SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A name uncharacteristically absent from the early rounds of the 2015 NFL draft could be poised for a big return in 2016.
Entering Thursday night’s first round, Notre Dame boasted 485 draftees—the most of any school—since the NFL started drafting players in 1936. The Irish have had 64 first-round choices, the third-most behind USC (77) and Ohio State (71).
But Notre Dame isn’t expected to make much noise in the early rounds—or even late rounds—this year.
This year’s downturn, however, is a precursor to next year’s potential uptick. Let’s look at some of Notre Dame’s top potential NFL prospects for next year’s draft.
For the purposes of this exercise, we’re looking only at the draft-eligible players and how they could fit in at the next level. We’re not speculating on who may or may not leave early.
This list has to start and end with Irish left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who flirted with an early exit for this year’s draft but eventually decided to return to Notre Dame for his senior season.
Stanley passed up a lot, as he had been landing in the first round of many early mock drafts. Bleacher Report’s own Matt Miller offered more context on the athletic tackle earlier this week.
That’s high praise, especially considering five tackles—Brandon Scherff (No. 5 overall pick), Ereck Flowers (No. 9), Andrus Peat (No. 13), Cedric Ogbuehi (No. 21) and D.J. Humphries (No. 24)—were chosen in Thursday’s first round.
With another year to develop and fine-tune his technique, Stanley is in contention to be the first lineman off the board in 2016.
Three days before Stanley announced he would return for his senior season, Irish defensive lineman Sheldon Day said he’d be back in South Bend for the 2015 season.
In three seasons for the Irish, Day has piled up 96 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, 11 quarterback hurries and 3.5 sacks. The Indianapolis native has battled his share of nagging injuries and has made 19 starts in his career.
Listed at 6’2”, 285 pounds, Day will start along the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line in 2015. He certainly doesn’t possess the size of recent Irish defensive line draftees Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, but Day shows good quickness and logs a high volume of snaps.
Just two years into his career, it feels odd to start mentioning Jaylon Smith’s name in draft discussions. And let’s be clear: Smith’s inclusion here does not indicate he will leave early or anything of the sort. We’re merely including Smith as a potential top prospect were he to leave Notre Dame and forego his senior season.
The 6’2.5”, 235-pound linebacker could profile as an ideal outside linebacker at the next level with high-end athleticism. Smith earned second-team All-American honors from the Associated Press in 2014 after leading the squad with 112 tackles and nine tackles for loss.
Last year was the former 5-star recruit’s first year at a new position (the “Will” linebacker spot) in a new defensive system under first-year coordinator Brian VanGorder. With that initial season under his belt, Smith could be poised to take a major step forward in 2015.
Other Names to Watch
Stanley, Day and Smith are probably a cut above the rest of the Irish roster when it comes to next-level prospects. But Notre Dame still has an interesting and deep crop of other names to watch.
If and when everything goes according to plan and cornerback KeiVarae Russell returns to school this summer, Russell will join that trio as a strong NFL prospect. A freshman All-American in 2012 as a rookie starter, Russell logged another 13 starts as a sophomore in 2013. Listed at 5’11”, 190 pounds, Russell brings athleticism and physicality to the position.
Sticking in the secondary, Notre Dame has other draft-eligible starters in corner Cole Luke and safety Max Redfield. Again, by no means are we saying they’ll leave early. But Luke broke out as a sophomore, and Redfield, a former 5-star recruit with impressive size and athleticism, earned positive reviews for his spring growth.
Fellow juniors Isaac Rochell, Will Fuller and Tarean Folston have been productive as well through the first halves of their careers in South Bend.
As for other seniors and fifth-year players, defensive lineman Jarron Jones is an intriguing prospect. The 6’5.5”, 315-pounder was a first-year starter in 2014 as a junior. He notched 40 tackles before suffering a season-ending foot injury against Louisville in November. Jones did not play as a freshman and holds a fifth-year option.
Graduate student center Nick Martin was one of four Irish players to request an evaluation from the advisory board following the 2014 season, but he returned for a fifth season like his older brother Zack. Martin has started at both guard and center for Notre Dame, but he’s admitted center is his natural spot as he shifts back there for his final season.
Unless otherwise noted, all recruiting stats and information courtesy of 247Sports.com and all quotes obtained firsthand. Star ratings reflect 247Sports composite rankings.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.