Alabama Football: Who's Headed to the NFL and How High Will They Go?
The time of year has come along where we must bid farewell to another group of boys in crimson. Most are graduating and others are headed to play on Sundays in the NFL. Who will be drafted and how high will they go?
We know guys like Trent Richardson, Dre Kirkpatrick and Courtney Upshaw are players coveted by NFL coaches, but there are others that will get their shot as well.
Here's a look at the players that have a future in the NFL, drafted or otherwise.
Trent Richardson, Running Back
Trent Richardson is the undisputed best running back in the upcoming draft. Some say he's the second coming of Adrian Peterson.
Unfortunately for Richardson, running backs in the NFL just aren't as important as just about any other position on the field.
He may be top-three talent, but he might not even make it into the Top 10.
As a Heisman finalist with 1,679 rushing yards in the nation's toughest conference, Richardson will still be a tempting prize. His physical supremacy as a blitz blocker is what sets him apart from his rivals.
Trent Richardson will go in the first round somewhere between picks 15 and 20, and the Cleveland Browns are going to certainly make a push for him to replace one-hit wonder Peyton Hillis.
Courtney Upshaw, Outside Linebacker/Defensive End
Courtney Upshaw showed much promise in 2010 when his seven sacks out-shined defensive end Marcell Dareus' 4.5, though Dareus was hobbled with an ankle injury much of the season.
Upshaw followed that up with 9.5 sacks and a whopping 18 tackles for losses in 2011. Needless to say, Upshaw's draft stock is pretty darn high.
His true value comes in his versatility. He has shown that he can play as a pass-rushing 3-4 linebacker, but his size at 270 lbs. and his threat to quarterbacks makes him a viable option as a 4-3 defensive end.
Guys that can play two positions well in the NFL have high stock. Marcell Dareus proved his speed as a defensive end but was big enough to play defensive tackle, and he went third overall.
Upshaw is going in the first round. I would love to see him join Dareus in Buffalo as they need more pass-rushing prowess, but the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets could use his services as well.
Dre Kirkpatrick, Cornerback
With his size at 6'3" (some list him at 6'2") and 192 lbs. Kirkpatrick could play cornerback or safety in the NFL. It's another fact that raises his draft stock.
Morris Claiborne out of LSU currently holds the crown as the best cornerback in the upcoming draft, and Kirkpatrick's legal issues did not help his case to be the first cornerback taken.
I don't expect Kirkpatrick to play anything but cornerback at the next level, as there are very few receivers that can match him, let alone catch over him.
He may not be a shutdown corner like Darrelle Revis, but his height and reach make quarterbacks skittish to throw towards him.
Oh, and there's one more thing: Kirkpatrick hits like a truck. Trying to catch a ball in his area is asking for a trip to the locker room, unless the receiver's nervous eyes wander too far and he drops the ball.
Kirkpatrick will go in the first round, regardless of his "horrible crimes" of being caught with marijuana.
The Cincinnati Bengals have a glaring need for a cornerback, but so do my beloved Denver Broncos, as both of their starting cornerbacks (including future Hall of Famer Champ Bailey) are well into their 30's.
As a personal wish, I hope that Kirkpatrick falls low enough for the Denver Broncos to land him. A better defense will ensure that Tebow Time continues.
Marquis Maze, Wide Receiver
Marquis Maze had an amazing opportunity to boost his stock a lot in the national championship game. A pulled hamstring snuffed those hopes.
He was injured on one of the longest punt returns LSU gave up all year, and it is his return ability that will make him quite the steal in the upcoming draft.
He's not a big receiver, as he is listed at 5'10". I think he may be closer to 5'8". That is only one blow his draft stock receives.
The other is the fact that Alabama doesn't typically throw touchdown passes, especially in 2011. Maze had only one touchdown reception as opposed to Trent Richardson's 21-touchdown runs. The NFL loves touchdown receptions.
I predict that Maze will be underrated in the draft, falling to the sixth round. There, I fully believe that the New England Patriots will snag him.
The 2012 Super Bowl runners up and coach Bill Belichick need an heir to Wes Welker at slot receiver. Welker is about to turn 31, and a guy his size with loads of catches has been beat up quite a bit.
It only takes one hit to sideline Welker, and Marquis Maze could step right in.
Dont'a Hightower, Linebacker
Dont'a Hightower may be the most underrated Alabama player heading into the NFL draft.
He was the true beast behind the nation's No. 1 ranked defense in most categories. He was the field general that succeeded Rolando McClain.
As a linebacker that can play in coverage, rush the passer, stuff the run and lead the defense; I'm boggled as to why he's not recognized more by draft pundits.
He led the team in tackles with 85 (well ahead of Mark Barron's 66) and was a load at the line of scrimmage.
He weighed in at 260 lbs. before the season started, but I'd wager he weighs more. He has a knack for carrying his weight well.
His slow start in 2010 is likely the reason for his stock's drop, but he will be a top-five linebacker.
Boston College's Luke Kuechly seems to be the best inside linebacker in the draft, but coaches must wonder how well his 237-lb. frame will match up in the NFL as opposed to the weak opposition he faced in the ACC.
Arizona State's Vontaze Burfict looks like the No. 2 inside linebacker in the draft, but his "over-enthusiastic" play and penchant for penalties may drop him lower. The NFL is cracking down on hard hits involving helmet-to-helmet contact.
Hightower will creep into the first round due to his solid play, lack of penalties and lack of dirty hits, as well as his ability to lead a defense effectively.
The Pittsburgh Steelers will take a long, hard look at Hightower. However, I fully expect the Baltimore Ravens to do whatever it takes to land Hightower to succeed rapidly aging Ray Lewis.
Lewis' veggie burgers and mean streak can only take him so far, and he'll be 37 this year.
William Vlachos, Center
William Vlachos is a true center. His build (6'1", 294 lbs.), despite his strength, doesn't bode well for playing other positions.
That doesn't really matter, though. He can snap the ball with the best of them, and he's as strong as an ox. He can take on any nose tackle or 4-3 defensive tackle in the SEC, so he should do just fine in the NFL.
That doesn't go to say that his size doesn't hurt his draft stock. It's tough to make a case in the draft as a true center. He's not Maurkice Pouncey.
There are plenty of upsides, however. His sizable paunch belies his speed, as he is great at pulling and making key blocks in space. He also has uncanny strength.
Someone will pick up Vlachos in the third or fourth round, but I doubt he will drop lower. Even with the likes of Wisconsin's Peter Konz and Ohio State's Michael Brewster, every NFL team needs a quality center.
I believe he'll turn out to be an underrated pick and will make a splash in the NFL. As a third-round center, however, I am unsure as to who will claim him.
DeQuan Menzie, Cornerback
In my humble opinion, DeQuan Menzie is the most underrated player from the Tide's 2011 secondary.
With Dre Kirkpatrick's notoriety from his hard hits and huge size, Menzie was picked on all year. Menzie stepped up to the challenge and did just fine.
Menzie stuck to his targets like glue and led the Tide with 11 passes broken up and also had an interception he returned for a touchdown (from a pass he batted down himself). He's a true cover corner.
His size is almost ideal at 6'1", 200 lbs.
His limited playing time in 2010 due to injuries (including a torn Achilles tendon) limited his claim to the NFL. Only one season of solid play, regardless of a national title, isn't enough to be a star in the NFL draft unless your name is Cam Newton.
Menzie will go in the later rounds, though a good combine could raise him to the third round of the draft. Again, I hope that the Denver Broncos recognize his talent and take him as one of the biggest steals of the draft.
Mark Barron, Safety
What does Mark Barron need to do to earn some respect?
There are still doubters despite the fact that he was a starter in two national championship seasons. Barron is a quality safety, and any NFL team would be lucky to have him.
Barron was a leader on the Tide secondary for three straight years; a secondary that ranked 10th nationally in 2009, 13th in 2010 and first in 2011.
Recently Barron has foregone his brutal hits and risky shots at interceptions to make sure he either makes the tackle or bats the ball down.
As the top safety on the board, Barron should go in the first round, likely to the San Diego Chargers. However, the Pittsburgh Steelers could certainly take him if he is still available as they need an heir for Troy Polamalu.
Josh Chapman, Defensive Tackle
After Josh Chapman's senior season as a brutal, run-stuffing nose guard, his future is uncertain.
He was projected as NFL talent all the way, but his injury is a big question.
He played through a torn ACL in several games this season and finished strong. Sure, it shows how he is able to play through pain, but how well will he recover after not having surgery on a torn ACL until several months later?
His draft stock won't rise during the NFL Combine (which he is certain to miss) due to the injury, but he has a championship ring. Hopefully, that will be enough.
He can play in the NFL should he recover. However, his pass-rushing ability leaves a lot to desire, regardless of his prowess against the run.
His stock will be limited by his low pass-rushing potential which will likely cause him to be taken by a 3-4 defensive team.
He's a third or fourth-round prospect, but he could drop lower depending on how he recovers from his injury.
Nick Gentry, Defensive Tackle
Nick Gentry, like most Alabama defensive linemen, has been fairly invisible while most are talking about Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw.
I have said it before and will say it again: Nick Gentry was the Tide's best backfield hitter in 2011.
He only had 4.5 sacks and six tackles for losses, as opposed to Upshaw's 9.5 sacks and 18 tackles for losses, but Gentry garnered his stats from a much more precarious position.
Gentry was only present on roughly half of the Tide's defensive plays, as he mostly played in passing situations to spell Josh Chapman. Upshaw was present on almost all of them.
Also, Gentry played from the nose-tackle position in a 3-4 defense where he faced double-teams on every play. Upshaw rarely faced double-teams and sometimes wasn't even covered (which happened in the national championship game and resulted in a sack by Upshaw).
Gentry didn't receive the playing time he needed to boost his stock, but he was a key player in the Tide's defense.
He will likely go undrafted but will receive an opportunity at some team's training camp as a free agent. I believe he'll make a solid case, but if not, he'll make a solid coach.