positions. He was lauded by his peers, too -- Yanda was ranked in the NFL Top 100 list (voted on by NFL players) in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017, peaking at #37 in 2016. Players and pundits alike recognize that Yanda is a bulldozer in human form, helping to turn the right side of the Ravens' offensive line into an impenetrable wall for most of the last decade. Yanda has been the gold standard at the guard position since 2011 and he's also become the gold standard for former Iowa players in the NFL during the Kirk Ferentz Era. Surpassing his already-dazzling career -- which is still ongoing! -- will take quite a player. In the meantime, much respect to Marshal Yanda, who's gone from a recruiting after-thought to the greatest Iowa player in the NFL over the last 20 years. 

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