BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – Waiting two weeks for the Super Bowl, it's sometimes easy to stray from the excitement of pro football.
But not this year, especially for former Cocoa High football coach John Wilkinson.
Three players from his powerful Tigers teams, all drafted among the first four rounds this past year, were honored on NFL Rookie of the Year teams this month, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.
Right tackle Jawaan Taylor of the Jacksonville Jaguars and cornerback Chauncey Gardner-Johnson of the New Orleans Saints were named to the 2019 Pro Football Writers NFL All-Rookie Team regarding position power rankings, while cornerback Jamel Dean of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers joined his former teammates on the 22-man 2019 Pro Football Focus NFL All-Rookie Team.
“I’m not sure there’s ever been three from one high school anywhere in the country,” Wilkinson said. “To have them drafted was amazing, but to have them honored like this is even more amazing. And the fact they come from a small community of about 20,000 people, it’s an incredible story.”
Wilkinson coached all three players from 2012-2014, with Dean graduating a year earlier than his teammates in 2015 and accepting a scholarship to Auburn. In 2014, the Tigers lost to the top team in the nation, Booker T. Washington of Miami, in the state semifinals.
All three standouts received accolades during their rookie NFL season from broadcasters and analysts on national TV.
But it actually was a rough start for Gardner-Johnson (a former Florida Gators star along with Taylor) when he committed a late penalty in a nationally-televised Monday night game early in the season against the Falcons, a game which the Saints won in overtime. But he rebounded nicely and was the only one of the three to reach the playoffs with the NFC South champions, who lost to the Vikings two weeks ago.
Dean also got off to a rough start trying to cover Seattle’s superstar receiver Tyler Lockett, who caught 13 passes and two touchdowns in that 40-34 overtime win by the Seahawks. It was Dean’s first full-time starting assignment, but he immediately improved after that, picking off Kyler Murrray in the next game and batting away the final pass as the Bucs defeated Arizona, 30-27 at home.
“You know, we were fortunate to play a lot of the best competition around the country, so adversity is a lot more likely to happen in those kinds of games,” Wilkinson said. “All three are strong-willed and passionate about the game, and that’s what gets you through tough times and you’re meant to do that.”
Wilkinson recently finished his second year as head coach at New Smyrna Beach High, where his son is a sophomore. The Barracudas finished 7-4 and made the playoffs.
But he still has strong roots tied to Cocoa, attending a couple NFL games featuring the trio, and talking on twitter and texting them during game weeks.
Gardner-Johnson actually gave Wilkinson his first Saints game jersey for the coach's 50th birthday, a party attended by the player's mom and stepdad.
“I guess I always knew they had the potential, so I’m not too amazed (at their quick pro accomplishments),” Wilkinson said. “I think, now, they may be giving me (coaching) tips.”
What they said about each player:
JAWAAN TAYLOR, JACKSONVILLE
Drafted in the second round by the Jaguars (35th overall).
What PFF said: Taylor was the only rookie tackle in the NFL this season to play 500 or more offensive snaps and record a pass-blocking grade higher than 60.0. It was not an outstanding season for rookie tackles, but Taylor had a decent start to his career on the right side of the Jaguars’ offensive line.
His 63.8 overall grade ranked 22nd out of 38 qualifying right tackles, and he was one of 20 players at the position to allow a pressure rate lower than 6.0%. In a disappointing season for the Jaguars’ line as a whole, Taylor’s solid play as a rookie was a silver lining.
What Pro Writers said: Veteran pass rushers began the season taking advantage of Taylor as a Day 1 starter, but he hasn’t been charged with a sack since Week 6. The second-round pick joins guard Andrew Norwell as the only Jaguars to play every snap this season.
JAMEL DEAN, TAMPA BAY
Drafted in the third round by the Buccaneers
What PFF said: The first significant game action that Dean saw this season in Week 9 against the Seattle Seahawks was one of the worst cornerback performances of the season. He allowed nine receptions for 155 yards in that outing alone. Since then, he’s been one of the best cornerbacks in the league.
Among all cornerbacks with 25 or more targets since Week 10, Dean’s passer rating allowed of 29.1 was the lowest in the NFL by over 10 points, and his forced incompletion rate of 30.3% also led the position group. That strong finish to the season gives plenty of reason to be optimistic about his pairing with Carlton Davis in 2020.
CHAUNCEY GARDNER-JOHNSON, NEW ORLEANS
Drafted in the fourth round by the Saints
What PFF said: Gardner-Johnson has been a bit of a Swiss Army knife for the Saints defense, playing 50 or more snaps as a slot cornerback, box safety, free safety and edge defender. Most of his time has been spent at slot corner, with 268 snaps, and his play there is the biggest reason for his inclusion on this list.
Among all defenders with 25 or more slot targets, Gardner-Johnson’s 77.3 coverage grade ranks fourth. His 29.6% forced incompletion rate on those slot targets is the best in the league. The slot receiver is becoming a bigger and bigger part of NFL offenses, and Gardner-Johnson is proving his worth by taking those passes away.
What Pro Writers said: ... (Sean) Murphy-Bunting and Gardner-Johnson may be the pick of the litter from a group of early-season afterthoughts emerging as weekly contributors in the second half of the 2019 campaign. The former has teamed with fellow rookie Jamel Dean in an improving Bucs secondary, while the latter has been an upgrade on P.J. Williams in the slot.
Other rookies from Florida honored included Jacksonville’s defensive standout Josh Allen and quarterback Gardner Minshew, both on the PFF rookie team, and Sean Murphy-Bunting, who beat out Dean for the primary spot on the NFL’s rookie team.
News 6 partner Florida Today contributed to this article.