With the NFL season starting in earnest Sunday, staff writer Jeff Huth gives us the top 10 former Illini making the big bucks.
1. Brandon Lloyd, Patriots
There's no doubt the wide receiver has lived a vagabond existence for much of his pro career, now in its 10th season. The Patriots are Lloyd's sixth stop in the NFL and his third since the start of the 2011 season. However, his two previous teams certainly can't complain about Lloyd's production. He caught 77 passes for the Broncos in 2010 — when he led the NFL in receiving yards (1,448) and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl — and 70 more catches last season while splitting time between Denver and the Rams. Having a future Hall of Famer like Tom Brady throwing to him this season seemingly presages another big year for Lloyd.
2. Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers
Steelers fans have been holding their breath since the fifth-year running back suffered a torn ACL in his right knee in the team's final regular season game in 2011. The concern is for good reason. Mendenhall has been a workhorse in the Pittsburgh offense, rushing for over 1,000 yards in 2009 and 2010, and falling 72 yards shy of that figure last year. He's also caught 66 passes in that span, showing there is versatility to his game. Considering the short shelf life of NFL running backs anyway, Mendenhall will be closely scrutinized when he returns to the field. But RBs have come back from this injury no worse for wear, and Mendenhall has youth (25) and a strong work ethic on his side.
3. David Diehl, Giants
It was a tough offseason for the offensive lineman, who in June was charged with drunken driving after sideswiping parked cars with his BMW after leaving a bar. Any DUI is serious stuff (just ask the family and friends of innocent victims), and Diehl was rightly apologetic afterward. The two-time Super Bowl champ's 2012 season didn't get off to an especially promising start either. Having exhibited problems with pass blocking the past few years, Diehl was moved from left tackle (65 career starts) to right tackle. On Wednesday, the Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware exposed the 10-year veteran's weakness in that area. But Ware has wrecked havoc against a lot of linemen, and Diehl's track record strongly suggests he'll find a way to get the job done on most Sundays.
4. Pierre Thomas, Saints
It's been a chaotic offseason for Team Bounty, so having a reliable guy like this sixth-year running back must be comforting for the Saints coaching staff — such as it is — and fans. The "unofficial" depth chart on the team's website lists Thomas as the No. 1 running back. But given the wealth of weapons the Saints have at the position — Darren Sproles and former first-round pick Mark Ingram — and the way the Saints like to spread the ball around, Thomas likely won't put up huge numbers, but his all-around contributions certainly add up. In fact, he gained a combined 987 yards rushing and receiving last season. With a career average of 4.8 yards per carry that ranks third in club history, maybe Thomas should be getting more of Drew Brees' handoffs.
5. Brandon Moore, Jets
Diehl isn't the only durable offensive lineman in the Big Apple with an Illini background. Entering his 11th NFL season, Moore has started at least 13 games each of the past eight years and all 16 regular season contests since 2005. Three years ago, he helped pave the way for a Jets rushing attack that led the NFL with an average of 172.3 yards per game. This is a guy who makes an impact off the field, too, through his charitable Moore Family Foundation. When you read about the selfish and immature athletes who too often make headlines for all the wrong reasons, understand that there are guys like Moore who too often fly under the radar but do real good for society.
6. Vontae Davis, Colts
We'll see if the former first-round draft pick's abrupt trade serves as a wake-up call. After losing his starting job, the Dolphins shed the cornerback during the preseason. In return, Miami received a second-round pick and a conditional late-round pick in the 2013 draft. There was plenty written and said about what a steep price the Colts paid, but a team badly in need of shoring up its secondary had little recourse. Now, the Colts are counting on Davis to realize the potential that made him the 25th overall player chosen in the 2009 draft. With 36 starts on his NFL resume, Davis knows the drill. We'll see how he responds to this second chance.
7. Jon Asamoah, Chiefs
Are you sensing a pattern here? Maybe the Illini football program, which typically is referred to as Linebacker U., should be called Offensive Lineman U. This former third-round pick is coming off a breakthrough 2011 season, when he started all 16 games at right guard for the Chiefs. K.C. must like the blocking talent coming out of Champaign. One of the understudies along the offensive line is former Illini Jeff Allen, a 2012 second-round pick.
8. Steve Weatherford, Giants
Here's one way for a punter to get some recognition: tweet a video of a teammate getting physically hazed in the locker room. That was Weatherford's unfortunate decision during the preseason, one he quickly apologized for. You can question his judgement in that case, but not what this seventh-year pro provides the defending Super Bowl champions in the punting game. Last season, Weatherford averaged 45.7 yards per punt — the second-highest single-season average in team history. The former Illini did his part in the Super Bowl by landing three downed punts inside the 20-yard line. In Wednesday's season opener, Weatherford picked up where he left off, averaging 50.3 yards on four punts and limiting the Cowboys to one return for 5 yards.
9. Corey Liuget, Chargers
How's this for a vote of confidence? On the Chargers' team website, Liuget is listed as the starting right defensive end ... with no one listed behind him. Guess the job is his. In his first NFL season last year, the former first-round draft pick started 13 games and played in 15. It was a learning process for the rookie, who finished with 19 tackles and one sack. With one season under his belt, Liuget — and the Chargers — will be expecting more in 2012.
10. Mikel Leshoure, Lions
Opportunity awaits this second-year running back. Well, at least after he serves a two-game suspension for two offseason run-ins with the law. With running back Jahvid Best on the physically unable to perform list (that's PUP in NFL lingo), the Lions are hurting at the position and eager to finally get a return on their former second-round investment. Leshoure has yet to play a single down in an NFL regular season game. As a rookie, his season was quickly ended in training camp by an Achilles' tendon injury. NFL teams can be notoriously short on patience (see Vontae Davis). The jury waits on the Illini's all-time single-season rushing leader.
And the rest: Brit Miller, FB, Rams; Martez Wilson, LB, Saints; Arrelious Benn, WR, Buccaneers; Kelvin Hayden, CB, Bears; Josh Brent, DT, Cowboys; A.J. Jenkins, WR, 49ers; Jeff Cumberland, TE, Jets; Whitney Mercilus, DE, Texans; Alan Ball, CB, Texans; Jeff Allen, OT, Chiefs; Michael Hoomanawanui, TE, Patriots; Tavon Wilson, FS, Patriots.
Practice Squad: Jerry Brown, LB, Colts; Jack Cornell, OL, Ravens