Notre Dame Football: Predictions and Analysis for NFL Draft-Bound Players
After having Tyler Eifert, Manti Te'o, Michael Floyd and Harrison Smith return for their senior seasons, Brian Kelly caught the flip side of the coin this year. Following some of Notre Dame's best players sticking around in South Bend to earn their degrees and playing out four seasons, the Irish head coach is facing one of the biggest talent purges he's ever seen after a disappointing 9-4 season.
The Irish will have to make due without some players who were looked at as keys for 2014. And while you can forgive a guy like Louis Nix for not playing out his eligibility, the Irish staff lost big on players like Stephon Tuitt and Troy Niklas, three-year standouts who left a degree on the table while they chased down NFL gold.
At a school where earning a college degree is a key part of a prospect's recruitment, losing players early to the NFL draft is a relatively new phenomenon for the Irish. Let's take a look at the draft prospects that are departing Notre Dame.
The Irish's key run stuffer is a rare 0-technique nose guard, capable (and enthusiastically) taking on guards and centers as he anchors the defensive front and holds down two gaps, a rarity at the college level. At 6'3", 340-pounds, Nix needs to look the part in gym shorts in Indianapolis, at the annual cattle call that's known as the NFL Scouting Combine.
Even with a disappointing senior season where Nix sat out the last third of the year with a knee injury, he's a unique prospect that'll get a team to take a chance on him early. With his blend of size, speed and scarcity at the position, Nix will end the team's drought of having a defensive lineman chosen in the first round.
Projection: Nix will be off the board in the first 15 picks.
Notre Dame's four-time lineman of the year doesn't check off all the boxes of an elite left tackle in this draft. But he's certainly one of the surest talents along the line in the draft, even if he was never quite appreciated on the national stage in college.
The former Irish captain can play tackle (on either side) and is also being looked at as an offensive guard by scouts on the next level. After facing off with some of the top pass-rushing talent in college football this season, Martin blanked the best of the best, shutting down All-American caliber talent a half-dozen times.
Martin's measurables are certain to be disappointing at the combine. But some team is going to fall in love with Martin at the Senior Bowl, where he'll show the sneaky ability to dominate bigger, stronger and faster players. And it only takes one team to jump up and take Martin, who could be a key piece for a team in need of a bandage on the offensive line.
Prediction: Martin finds his way into the bottom of the first round, jumping above linemen many rated higher.
At 6'6", 312 pounds, Tuitt passes just about every eyeball test NFL scouts will present in Indianapolis. He's capable of cross-training between three- and four-man fronts and dominated several games this year, even if his sack totals took a drop-off from his sophomore season.
Notre Dame's coaching staff thought they had a 50-50 shot of bringing Tuitt back for a final season, with the hopes that a healthy 2014 would catapult him into a top-10 pick. But Tuitt has decided to forgo his final year in South Bend to train for the NFL draft, a place where Tuitt will need to showcase his physicality and raw power.
Tuitt will need a strong combine to erase some of the poor snaps he put on tape earlier this year. While he lacks the elite pass-rush ability you want in a defensive end, Tuitt can work his way back up the board by solidifying his place among the physical freaks of the draft.
Prediction: With one of the last few picks of the first round, Tuitt becomes the third Notre Dame player picked in the first round.
If there's a player who could open some eyes this offseason, it's Troy Niklas. At 6'7", 270 pounds, he's got the size of an elite prospect, even if his production numbers weren't overly impressive. That's not to say that Niklas' junior year was a disappointment, but it was merely inconsistent.
Niklas is one of the country's top blockers along the line of scrimmage at tight end. That skill, combined with an overwhelming physicality, makes him a key loss to the Irish but also a unique talent for the NFL. While a team will need to show him patience, Niklas is going to make a team very happy when they pick him.
Prediction: Niklas gets picked somewhere late in the second round, the third tight end off the board.
If there was a player who slipped on draft boards this year, it's Prince Shembo. While preseason rankings are a bit of a crap shoot, Shembo was ranked among ESPN's top five linebackers heading into the season, a spot he slid from considerably.
Then again, Shembo isn't your prototype early draft pick. At 6'2", 258 pounds, he lacks elite size and plays more like a tweener than a pure pass-rusher. In both his sophomore and senior seasons, Shembo got lost in space, only dominating when given a pass-rushing assignment or putting a hand on the ground.
There's a lot to like in Shembo's game and reason to believe he'll be a productive NFL player. But he's more likely to be a specialist on Sundays than a starter.
Prediction: Shembo gets drafted late in the fourth round as a 4-3 defensive end.
Notre Dame's MVP showed himself to be a jack of all trades but a master of none in 2013. In his breakout senior season, Jones turned into the No. 1 receiver the Irish desperately needed but never truly dominated, lacking elite natural gifts that tantalize NFL scouts.
Jones isn't the biggest, strongest or fastest prospect. Even if he puts up an impressive time at the combine, his measurables don't make him an early draft pick.
But Jones' ability to do a lot of little things right will end up serving him well in the long run. His crisp route running, great hands and special teams ability turn him into a prototype No. 3 receiver in the NFL, a player who should carve a niche in the right system.
Prediction: Jones gets picked early in the fifth round.
While most of the attention this postseason has gone to Zack Martin, the lineman playing next to him the past three years wasn't all that shabby either. Chris Watt will likely have a long and productive career in the NFL. The hard-nosed guard might not be an elite athlete or have prototype size, but he's got teams that appreciate the type of football he plays.
Watt's late-season knee injury kept him on crutches for the end of his Notre Dame career. But he's expected back for the Senior Bowl, where he'll have the eyes of talent evaluators looking to match him up with some of the best defensive linemen heading to the NFL.
Even with a little rust, Watt is a good enough prospect for a team to spend a late-round pick on him.
Prediction: Watt gets drafted in the sixth round by New England, a team that appreciates cerebral offensive linemen.
After an impressive first season starting in 2012, Bennett Jackson took a step back this year. The Irish captain found himself on the wrong end of too many highlight tapes, victimized by Jeremy Gallon against Michigan and then struggling to gain confidence for much of the rest of the season. Jackson's final game for the Irish saw the senior cornerback get beat by Rutgers' Brandon Coleman multiple times. Coleman may have declared for the NFL draft early, but he's hardly anything different than the receivers Jackson will need to cover moving forward.
But remembering the bad takes away from some of the things that Jackson does very well. And as a still raw converted wide receiver, don't be shocked if a team takes a chance on him. Jackson has good size, a nose for the football and speed that made him a member of the Irish track team. While his tackling took a step backwards this season, Jackson also flashed return-game skills early in his career, making him a valuable bottom-of-the-roster player.
Prediction: Jackson is selected in the middle of the seventh round.
George Atkinson III
That George Atkinson III decided to test the NFL draft's murky waters says a lot about where he thought he stood in Notre Dame's future plans. After losing carries to Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston all season, Atkinson likely saw the present as good as any time in the future to take a leap to the next level.
Notre Dame fans have fixated on the things Atkinson can't do, but he's got world-class speed and is one of the best kickoff-return men in Irish history. For all the warts in his running style, he's averaged well over six yards a carry the past two seasons as a 220-pounder who can go 80 yards any time he touches the ball.
Atkinson's hands are a liability, and he's still not a natural running back after three seasons playing there in South Bend. But NFL teams are notorious for giving good athletes a shot, and freaks like Atkinson don't grow on trees.
Prediction: Atkinson is selected just a few spots before Mr. Irrelevant in the seventh round.