Ranking Best NFL Draft Prospects in National Championship Game

Tyler ConwayFeatured ColumnistJanuary 7, 2013

Ranking Best NFL Draft Prospects in National Championship Game

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    The BCS National Championship Game's purpose may ultimately be to decide the 2012-13 season's best team, but it will also serve an important professional purpose for top players on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Alabama Crimson Tide.

    As we find out every year, it takes just one scintillating performance on the national stage to send a player's NFL draft stock soaring. With two of the preeminent college programs in history taking the field on Monday, there may be more eyeballs glued to the screen than ever before.

    For Nick Saban and Brian Kelly, that will give them yet another form of motivation for their players. These stars are one game away from cashing massive contracts, and their performances could dictate just how many zeroes they see on those checks.

    Who are the prospects worth watching on both sides? Here is a complete breakdown and ranking of all the best draft prospects for Alabama and Notre Dame playing in Monday's game. 

10. Theo Riddick (RB/WR, Notre Dame)

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    His name has been bandied about in Notre Dame circles for years, but 2012 was the first time Theo Riddick truly got to excel as a running back. Alongside Cierre Wood, Riddick was part of a dynamic duo for the Irish that helped bring them to the BCS National Championship Game.

    Leading the team in carries, Riddick finished the 2012 regular season with 880 yards and five touchdowns. However, Riddick's pass-catching ability was his true calling card and what ultimately makes him a compelling prospect.

    Riddick grabbed 35 passes for 364 yards and a touchdown, giving him three consecutive seasons with at least 35 receptions. Of course, Riddick's arguably the second-best pass-catching running back in this class.

    In fact, ESPN's Scouts Inc. actually lists Riddick as a receiver at the next level. It's an interesting distinction considering Riddick seems more comfortable in the backfield, but it's that versatility that will make him a wild card on draft day.

    Based on his simple running skills, Riddick isn't a guaranteed stud at the next level. He had only three rushes of 20 or more yards during the regular season, as Cierre Wood was used as the team's home-run threat. 

    However, considering his versatility, Riddick should wind up hearing his name called in April.

    Projected Draft Position: Fifth- or Sixth-Round Pick

9. Eddie Lacy (RB, Alabama)

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    While he has never been given the reins alone atop the Tide depth chart, Eddie Lacy has unquestionably put together an impressive career in Tuscaloosa. The junior back rushed for 1,182 yards and 16 touchdowns on only 184 carries during the regular season, as he split time with freshman T.J. Yeldon.

    Some may frown upon his relative lack of production, but Lacy's fresh legs are nearly as intriguing. In a relatively limited sample size, Lacy has shown a great combination of strength and speed, especially for a guy his size. 

    If he works on catching the ball out of the backfield, it's very possible that Lacy could become a three-down back in the pros.

    It's Lacy's habit for nagging injuries, though, that has scared off some scouts. Offseason toe surgery left his status worrisome heading into this year, and though he played in all of Alabama's games, Lacy also battled some nagging injuries in 2012.

    That's not enough to give him the dreaded "injury prone" distinction. However, it is part of the equation that leaves Lacy as a middle-of-the-pack selection rather than among the Giovani Bernards and Le'Veon Bells.

    Like all running backs, Lacy's draft position depends heavily on how teams view him in their systems. He's a versatile guy with prototypical size but doesn't have one skill that guarantees instant NFL production.

    All that being said, it's hard to see him lasting past the third or fourth round, where a slew of running backs could come off the board.

    Projected Draft Position: Late Third- or Fourth-Round Pick

8. Kapron Lewis-Moore (DE, Notre Dame)

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    Though he doesn't get the praise of fellow defensive end Stephon Tuitt (for relatively good reason), Kapron Lewis-Moore has been an underrated cog in the Irish front seven all season.

    The redshirt senior finished the 2012 regular season with 39 tackles and six sacks, which is a pretty impressive total in Notre Dame's 3-4 front. Listed at 6'4" and 306 pounds, Lewis-Moore seems to project adequately to any defensive scheme, and it's arguable that his pass-rushing prowess was underused by the Irish.

    Still, he's not going to confuse anyone as the second coming of Jevon Kearse off the line. Though his size is nothing short of ideal, he's not very quick and is unlikely to leap up draft boards as a workout warrior.

    Like his time at Notre Dame, it's likely that Lewis-Moore will get lost in the shuffle among more talented players by April. The 2013 draft is filled with top-tier defensive linemen, and while Lewis-Moore isn't a bad prospect, he's a noticeable step down from even the Alex Okafors of the draft.

    Considering the position strength, it's likely that he'll have to wait until Saturday to hear his name called. 

    Projected Draft Position: Fourth- or Fifth-Round Pick

7. Barrett Jones (C, Alabama)

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    A four-year starter, Barrett Jones has been the epitome of a team-first player since arriving in Tuscaloosa. After playing his first two seasons as a right guard, Jones switched to left tackle in 2011 when needed and excelled at the position. He became an All-American that season and won the Outland Trophy as the nation's best lineman.

    However, the position-switching did not stop. Saban again asked him to switch positions before this season, this time to center, and Jones once again obliged to great success. He won the 2012 Rimington Trophy as the best center in college football and was once again named an All-American.

    It truly speaks to the number of great players in Monday's game that he would rank so far back on this list. Jones is widely considered the best center prospect in the draft class, but it's wholly possible that he winds up playing guard at the next level as well.

    Though that versatility will be attractive to teams, both guard and center are non-premium positions on draft day. Diamonds in the rough are found consistently among interior linemen, leaving teams wary of drafting them too high.

    Regardless, Jones is an emotional leader who can play multiple positions. He doesn't necessarily have an overarching calling card as a blocker, but he also lacks massive weaknesses.

    Look for Jones to land somewhere in the second or third round, with the latter a little more likely at this juncture.

    Projected Draft Position: Third-Round Pick

6. D.J. Fluker (OT, Alabama)

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    D.J. Fluker is less decorated than Jones and Chance Warmack, but he's been no less vital to the Tide's run-blocking dominance. Listed at 6'6" and 335 pounds, the junior tackle is one of the bigger players at his position and plays with a good motor for someone his size.

    Fluker also has a ton of experience. He has been a starter for each of his three non-redshirt seasons and plays with the swagger of someone with his experience.

    Still, Fluker definitely isn't a player without his fair share of flaws.

    Though an absolute mauler in the running game, Fluker struggles at times in pass protection—especially against elite edge-rushers. Where his raw power and size oftentimes help against the run, he's seemingly a half-step or so slower against the pass, which leads to upright and unbalanced blocking.

    When ultimately evaluated by pro scouts, Fluker may wind up better served as a guard. However, as a right tackle prospect, questions about his weight and ability to excel in pass protection make him no higher than a second-round pick.

    Projected Draft Position: Late Second-Round or Early Third-Round Pick

5. Jesse Williams (DT, Alabama)

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    Though it may ultimately help his future NFL team, Jesse Williams' checkbook is ruing the fact that he has usurped his eligibility at Alabama. In most draft classes, the hulking defensive tackle would garner first-round consideration. 

    However, this is not what you would consider a typical draft class on the defensive line. Though there is plenty of time remaining in the pre-draft phase, it's almost a lock that no fewer than nine defensive linemen will be taken in the first round.

    In fact, there are 16 defensive linemen prospects in the top 45 of ESPN's Scouts Inc.'s rankings for the 2013 class. At No. 43, Williams is considered the "worst" of those players and the No. 8 defensive tackle.

    That may seem like a degradation, but the Alabama nose tackle could be more pro-ready than some players ranked ahead of him. A run-stuffing stalwart, Williams could astonish at the combine with his raw power. He sent Twitter abuzz after a 600-pound bench press back in July, so it will be interesting to see how many reps he can put up at the 225-pound mark. 

    The questions, however, come for Williams in the passing game. He's had just 1.5 sacks in two seasons at Alabama and doesn't really possess the same explosion in passing situations.

    Nevertheless, for a team running a 3-4 system, Williams could be a steal early in the second round.

    Projected Draft Position: Second-Round Pick

4. Tyler Eifert (TE, Notre Dame)

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    Notre Dame has become an academy of NFL tight ends in recent years, and Tyler Eifert will join that list in April. Though his overall stats (44 REC, 624 YDS, 4 TD) aren't exactly anything to write home about, Eifert has been a consistent security blanket for Irish quarterbacks for the past two seasons.

    Listed at 6'6" and 251 pounds, Eifert possesses prototypical size, and his 40-yard-dash time (4.7 seconds) is solid as well. He also has soft hands, runs crisp routes and has a great motor for the most part.

    Though he's considered the No. 35 overall player in the draft by ESPN's Scouts Inc., there are many mock drafts where he falls inside the first round. 

    Nevertheless, don't let anyone talk you into thinking Eifert is the second coming of Rob Gronkowski. He's only adequate in run-blocking and struggles when asked to stay in in the passing game. 

    In other words, he's far more similar to predecessor Kyle Rudolph than he is any All-Pro you can list at tight end. He'll compete with Stanford's Zach Ertz to be the top tight end off the board, but expect him to lose that battle and wind up somewhere in the second round.

    Projected Draft Position: Second-Round Pick

3. Dee Milliner (CB, Alabama)

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    Though Dee Milliner comes in third on this list, it's very possible that he gets drafted higher than any player taking the field on Monday. He grades out as an unquestioned first-round draft pick, and ESPN's Scouts Inc. considers him the 11th-best player in the 2013 class.

    Still, he grades behind both Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o and teammate Chance Warmack. So why is Milliner likely to get taken higher than both players? He plays a premium position (cornerback) in a year where it's considered a pretty thin class of players.

    Though Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks is also considered a first-round candidate, Milliner is the only corner considered a guaranteed Week 1 starter at the next level.

    Listed at a shade under 6'1" and 199 pounds, Milliner has prototypical size to defend just about any receiver at the next level. Though his top-end speed isn't Antonio Cromartie-esque, it's more than adequate, and Milliner makes up for it with an elite football IQ.

    Rarely will you see him take a bad beat down the field, and his elite tackling ability prevents receivers from taking underneath passes to the house as well. 

    Considering the ever-increasing emphasis on defensive versatility, Milliner translates as an instant NFL contributor. He could go as high as pick No. 5 to the Detroit Lions but will not fall any lower than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at No. 13.

    Projected Draft Position: Top-15 Pick

2. Chance Warmack (G, Alabama)

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    Simply put, Chance Warmack is just special. While Barrett Jones gets all the credit for being the versatile leader of the Alabama offensive line, it's Warmack who is the overpowering driving force behind its excellence.

    The 21-year-old guard was voted a unanimous All-American for the 2012 season alongside Milliner and is far and away the best interior lineman in the draft. ESPN's Scouts Inc. has Warmack listed as the third overall prospect and best eligible offensive lineman.

    It's not hard to see why. Warmack is the driving force behind a Tide rushing attack that averaged 5.5 yards per carry, and he's also an excellent pass-protector. 

    As previously mentioned, the problem with evaluating offensive line play is that there are very few reliable statistics. That problem is especially apparent in college, where some outlets don't even recognize defensive statistics as official.

    To put it simply, you just have to watch the tape. He bursts off the ball with an insatiable motor and rarely makes poor reads.

    Granted, like Jones and Fluker, Warmack unquestionably benefited from playing with other elite talents. However, he's the one player who sticks out above the rest as a guaranteed star at the next level. There are few interior linemen that leap off the tape the way Warmack does, and he'll see the fruit of his labor come April.

    Projected Draft Position: Top-20 Pick

1. Manti Te'o (LB, Notre Dame)

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    Perhaps the single most decorated linebacker in college football history, Manti Te'o is a virtual lock to be drafted in the first round of April's draft. The senior linebacker spent his 2012 season making history on the field, as his second-place finish in the Heisman balloting was the best ever for a solely defensive player.

    Considered a first-round prospect before his senior year, Te'o's 2012 campaign has sent his stock soaring. According to ESPN's Scouts Inc, Te'o is the seventh-ranked prospect in the 2013 draft and second-best linebacker behind Georgia's Jarvis Jones.

    The Fighting Irish star is one of the best wrap-up tacklers in the nation and has shown a penchant for reading opposing quarterbacks. His seven interceptions on the season were tied for second in the FBS, dwarfing other players at his position in the process.

    Te'o also has arguably the best set of intangibles of anyone in this draft class. The unquestioned leader of the Irish defense, his effect on the unit became obvious after tragedy struck Te'o's personal life this season. 

    The only problem for Te'o is that, like Warmack, he plays a non-premium position. Though the inside linebacker is most often the player responsible for making reads and adjustments at the line, teams are often hesitant to take one, say, inside the top five.

    Even the most decorated middle linebackers fall below where their talent indicates, as the Panthers happily found out in 2012 when they were gifted with likely Defensive Rookie of the Year Luke Kuechly.

    Te'o will deservedly be drafted within the first 15 picks. However, those who expect him to be a top-five selection are ignoring recent history. 

    Projected Draft Position: Top-15 Pick