Ranking the top 10 Illini athletes in pro sports

This week was great for Illinois football.

Well, not for the current Illinois football team, which was blown out by Nebraska on Saturday, but for the former Illini players competing in the NFL. Rashard Mendenhall, Pierre Thomas and Jeff Cumberland all reached the end zone this week, proving that Illinois boasts some solid players in the professional ranks.

The Illinois alumni touchdown party inspired me to rank the best current Illini across the major league sports.

10. Steve Weatherford, punter, New York Giants

Punting may not be the sexiest thing in sports, but Weatherford has made a living at the position. The eight-year veteran is currently punting for the New York Giants, where he ranks eighth in the NFL in gross punting average at 47.5. He led the NFL with 42 punts inside the 20-yard line in 2010 while playing for the Jets.

9. Rashard Mendenhall, running back, Arizona Cardinals

Mendenhall, who was Illinois’ best player on the 2008 Rose Bowl squad, would’ve competed for the No. 1 spot on this list from 2009-10 when he rushed for more than 1,000 yards for consecutive seasons to go along with 20 rushing touchdowns when he was with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Three years and numerous injuries later, Mendenhall is struggling on a middling Arizona Cardinals team, averaging only 3.2 yards per carry. At 26 years old, Mendenhall still has time to prove that his prime isn’t over.

8. Meyers Leonard, center, Portland Trailblazers

Leonard, the 11th overall selection of the 2012 NBA Draft, had an up-and-down rookie season. The 6-foot-11 center saw his player efficiency rating drop from 24.1 during his sophomore season at Illinois to 12.14 with the Portland Trailblazers. Leonard still showed his potential, as he sported a 59.6 true shooting percentage, which was second among rookies and ranked ninth among NBA centers. Portland acquired center Robin Lopez in the offseason, so Leonard will likely have to come off the bench again next season, but the future is bright for the athletic big man.

7. Jon Asamoah and Jeff Allen, offensive linemen, Kansas City Chiefs

The Illini duo spearheads a Kansas City offensive line that has helped the Chiefs rank 11th in the NFL in points per game. The 5-0 Chiefs have benefited from the protection of their offensive line, which has allowed only 13 sacks so far this season. Asamoah has started in every game he’s played since 2011, while Allen has started in every game he’s appeared in but three in his first two seasons in the league.

6. Jeff Cumberland, tight end, New York Jets

The former Illini wide receiver and tight end had a modest start to his NFL career, appearing in just four games during his first two years after being signed as an undrafted free agent by the New York Jets in 2010. The past two years Cumberland has become a reliable target, reeling in five touchdowns. Cumberland has caught a touchdown each of the past two weeks, including a pivotal 20-yard reception for a score in a 30-28 win in Atlanta on Monday. Geno Smith has targeted Cumberland eight times in the past three games and the tight end has reeled in all but one of those passes.

5. Vontae Davis, cornerback, Indianapolis Colts

Davis was a dynamic player during his time at Illinois, as he picked off seven passes during his career to go along with a punt block return for a touchdown and 215 kick return yards. The hard-hitting cornerback was drafted 25th overall in 2009 by the Miami Dolphins and was traded in 2012 to the Indianapolis Colts. According to expected points added per game, which measures the impact of each play a player is involved in, Davis ranked 12th among NFL cornerbacks at 2.73 during his first year with the Colts. If Davis can stay healthy, as he’s missed 10 games the past two seasons, he has the potential to become an elite NFL cornerback.

4. Pierre Thomas, running back, New Orleans Saints

Thomas has always been underrated. Having to share carries with Mendenhall during his final year at Illinois in 2006, Thomas didn’t have the opportunity to showcase himself enough to be drafted by an NFL team. Nonetheless, Thomas has carved out a nice career for himself, spending all of his seven seasons with the New Orleans Saints. Always a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield, Thomas has received for 1,883 yards and 10 touchdowns in his career, including two receiving touchdowns against his hometown Bears on Sunday. Thomas also has a stellar 4.6 yards per carry for his career.

3. Whitney Mercilus, linebacker, Houston Texans

Mercilus loves creating havoc. During his final year at Illinois, Mercilus led the country in sacks per game with 1.23 while forcing a Big Ten single-season record nine fumbles. Mercilus’ breakout season led to him being drafted 26th overall in 2012 by the Houston Texans. After a solid rookie season in which Mercilus had six sacks and two forced fumbles, the second-year linebacker already has 4.5 sacks on the season, ranking eighth in the league. Mercilus turned 23 in July, meaning he will contend for a higher spot on this list for many years to come.

2. Corey Liuget, defensive end, San Diego Chargers

Liuget, the 18th overall pick of the 2011 draft, had a breakout season for the Chargers in 2012. Liuget led the Chargers defensive line with seven sacks, 61 tackles and 15 tackles for loss. J.J. Watt was the only defensive lineman to defend more passes in the NFL than Liuget (nine). Liuget has started slow this season with only one sack, but it’s just a matter of time before the 300-pound athletic specimen turns things around. Liuget only had two sacks through Week 11 last season, so he still has time to have another strong season.

1. Deron Williams, point guard, Brooklyn Nets

D-Will is the only player on this list who is a superstar in his respective sport. After being a major cog in Illinois’ national championship run in 2005, the Utah Jazz took Williams with the 3rd pick in the draft. Since being traded to the Nets, Williams has failed to reach his level of play while he was in Utah, but the former Illini is still among the best point guards in the league. Last season, Williams was fifth in the league in assists per game (7.7), 11th in 3-pointers made (169) and placed seventh among NBA point guards in PER (20.38). Williams also went on a tear at the end of last season , averaging 24.6 points and 8.4 assists per game during the final month of the regular season. With new toys in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Andrei Kirilenko, Williams may hold down this spot for a while longer.

Michael is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected]