NFL Thoughts Creeping In

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina's defense continues to garner national attention as the season draws to a close, thanks in large part to a collection of talented juniors that one day will play for a living on Sunday. UNC's final three games may play a role as to whether or not those paychecks start in 2010 or 2011.

Butch Davis has long been able to sell recruits on his ability to get them to the National Football League and has been crucial in upgrading the talent level in Chapel Hill over the past three years. His resume boasts 30 first-round draft picks, most of which during his tenure as Miami's head coach back in the late '90s.

But his current defensive unit ranks in the top-15 nationally in all four major defensive categories, bringing plenty of attention to his draft-eligible group of juniors that form the core of this UNC team. Defensive tackle Marvin Austin, linebacker Quan Sturdivant, linebacker Bruce Carter, cornerbacks Charles Brown and Kendric Burney and safeties Deunta Williams and Da'Norris Searcy have started a combined 182 games in Tar Heel uniforms.

Draft guru Mel Kiper rates Austin as his No. 3 junior defensive tackle, Sturdivant as his No. 2 junior inside linebacker and Bruce Carter as his No. 3 junior outside linebacker. Williams has long been a scout favorite due to his prototypical size and leadership skills, while Burney is proving that he is North Carolina's best cornerback since Dre Bly, as evidenced by earning the Walter Camp Football Foundation National Defensive Player of the Week award after three interceptions for 170 yards and a touchdown against Miami.

So with the hype slowly building, has the NFL Draft become a topic of conversation at the Kenan Football Center?

"It's that time of the year where all kind of talk happens," Burney said. "But this football team – we've got big goals. A couple of us have had talks, but we know exactly what we need to do for the rest of the season. With these next two games, there's a lot of make-or-break for a couple of guys on this football team. But I believe that if everybody talks, [then] everybody will come back and we'll win this thing next year."

Davis has talked in the past about how draft-eligible players are often willing to return if there's enough on the line to play for the following season, whether it be a conference or national championship. It's also not a bad idea to schedule a monster season-opener like North Carolina has done in 2010 against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game over Labor Day weekend.

"That definitely helps out a lot," Burney said. "… That definitely helps out a lot when it comes to who you want to play and whether or not you want to come back."

One potential factor to keep an eye on as the NFL Draft declaration date approaches in mid-January is the league's rookie salary pool, which operates as a salary cap for first-year players within the overall cap structure.

With the 2010 season expected to be an "uncapped" year due to the end of the current collective bargaining agreement between the players' union and the owners, the league can elect to drop the rookie salary pool and effectively remove the stringent slotting system currently in place. If that occurs, a player's draft position won't necessarily coincide with a specific contract dollar amount.

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