Look For Tide To Lose Juniors To NFL

Alabama isn’t an “if” when it comes to the NFL draft. It’s a question of “how many?” and “which ones?” will be selected when the annual draft event moves from New York to Chicago April 30-May 2. And a question of equal importance will be answered by Jan. 15 when we learn how many Crimson Tide underclassmen have declared for the draft. This is the second part of the discussion.

Alabama loses a boatload of seniors from the 2014 team. On offense, say goodbye to quarterback Blake Sims, fullback Jalston Fowler, tight end Brian Vogler, wide receivers Christion Jones and DeAndrew White, left guard Arie Kouandjio, right guard Leon Brown, and right tackle Austin Shepherd. Senior regulars on defense this season were nose tackle Brandon Ivory, middle linebacker Trey DePriest, strongside linebacker Xzavier Dickson, and safety Nick Perry.

Although no Crimson Tide underclassmen have publicly announced for this year’s draft, there are a couple who are almost certain to take advantage of the situation. Wide receiver Amari Cooper and safety Landon Collins were unanimous All-America selections following their junior seasons in the 2014 season.

NFL insiders say those two should declare for the draft, and that will be Crimson Tide Coach Nick Saban’s advice to them.

Cooper finished third for the Heisman Trophy and was the Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation’s top receiver. He led the nation with Alabama and Southeastern Conference records of 124 receptions for 1,727 yards and had 16 touchdowns and was SEC Offensive Player of the Year. Tide Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin said in New Orleans that he expects Cooper to head to the NFL.

Collins had 12 tackles in Bama’s final game of the year, the College Football Playoff semifinal loss to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. That equaled his career high for a game. He had seven or more tackles in 11 of his last 15 Alabama games and led the Tide with 103 for the season.

Beyond that, it is possible that no other Alabama underclassmen will elect to take the NFL chance; or, it could be quite a few.

And it is a chance. An underclassman who declares for the draft and then is not drafted doesn’t have the option to return to college football.

Although steps have been taken to encourage underclassmen to stay in school if they are not going to be top round draft choices, some three dozen have already declared. One of them is former Alabama running back Dee Hart, who transferred to Colorado State.

Saban said, “Football is one of the only games where there is no other place to develop players. There’s no Triple A like in baseball. There’s no B League or whatever they call it in basketball where the NBA guys go (D-League). None of that. So once you make that decision, it’s kind of all or nothing.

“I try to encourage our guys who aren’t going to be top draft picks to stay in school. Last year we didn’t have success in convincing everyone about that and I don’t know if we’ll be able to do it this year or not.”

By the time we know which of those likely got the Saban warning, it is too late for them and too late for the Crimson Tide to benefit from their play another year.

Probably three juniors are considered most likely to join Cooper and Collins in the underclassman line. They are tailback T.J. Yeldon, linebacker Reggie Ragland, and defensive lineman Jarran Reed.

Yeldon was injured heading up to the Sugar Bowl, which may have cost him the opportunity to be the first person in Bama football history to have three 1,000-yard rushing seasons. He did it as a freshman back-up to Eddie Lacy and as a sophomore starter. This year he came up 21 yards short, getting only 10 carries against Ohio State. Still, he led Bama in rushing with 979 yards and was second team All-SEC.

(Reporters joke that Yeldon, who is extraordinarily media-shy, will probably cost himself hundreds of thousands of dollars because he has a lack of practice and will do poorly on the NFL interviews.)

Ragland, a 6-2, 254-pound linebacker, was second only to Collins in tackles this season with 95 tackles and was also second in tackles for loss with 10 ½. Bama’s returning starter inside linebacker last two years, Trey DePriest this season and C.J. Mosley in 2013, elected to stay for their senior seasons.. It certainly didn’t hurt Mosley, who made All-Pro this year as a rookie. Ragland revealed in New Orleans that his pre-draft grade had been “a nice little result,” but indicated he plans to return.

Jarran Reed, who has been at Bama just one year after transferring from East Mississippi Community College, is a 6-4, 315-pound defensive lineman who led the front group in tackles with 55. Although he said he hasn’t “focused” on the NFL when asked in New Orleans about a possible “one and done,” he indicated he intends to return.

Although it may come as a surprise to those who tend to remember the bad plays, another possible Bama declarer is cornerback Cyrus Jones. Jones had five pass break-ups and a key interception in a losing effort against Ohio State. He finished the year as number one in pass deflections with 14 and tied for the lead (with Collins) in interceptions with three.

Two outstanding Tide players have announced they are returning for their senior seasons. They are defensive end D.J. Pettway and tailback Kenyan Drake. Drake suffered a broken leg in the fifth game of the season. He said he is making progress and expects to participate to some degree in spring practice, and then be full speed for the fall.

There could be a surprise or two with another junior declaring himself ready for pro football, but that seems unlikely. The group includes linebackers Ryan Anderson, Denzel Devall, and Dillon Lee; defensive linemen Dakota Ball, Darren Lake, and Dalvin Tomlinson; defensive backs Geno Smith, Bradley Sylve, and Jabriel Washington; offensive linemen Grant Hill, Dominick Jackson, and Isaac Luatua; center Ryan Kelly; wide receiver Chris Black, quarterbacks Jake Coker and Alec Morris; tight ends Malcolm Faciane, Ty Flournoy-Smith, and Kurt Freitag; and placekicker Adam Griffith.

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