Alabama’s success in producing NFL draft picks is another measure of the strength of the program Nick Saban has built in Tuscaloosa.
This year’s club has several standouts who NFL evaluators are already keeping close tabs on early in the season.
Which Tide stars seem destined to play in the NFL?
With the departure of Dee Milliner, senior Deion Belue has taken his spot as the Tide’s top corner.
Although the 5’11", 183-pounder struggled at times in 2012, he’s shown tremendous improvement in the offseason and through Alabama’s first two games.
While Belue may not possess the same upside as former Tide stars such as Milliner and Dre Kirkpatrick, he’s a sound player who has great instincts and enough athletic ability to be a serviceable corner in the NFL.
Ed Stinson arrived at Alabama as a wiry 6’4”, 227-pound defensive end in Saban’s 2009 class. Now a fifth-year senior, Stinson has added 65 pounds to his frame and is in his second full season as a starter.
Stinson’s strength is getting leverage at the point of attack as a run-stuffer in a 3-4 scheme. His combo of size and athleticism also makes him a candidate to contribute at any of the positions in a three-man front.
CBS Sports has Stinson rated as the sixth-best defensive end in the 2014 class and has given him an early grade as a second-round prospect.
Senior guard Anthony Steen enters his third season as a starter, and the 6’2”, 310-pound senior has played at a high level despite playing in the shadow of his more celebrated linemates.
CBS Sports rates Steen as the fourth-best guard in the 2014 class, and he’s projected to be a second-round pick.
Considering the wars he’s been through in the rugged SEC, Steen’s hard-nosed mentality will serve him well at the next level.
The recent trend of NFL teams coveting versatile outside linebackers that excel in rushing the passer is likely to benefit Alabama redshirt junior Adrian Hubbard.
The 6’5”, 252-pounder almost declared for the draft last season before opting for another year of seasoning under Saban.
Hubbard has seven sacks and 13 tackles for loss in his career, and he’s a raw talent with the frame and athletic ability necessary to transition into a prototypical NFL outside linebacker.
During Alabama’s run of success in the draft, Saban’s history of grooming top-flight defensive backs has come into focus with four former Tide standout defensive backs being selected in the first round since the 2010 draft.
Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who is the top free safety in the 2014 draft class, according to CBS Sports, could increase that number if he chooses to leave school following the season.
The 6’1”, 208-pound junior, who has four career interceptions, is a physical defender in run support and displays great range in pass coverage.
AJ McCarron’s NFL prospects have been debated for what seems like an eternity.
There’s a school of thought that says he’s a product of Alabama’s system and lacks the ability to become a franchise quarterback in the NFL. Others feel he’s shed the game-manager label and shown enough improvement to become a potential first-round pick.
His 334-yard, four touchdown effort against Texas A&M last week gives credence to the believers in his ability to be one of best signal-callers in his class.
Considering that he has good size (6’3”, 214 pounds), above-average arm strength and the intangibles he’s displayed throughout his storied college career, McCarron will be one of the most polarizing quarterbacks eligible for the 2014 draft.
Toward the end of his freshman season, Cooper was one of the most explosive receivers in the country—as evidenced by him having at least 100 yards in four of Alabama’s last five games of the 2012 season.
The 6’1”, 202-pounder has gotten off to a slow start this season. However, considering that he was slowed in fall camp by a strained foot, his struggles are somewhat understandable.
As Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com notes, Cooper is already displaying advanced-level techniques, such as precise route running and gaining separation off the line of scrimmage against man-to-man coverage.
Even though he won’t be eligible until the 2015 NFL draft, Cooper has already established himself as one of the Tide’s most talented players.
Saban has fielded his share of game-breaking running backs since he’s been at Alabama, and sophomore T.J. Yeldon appears to be every bit as talented as predecessors such as Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy.
The 6’2”, 218-pound Yeldon rushed for 1,108 yards as a true freshman, while averaging more than six yards per carry.
What makes Yeldon so special is his ability to be equally effective running in between the tackles or making plays in space as a rusher or receiver. Getting yards after contact and his ability to pass-block are extra dimensions that separate him from other running backs in his class.
Like Cooper, Yeldon figures to be one of the top prospects at his position for the 2015 NFL draft.
Alabama had a pair of offensive linemen taken in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft, and Kouandjio appears to be on his way to having a chance at joining that club should he choose to make the leap after the season.
The 6’6”, 310-pound left tackle entered the 2013 season in a race with Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews to be considered the best player at the most important position on the line.
However, Kouandjio struggled in the season opener against Virginia Tech, and he will need to show that he can perform consistently as the leader of the Tide’s new-look line.
That said, Kouandjio is a solid first-round projection due to his athleticism and his potential to be a dominant force at the next level.
There’s no doubt that Alabama has one of the nation’s most talented rosters. However, as ESPN’s Alex Scarborough writes, even on a team with athletic freaks across the board, Tide senior linebacker C.J. Mosley has earned the praise of Saban because of his non-stop motor.
Via his Twitter account, ESPN NFL draft analyst Kevin Weidl compared him to one of the NFL’s best linebackers in Cowboys Pro Bowler Sean Lee.
Mosley is equally adept at being a physical presence against the run as he is covering backs, receivers and tight ends in space. He’s also an excellent blitzer.
That type of versatility is what makes him a solid first-round projection in next year’s NFL draft.