Which Former Alabama Player Should Be Taken 1st in 2016 NFL Draft?

Christopher Walsh@@WritingWalshCollege Football National ColumnistApril 25, 2016

Linebacker Reggie Ragland's pass-coverage drills were the key to his pro day in early March.
Linebacker Reggie Ragland's pass-coverage drills were the key to his pro day in early March.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Like for everyone else who could be selected in the NFL draft this week, it’s been a whirlwind few months for former University of Alabama center Ryan Kelly.

After declining to participate in the Senior Bowl, Kelly underwent a whole different kind of training to improve the individual skills that would be measured and tested. There was the NFL Scouting Combine and Alabama’s pro day, in addition to private workouts scheduled by various teams.

Sometime this week, he’ll finally find out his destination, although Kelly’s not even sure when he should be paying attention, as there’s a wide range of speculation about which round he could be selected in.

The first round is on Thursday, the second and third rounds on Friday and the rest on Saturday.

If I’m an NFL general manager, I don’t wait. He’s the guy I want to take from Alabama. Kelly could be the rock of an offensive line for a decade or more and seems to have no red flags.

Center and guard are known as positions teams only rarely pick from in the first round, but Kelly could be the exception. Two obvious fits are Indianapolis at No. 18, as the Colts need a lot of help in the offensive line, and Cleveland with the first pick in the second round (No. 32 overall).

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“Ryan Kelly’s a top-tier offensive lineman in this draft,” Mike Mayock of NFL.com said on a conference call with reporters on April 22. “He could play center or guard, but he’s the top center in this draft. So I think Ryan Kelly could be an interesting guy at 18.”

Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com has Ryan Kelly going 22nd to the Texans in his latest mock draft, while The MMQB’s Peter King has him slated for Arizona at No. 29.

But chances are Kelly won’t be the first Crimson Tide player to hear his name called, as he wasn’t invited to attend the first round in Chicago, while three of his former teammates are making the trip: linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive linemen Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson.

Ryan Kelly (center) wasn't invited to Chicago, but could be a first-round pick.
Ryan Kelly (center) wasn't invited to Chicago, but could be a first-round pick.Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press/Associated Press

Trying to project who it will be is nearly impossible because no one knows how the draft will change due to trades, team needs and the varying degree of opinions. For every evaluator who might prefer Reed, another might like Robinson.

“Mock drafts are exercises in futility,” King wrote on Monday. “Two years ago, I was 2-for-32; last year, 5-for-32.”

Moreover, each NFL war room is different. Some stick to their draft boards like glue, while others are known for doing the opposite. Who has the final say and how often that person has the job security to select a high-reward, huge-risk player like Ole Miss defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche is crucial.

If pure talent was the only factor in the draft, he’d almost certainly be a top-five selection.

“At the end of the day, do you trust him? I think that’s the whole thing with Robert Nkemdiche, and my answer is 'No,'” ESPN analyst Todd McShay said. “[If I’m a general manager] I have to hit on a first-round pick.”

When it comes to Alabama’s R-R-R collection of defensive prospects, there’s no consensus about who’s the best prospect.

For example, NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt has Robinson 13th on his Hot 100 list, followed by Ragland (18), Reed (21), Kelly (25), running back Derrick Henry (32) and cornerback Cyrus Jones (92).

Meanwhile, Mayock has Reed ahead of Robinson, while Ragland has slid in his position rankings to fourth among interior linebackers.

Alabama's Projected First-Round Selections
Bucky BrooksNFL.com27th Packers19th Bills16th Lions
Dane BruglerCBSSports.com21st Redskins27th Packers19th Bills
Daniel JeremiahNFL.com19th Bills25th Steelers2nd round
Peter KingSI.com27th Packers31st Broncos16th Lions
Mel Kiper Jr.ESPN17th Falcons2nd round24th Bengals
Todd McShayESPN14th Raiders21st Redskins16th Lions
Compiled by the author

“I think they’re all going to be really solid,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “I don’t know about spectacular because it’s a pass rush league and Ragland, Reed and Robinson aren’t pass-rushers. Ragland’s shown some versatility, he’s not real explosive. His coverage ability in the NFL, we’ll see. He might be a two-down player.”

That’s a little different from McShay, who calls Reed maybe the best run-stopper in the draft and Robinson one of the most overrated players. He also likes to remind people that Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott claims that Ragland was the hardest hitter he has ever faced.

Who will go first, A'Shwan Robinson or Jarran Reed?
Who will go first, A'Shwan Robinson or Jarran Reed?John Bazemore/Associated Press

One could debate between the three for hours.

“I think Robinson’s going to get better,” Kiper said. “He’s young, just turned 21. He showed pass rush ability as a freshman when he had 5.5 sacks. He kind of stops the run on the way to the quarterback, knocks down passes, disrupts throwing lanes.

“Reed is a hustler. He’s a different kind of player. He could be a nose tackle, he could be a 4-3 defensive tackle or 3-4 end. He’s got talent and plays hard. I like Robinson and Reed a little more than most people.

The guess here is that Ragland will be the first to go due to the concept of scarcity. While there is some concern about Ragland’s ability to cover at the pro level, finding a quality linebacker who can act as both the base and leader of the defense isn’t easy.

Chances are a team like Buffalo, Denver, Green Bay or Oakland will find him too good to pass up.

Meanwhile, it’s a very deep draft for defensive linemen. You might see a team or two trade up to take one, but not many. Here are some teams that have a need to fill up front: Atlanta, Buffalo, Carolina Cincinnati, Dallas, Detroit, Green Bay, Houston, Miami, New England, New Orleans, New York Giants, Oakland, San Diego, Tampa Bay and Washington

“We’ve been talking all along about the best defensive tackle draft we’ve seen in years,” Mayock said. “I’ve talked to several teams in the last couple of weeks, all of whom believe that because that group is so deep, we’re going to see teams in the first and second round kind of going after positions of need that aren’t anywhere near as deep, like say wide receiver. Or if you think there are four offensive tackles in the drop-off, you better go get that offensive tackle before you get your defensive tackle.”

Despite that, Reed was the first Alabama player selected in the NFL Network’s Media Mock Draft (by Maurice Jones-Drew on behalf of Washington at No. 21) on Sunday.

So to summarize: It should be Kelly, it would be Robinson with a little more consistency, it could be Reed, but odds are it’ll be Ragland who gets selected first.

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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