Barrett Jones spurned the NFL draft to return for his senior season, but his stock may rise even higher if he plays center at a high level this season.
Alabama’s recent dominance in college football since Nick Saban arrived at the Capstone has carried over to the NFL draft—where the Crimson Tide have had four former stars selected in the first round each of the last two years, and at least one first-round pick in each of the last four drafts.
Despite the loss of eight players that were taken in April’s draft, the Alabama roster is still littered with plenty of talent—including another impressive group of draft-eligible prospects that have a chance to add to the current streak of first-round picks produced by the Crimson Tide in the last two seasons.
This year’s crop of Alabama stars may not include a sure-fire top five selection like Trent Richardson or Marcell Dareus, but the offensive line unit will be a group that has NFL scouts drooling—with three potential first-round choices (center Barrett Jones, tackle D.J. Fluker and guard Chance Warmack) lining up for the Crimson Tide this fall.
On defense, safety Robert Lester and defensive tackle Jesse Williams headline a solid group of players that could play their way into the first-round with big seasons in 2012.
Heading into the season, which players have the best chance to add their names to the list of 11 first-round choices produced by Saban in his tenure at Alabama?
Find out as CBS Sports NFL Draft analyst Rob Rang helps me break down the next wave of Crimson Tide talent that could land in the NFL next season.
Sanjay Kirpalani is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.
Jones could project at any one of the three interior offensive line positions at the next level.
Considering his sterling resume on and off the field, the reigning Outland Trophy winner will undoubtedly be one of the top offensive linemen on draft boards across the league.
Jones will be one of the most intriguing prospects to follow this season mainly because of his versatility—as evidenced by his move from left tackle to center in his final year suiting up for the Crimson Tide.
While the question of where he will lineup this fall has been settled, his home at the next level is up for debate.
Rang’s take: “I think Barrett Jones is going to most likely wind up playing the guard position in the NFL. I like his intelligence, his toughness and his versatility of course. I believe he can be a very good center because of his athletic ability, and I think that would help him contribute at any one of the three interior positions on the offensive line.”
Fluker appears to be safely in the discussion to be a first-round choice in next year's draft.
Fluker is a fourth-year junior that has started 21 games over the last two years at right tackle, and helped the Crimson Tide finished 16th nationally (number one in the SEC) last season in rushing offense.
The massive 6’6”, 335-pounder performed well enough in 2011 to generate some buzz of him entering the 2012 draft, but he quickly shot down that talk announcing his plans to return to school before the BCS National Championship game.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper, Jr. has Fluker at number six on his initial 2013 big board, while Rang has him rated as the fourth best tackle available in next year’s class and slotted as the 21st pick in his initial mock draft.
Rang’s take: “He’s similar in some ways to James Carpenter (former Alabama offensive lineman and Seattle’s first-round pick two years ago). He’s a very physical player who gets up at the point of attack and knocks defenders onto their heels in the running game. He’s a better athlete than you might expect given his frame. Like Carpenter, I think some teams may like him better at guard because of his size. I’ve seen him being able to handle speed rushers off the edge while he has been at Alabama, and I think that he can be a successful right tackle in the NFL as well."
If Lester can maintain his level of production after several stars surrounding him have moved on, he could follow Mark Barron as a first-round safety next year.
With the three players that flanked him in Alabama’s secondary last season currently in NFL camps, Lester will get a chance to showcase his talents as the lone returning starter on the Crimson Tide’s last line of defense.
The 6’2”, 210-pounder considered making the jump to the NFL, but instead decided on returning for his senior season.
Lester has been a playmaker in his two years at safety in the Crimson Tide secondary—recording 10 interceptions and 91 tackles playing alongside All-American Mark Barron the last two seasons.
With Barron gone, Lester—who Rang currently has graded as a second-round pick—could rise if he maintains his production despite having an all-new supporting cast surrounding him.
Rang’s take: “The loss of Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick is going to put a lot of pressure on Lester to go back to his ball-hawking ways of two years ago. If he is able to make those types of plays in 2012, then I think he has an opportunity to raise his stock. At this point, I think he’s made a lot of plays that fell in his lap. I want to see him force the action a little more this season.”
Williams' versatility to play at multiple spots on the defensive line could elevate him into the first round of the 2013 NFL draft.
Williams is hoping to follow in the footsteps of former Crimson Tide defensive lineman and fellow junior college transfer Terrence Cody—who was a second round pick of the Baltimore Ravens in 2010.
Like Jones, Williams is another senior that is switching positions this fall—moving from defensive end (where he made 12 starts last season) to nose guard in Alabama’s 3-4 scheme.
Despite still being a relatively raw talent (he began playing football when he was 15), the 6’4”, 320-pound Australia native is hopeful that his versatility playing multiple positions on the defensive line will help him move up draft boards after this season.
Rang has Williams rated as the fifth best defensive tackle prospect heading into the fall, and currently grades Williams as a second round pick in the 2013 draft.
Rang’s take: “He’s shown flashes of his talent last season, but I haven’t seen him be a consistent difference maker up front like past Alabama guys—Marcell Dareus and to a lesser extent, Josh Chapman—were. Now that he’s going to be viewed as the leader on the defensive line this year, that should give him an opportunity to move up the board quickly assuming he produces in that role.”
Milliner has the size and speed NFL scouts love at the corner position, and with a big year, he could follow in Dre Kirkpatrick's footsteps as a first-round pick.
While the four players listed above either play positions that are valued heavily in terms of first-round consideration (defensive tackle, offensive tackle) or are considered to be one of the top players at their position (offensive guard, safety)
Meanwhile, Rang has second round grades on four more Crimson Tide players in guard Chance Warmack, corner Dee Milliner and linebackers Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley.
Warmack is a talented player that will have an NFL future—but unless he can elevate himself into one of the top two players at the guard position (where Jones figures to occupy one of those spots), he will likely have a ceiling of being a second-round pick.
Milliner has the size (6’1”, 198 pounds) that NFL scouts love and he’s been able to produce solid numbers (four interceptions, 82 tackles, 16 pass breakups) as a part-time starter over the last two seasons.
But he will need a big year to surpass corners with similar size that have produced as full-time starters like N.C. State’s David Amerson and Mississippi State’s Johnthan Banks amongst others.
Likely projected as an inside linebacker, Johnson will try to follow the blueprint laid by former teammate Dont’a Hightower (one of two inside backers taken in the first-round in the 2012 draft)—and keeping the Crimson Tide’s defense among the nation’s elite this fall could help him push Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o for first round consideration.
Mosley plays the more valuable outside linebacker position, and he could arguably be the best linebacker in coverage available in this class—which could elevate him above guys who may start the season rated higher on draft boards.
However, his biggest concern may be staying healthy for an entire season as a starter.