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Alabama Players to Watch at the NFL Combine

Could former Alabama center Ryan Kelly be a first-round draft pick? ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. says yes.
Could former Alabama center Ryan Kelly be a first-round draft pick? ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. says yes.LM Otero/Associated Press
Christopher WalshCollege Football National ColumnistFebruary 22, 2016

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — It seems ironic that the former University of Alabama player who figures to make the least impact publicly at the NFL combine might head to Indianapolis with the most buzz surrounding him.

While four Crimson Tide players have been regularly mentioned as being potential first-round selections, a sold fifth has emerged with center Ryan Kelly.

“He’s right there,” ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said during a teleconference with reporters on Monday morning. “With my next ratings board Kelly could be at No. 24 or 25 [overall].”

Kelly made playing at 300-plus pounds a goal for this past season, when he was a consensus All-American and won the Rimington Award for being the nation’s best center, plus he can probably still add weight to his frame. Factor in his tenacious play in addition to being a team leader and Kiper likes his chances.

In his latest mock draft, released over the weekend, Kiper slated Kelly to be selected No. 18 overall by the Indianapolis Colts.

“At worst late two,” he said, referring to the second round.

Although it wasn’t that long ago that a center selected in the first round was considered unusual, as there were only three in the 1990s (Bern Brostek, Steve Everitt and Damien Woody), teams have warmed up to the idea somewhat over the past decade.

Last year the Cleveland Browns, with a pick acquired from Buffalo, used the 19th selection to select Cameron Erving from Florida State. In 2014 the Dallas Cowboys raised some eyebrows by taking Travis Frederick of Wisconsin at No. 31.

The Top Center Selected in Last 10 NFL Drafts
YearPlayerSchoolNFL TeamRoundOverall
2015Cameron ErvingFlorida StateBrowns119
2014Weston RichburgColorado State Giants243
2013Travis Frederick WisconsinCowboys131
2012Peter KonzWisconsinFalcons255
2011Stefen WisniewskiPenn StateRaiders248
2010Maurkice PounceyFloridaSteelers118
2009Alex MackCaliforniaBrowns 121
2008Mike PollakArizona StateColts259
2007Ryan KalilSouthern CaliforniaPanthers259
2006Nick MangoldOhio StateJets129
NFL.com/drafthistory.com

“Alex Mack, think about what he’s done in his career, he was a first-round pick,” Kiper said. “Nick Mangold was a great first-round pick for the Jets as a center out of Ohio State. I think Kelly, based on the way he played at Alabama, the great leader that he is, how durable he is, I think he’s a first-round pick.”

Although the combine’s physical testing gives NFL officials a chance see how players stand up next to one another, much more important for most will be their other results, including measurements, medical examinations and interviews.

Here’s a quick look at Alabama’s participants:

 

Kenyan Drake, running back

Former Alabama running back Kenyan Drake scored a late touchdown in the Senior Bowl.
Former Alabama running back Kenyan Drake scored a late touchdown in the Senior Bowl.Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

After suffering a broken leg in 2014 and a fractured arm this past season, durability questions might make teams looking for a second-string option think twice, but Drake is very promising as a third-down back and special-teams player. 

The kick return for a touchdown in the national championship game gave him a lot of momentum, but more than anything Drake just needs to get through the combine showing he hasn’t lost a step. Right now he appears to be a fifth- or sixth-round possibility.

For example, Draftsite.com projects him as a sixth-round selection by the New England Patriots.

  

Derrick Henry, running back

Alabama’s last two primary running backs to be drafted, T.J. Yeldon (No. 36 to Jaguars, 2015) and Eddie Lacy (No. 61, Packers, 2013), both went in the second round—and few teams appear willing to use a first-round pick on a running back.

Henry will pass the eye test better than anyone else in Indianapolis, but showing a good burst could make some teams think seriously about doing just that.

“He needs a solid workout,” Kiper said.

Most draft experts, including Bleacher Report’s Justin Neuman, project Ohio State’s Ezekial Elliot as the top running back in the draft and the lone first-round selection.

  

Dominick Jackson, offensive lineman

Of all the former Alabama players, offensive lineman Dominick Jackson may need a good combine performance the most.
Of all the former Alabama players, offensive lineman Dominick Jackson may need a good combine performance the most.Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Although his versatility will help his chances of being selected, Jackson is almost certainly a guard at the NFL level, and even though he showed improvement this past year, he will probably be considered a bit of a project.

While his power makes him a borderline draft selection, a big week at the combine is all but a must for the former junior college transfer to avoid free agency.

 

Cyrus Jones, cornerback

Although Jones has always used talk about his height and weight as motivation (5’9”, 196 lbs.), it’s not something that he can hide in the NFL. Because its something that can be exploited, he’s probably destined to be a nickel cornerback.

However, his punt-return skills could make the difference between being selected in the fourth and sixth rounds, and NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock has him listed fifth in his positional rankings. 

 

D.J. Pettway, defensive lineman

The tough part for Pettway may be the interview process, as he’ll be asked about his role in the attack and robbery of two students that led to being kicked off the team. After a year at East Mississippi Community College, he was given a second chance by head coach Nick Saban, and Pettway was part of Alabama’s impressive defensive line rotation. 

There’s not much wear and tear on Pettway and he’s a real candidate to be a sleeper pick with a good combine showing, but for now he looks like a late draft pick—sixth or seventh round.

 

Reggie Ragland, linebacker

Get ready to hear the term “throwback” a lot regarding Ragland, who projects to be a mid-first-round selection. He essentially locked up that status with his strong showing in the Senior Bowl but surprised a lot of people by showing up weighing 259 pounds. Otherwise, he doesn’t have a lot to prove at the combine.

“He’s a guy in the 70s, 80s and 90s who would have been a top-10 pick, guaranteed,” Kiper said. “But coverage ability is going to be something…259 you’d like see that weight down a little bit.”

Of all the recent NFL.com mock drafts analyst Bucky Brooks has Ragland going first to the Miami Dolphins at No. 8 overall.

 

Jarran Reed, defensive lineman

If Reed wants to become an every-down lineman at the next level, he’s going to have to improve his pass-rushing, but his run-stopping ability isn’t in doubt. That alone could make him a first-round selection.

If Reed can show a decent burst at the combine, he could really move up some draft boards, but most likely he’s a late first-round selection.

In 247Sports’ annual pre-NFL combine survey of Internet mock drafts, Reed was the popular pick to be the 27th selection by Green Bay.

  

A’Shawn Robinson, defensive lineman

When scouts are asked what they’re looking for in a defensive lineman, they’ll point to Robinson, who’s expected to be selected before Reed because he has more of an upside. Those who are high on him believe Robinson has All-Pro potential, and with a good showing at the combine could be a top-10 selection.

Among those who believe Chicago could be a possible destination with the No. 11 selection is CBS columnist Pete Prisco.

Notable Alabama players who did not receive an invitation: Jake Coker, quarterback; Geno Matias-Smith, defensive back; Denzel Devall, linebacker.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.

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