Alabama, 2012 NFL Draft: Who Should Stay, Who Should Go?
The BCS National Championship may still be on the horizon, but several Alabama players are already trying to decide whether or not they will declare early for the 2012 NFL draft. Most should make the right choice, but others may not.
Some decisions by the players will be scrutinized, akin to the Tide's Kareem Jackson in the 2010 NFL draft.
Some saw it as foolish for him to declare early, but he was drafted 20th overall and has been the starter for the Houston Texans for two years now. The Texans are a top-five ranked defense in every major category this year.
There are some clandestine issues that could impact the players' decisions, but pundits and fans can only go by what seems obvious.
Here is an outside look at Alabama's non-seniors that have solid NFL draft stock and whether they should declare early.
D.J. Fluker, Right Tackle
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D.J. Fluker has already publicly declared he will return to Alabama next season, but a change of heart is not unheard of.
Fluker would be drafted if he entered as he is easily a top-10 (if not top-5) offensive tackle, and is certainly one of the better right tackles available.
Alabama will be losing a slew of players to graduation and the draft, and Fluker will become more valuable than ever.
He is only a red-shirt sophomore and has plenty of time available to develop, which is his best option. He may play in the brutal SEC, but it is not the NFL.
Nico Johnson, Linebacker
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Believe it or not, Nico Johnson actually has draft potential. He's around the top-10 outside linebackers in the nation.
That would possible be enough to get him drafted, or at the very least guarantee him a spot as a free agent.
Johnson's potential is through the roof as a monster run-stopping linebacker, but Alabama's defense has not provided him enough opportunity to display it.
Johnson sits out most passing plays, replaced by C.J. Moseley. Quite frankly, nobody runs much against Alabama. When they do it is usually Dont'a Hightower gobbling them up. It's hard to shine when you're standing next to the sun.
Johnson showed some solid ability in passing situations when Mosley was injured, but he needs another year to cement himself as an NFL prospect. He could easily go in the first two rounds in the 2013 NFL draft.
Michael Williams, Tight End
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Michael Williams could be a top-10 tight end in the NFL draft, but this year's class is laden with top-notch tight ends, including Clemson's Dwayne Allen and Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert.
Adding to the difficulty Williams would face is the fact that receiving tight ends are becoming incredibly popular in the NFL, and Williams has greasy hands.
New Orleans' Jimmy Graham has over 1,200 receiving yards, as does New England's Rob Gronkowski, both displaying how important it is to be able to reliably catch as a tight end.
Williams has improved his mediocre receiving ability this year, but if he can develop that more next year, he could become one of the best tight ends in the 2013 NFL draft.
Dont'a Hightower, Linebacker
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Prior to Hightower's torn ACL in 2009, he would have been gone in the 2011 NFL draft, but a sluggish 2010 campaign changed that.
He has since recovered and became one of the most feared linebackers nation, as well as a finalist for multiple major awards.
Arizona linebacker Vontaze Burfict saw his stock drop a lot throughout the year, and Hightower will likely overtake him. But a beastly performance in the national championship could push Hightower past Boston College's Luke Kuechly, making him the top linebacker in the draft.
Hightower also has a certain amount of versatility and could play any linebacker position, and his ability to lead a defense is highly valued by the NFL, which is why Alabama's Rolando McClain was taken early.
Barring an injury in the title game, Hightower will go in the first round. A drop to the second round would be a surprise.
Robert Lester, Safety
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Robert Lester has fallen off the radar this year, so to speak. His eight-interception performance in 2010 was followed by a mere two this year.
He suffered the same fate as Mark Barron did from 2009 to 2010. Quarterbacks stopped throwing his way. They avoided the safeties like the plague, and that is why Alabama's cornerbacks and linebackers combined for eight interceptions.
Alabama's defense also forced a large amount of three-and-outs, limiting Lester's opportunities to make plays.
Prior to the 2011 season most draft pundits had Lester ranked ahead of Mark Barron, some even naming Lester as the top safety prospect in the 2012 NFL draft. That is no longer the case, but he is still a top-5 safety—possibly even higher.
The prospect of going in the second round, as opposed to the first, likely won't keep Lester at the Capstone. Should he stay he would become Alabama's most important defensive player with the huge personnel turnover coming.
Dre Kirkpatrick, Cornerback
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After LSU's Morris Claiborne is taken off the board, teams will be clamoring for Dre Kirkpatrick.
He's had his own set of issues this year in coverage, but he is still the second-best cornerback in the upcoming draft.
There are other great cornerbacks in the nation, but Kirkpatrick's massive size (6'2"-6'3") and talent makes him far more appetizing than the standard 5'10" corner.
In addition, Kirkpatrick played like a true champion against LSU, as their top receiver, Reuben Randle, could do nothing against Kirkpatrick. He had a measly two catches for 19 yards.
He's first-round talent, to be certain. He could likely go in the top 10, but if he somehow falls lower the Denver Broncos could scoop him up. Both their starting cornerbacks are well into their 30's.
Barrett Jones, Guard/Tackle/Swiss Army Knife
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Barrett Jones is allegedly the Tide's most valuable player, and for good reason. He's paved the way for a Heisman-winning running back, Mark Ingram (a former 3-star prospect), and helped make Trent Richardson a finalist.
He has rarely been beaten all year, even after moving to left tackle from his natural position at guard, and is the main reason that Alabama is ranked second in the SEC in sacks allowed.
A desperate team could take him as a tackle or a center, but his run-blocking ability in the middle as a guard is rivaled only by Stanford's David DeCastro.
DeCastro would likely be taken over Jones as a guard, but make no mistake: Jones will be a first-round pick should he decide to go.
His pure talent and intelligence makes him too tasty of a target to pass up. Toss in his supreme versatility and his Outland Trophy (an award that should be as prestigious as the Heisman), and you have the total package.
There are many future stars chomping at the bit to replace Jones in the Tide's lineup in the three positions Jones could play at if he returns. They include Cyrus Kouandjio at left tackle, Chad Lindsay (among others) at center and Anthony Steen returning at right guard.
Jones has been incredibly important to the Tide for three years and helped them into two national championship games, but it is time for him to move on to bigger and better things.
Trent Richardson, Running Back
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Trent Richardson is the undisputed top running back in the upcoming NFL draft. There are a few delusional people that think Montee Ball or LaMichael James would do better in the NFL, but they are as rare as it gets.
Richardson has had some minor scares involving injuries, and he has two daughters whose futures he is concerned with.
He's been a devastating force for the Tide for three seasons now and has over 3,000 career rushing yards.
He's going in the first round, and I hope that my Denver Broncos do whatever it takes to land him!
Also, check out that sick houndstooth scarf he's sporting, contrasting the Honey Badger's gaudy suit.
Verdict: Run, Trent, Run!