ND’s NFL draft prospects numerous

It’s a long road ahead for Jaylon Smith following his scheduled surgery on Jan. 7. As many as nine other ND players could be drafted, led by Ronnie Stanley and Sheldon Day.

With their college careers now behind them, a larger-than-normal group of Notre Dame players are expected to go in the April 28-30 draft in Chicago with a few others likely to get a look via the free-agent route.

Senior running back C.J. Prosise and junior wide receiver Will Fuller – both of whom had an additional year of college eligibility remaining – chose to join the list of draft-worthy players dotting Notre Dame’s 2015 roster, which also included offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, whose decision to bypass his fifth year with the Irish was made a year ago.

Junior linebacker Jaylon Smith, who was slated for surgery on Jan. 7 with Cowboys surgeon Dr. Daniel Cooper in Dallas, has yet to announce his intentions. But it’s a virtual certainty that Smith – who suffered injuries to his ACL and LCL, according to Irish Illustrated sources – will choose to rehab as an NFL player in 2016.

“I guarantee you the Smith injury played a factor in their decisions,” said veteran college/NFL talent evaluator Greg Gabriel. “If some of these guys were waffling, that injury put them over the top.”

Last year, Notre Dame had just one player selected in the NFL draft – tight end Ben Koyack – who was chosen in the seventh round by Jacksonville. With so many top-level players returning to the 2015 team, the Irish were expected to be among the nation’s top contenders for a playoff spot, and Notre Dame responded by staying in the running until the 12th game of the regular season.

Two years ago, eight Irish players were selected in the NFL draft (including first-rounder Zack Martin), the most since 1994 when 10 Notre Damers – led by first-rounders Bryant Young, Aaron Taylor and Jeff Burris – were tabbed.

With Smith’s status up in the air, Stanley will be the first player chosen among Irish alums, followed by defensive tackle Sheldon Day, and then some combination of Fuller, Prosise, KeiVarae Russell and Nick Martin.

Note the listed size of the players during their final seasons in a Notre Dame uniform, and we’ll match those up with the combine figures, which will be conducted in Indianapolis on Feb. 23-29.

LB-JAYLON SMITH (6-2 ¼, 240)
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

One of the most physically-gifted players in Notre Dame history started all 39 games in an Irish uniform. Smith finished with 293 career tackles, 175 of which were solo. He also had 24 ½ tackles for loss in three seasons and a surprisingly low 4 ½ sacks, although his ability to cover ground in pass coverage made for an inviting pass-defending option.

Gabriel’s analysis: “They’ll know a lot more from the surgery. So the first step is a successful surgery with the Cowboys’ surgeon. I’ve never heard a surgeon say a surgery wasn’t a success, so you take what’s said with a grain of salt. Then there’s the rehab process, which likely will be very time consuming.

“We drafted an offensive lineman when I was with the Bears out of Boston College by the name of Marc Colombo. He had a severe dislocation of his knee in a pile up on a Monday night game against Green Bay, and he was never the same player again. It was two years before he got back onto the field. A lot of doctors told him he wouldn’t play again, and it was a testament to him that he played seven or eight years. He didn’t have the athletic skills and flexibility he had before the injury.

“So now with Smith, you’re talking about a guy whose game is speed and explosiveness. Is he going to get that back? None of us can answer that. You’ve got the combine next month. He’ll get an MRI then. Dr. Cooper will be there and will fill in every orthopedic surgeon in the league about his prognosis. Then they have re-checks in April. So it’s the long-term prognosis, how long before he’s doing stuff, how long before he’s back on the field…He has a long road ahead, but was an outstanding player before and could be again.”

Draft projection: “There’s just no way of knowing right now. There was a kid last year from Oregon (Ifo Ekpre-Olomu), a cornerback, who was projected late-first, early-second before tearing his ACL. He went in the seventh round. He collected on his insurance policy, but every one of those policies aren’t the same. It depends on the verbiage of the policy. The kid from Oregon collected and I know it was in the millions.

“You probably can throw out the first and second round with Smith unless somebody has multi-picks and the prognosis is very good. Somebody will draft him because they’ll take the chance. I just don’t know when. It will probably be a team with multiple picks and probably a good team, which bodes well for him. It’s a wait and see. It’s too bad that it happened, but what are you going to do?”

OT-RONNIE STANLEY (6-5 ½, 315)
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Rock-solid 39-game starter – the first 13 at right tackle and the last 26 at left tackle. A finalist for the inaugural Joe Moore Award, and a FWAA and Walter Camp 1st-team All-American as a senior. Named Notre Dame’s offensive player of the year.

Gabriel’s analysis: “He played well in 2015. He didn’t play as well as he could have played. He had games where he had mental mistakes, physical mistakes. His intensity level isn’t always where it should be, but he’s a very talented guy. He’s going to be as athletic as any tackle in the draft and he’s got those long arms.

“He had some trouble in pass pro this year where guys beat him with a counter move or a double move. A lot of that is concentration, paying attention to your technique, and concentrating on what’s going on. But the talent is there for him to be a great player.

“I still think he’s got to get stronger, both in the upper and lower body to help his run blocking at the next level. He will be a left tackle in the league. He may not start off at left tackle. Teams will stick him at right tackle or guard initially to get them confident, and then in year two or three, they’ll move them to left tackle.”

Draft projection: “Stanley is going to be a first-round pick. Will he be the first tackle taken? I don’t think so. I think it will be the kid from Mississippi (Laremy Tunsil). (Stanley will) be the second or third tackle taken. The kid from Stanford (Kyle Murphy) is really good. The kid from Ohio State (Taylor Decker) is really good, but I don’t think he’s a left tackle in the league. I think he’ll be a right tackle.

“Stanley will go in the first round, no question about. Then it’s up to him how well he plays at the next level.”

DT-SHELDON DAY (6-2, 285)
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Rock-solid presence on the defensive line for the Irish, starting 32 games in his career while battling through injuries his the first three campaigns. Finished with 32 career tackles for loss, including 15 ½ in 2015. Two-time Irish captain, a 1st-team USA Today All-American, and 2nd-team AP/FWAA choice. Notre Dame’s Moose Krause Lineman of the Year.

Gabriel’s analysis: “His height works against him, but I think he’s going to be a starter in the league. What is he, 6-foot-0 ½? Is he 6-foot-1? Is he 6-foot-1 ¼? All of those work against him. Aaron Donald is the exception to the rule. You could probably say Day is a poor man’s Aaron Donald. He’s not as explosive as Donald was, but he’s explosive, has a high motor, loves to play, he’s strong, and he’s a character guy.

“He’s a three-technique in a 4-3 front, so that limits who can draft him. He’s not a fit to be drafted by a 3-4 team. If you get enough weight on him to play nose, does that take away his quickness and explosiveness? The guy is going to be a quality player. He’s just got to be drafted by the right team.”

(Editor’s note: The following NFL teams are listed as 4-3 defensive fronts with Atlanta using both – New York Giants, Detroit, Buffalo, Oakland, Minnesota, Jacksonville, Carolina, Cincinnati, Seattle, St. Louis, New England, Miami, Tampa Bay and Dallas.)

Draft projection: “I think he’ll go in the second round. But until all these juniors come out, we won’t know.”

WR-WILL FULLER (6-0, 184)
USA Today Sports Images

The speedy wideout followed a 76-catch, 1,094-yard, 15-TD sophomore season with an equally spectacular 62-catch, 1,258-yard, 14-TD junior campaign – including eight touchdowns of at least 45 yards – to springboard into NFL conversation with another year of eligibility remaining. Fuller scored at least one touchdown in 21 of his last 26 games in a Notre Dame uniform.

Gabriel’s analysis: “The guy obviously has rare speed and is an exceptional athlete. Some people bang him on his route running, but I think he’s a good route runner. He gets in and out of cuts quickly, gets separation, finds the open area…Obviously, he has tremendous big-play ability. I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t run a 4.35. He’s got a second gear once he’s going.

“The biggest concern is his hands. He’ll go to the combine and they’ll measure his hands, his wrists and his ankles, and they evaluate whether he has (physical) growth potential. I’m going to say he’s going to have real small hands, and that right there alone could be the answer to the dropped passes.

“He’s got well over 20 drops in two years, numerous double catches, and numerous body catches. That doesn’t cut it when you get into the NFL. He doesn’t get off the jam very well and that’s because he’s not the strongest guy. If he’s used in the slot and he’s in motion, that will make it easier for him to uncover. If he gets a big, physical corner on him in the NFL when he’s split wide, he’s going to have trouble getting off the line of scrimmage.

“He is what he is as far as size. Size-wise, you can compare him to DeSean Jackson. He’s a small-framed guy, and the windows to make those catches in the NFL are much smaller. Double catches and body catches often turn into drops because you get hit so quickly. So he’s got to work on the concentration, and if he gets more consistent catching the ball, he’ll play.

“There’s a lot to like, but the most important thing a receiver has to do is catch the ball, and he doesn’t do that consistently. Coaches don’t like two things – fumblers and guys who drop passes.”

Draft projection: “To me, he’s a wild card. He’ll get a long look in the spring. I do not see him going in the first round. There are too many other good receivers that are a lot more consistent catching the ball. I’m going to say second round is probably fair, and that’s assuming you have a feel-good (organization that wants to pick him).”

RB-C.J. PROSISE (6-0 ½, 220)
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

The move from slot receiver to running back was nothing short of spectacular, at least through the first seven games. He impressed from the outset of the ’15 season, rushing for 98 yards in the opener against Texas and at least 129 yards in five of the next six games. Injuries caught up to him at that point. He did not play in two of the last five regular-season games and peaked at 57 yards rushing (vs. Boston College) in the three games he played down the stretch. He had one snap against Ohio State, and that was a dropped pass. Prosise still finished with 1,032 yards rushing, 11 TDs and an average of 6.6 yards per carry. He also caught 26 passes for 308 yards (a noteworthy 11.8-yard average) and a touchdown.

Gabriel’s analysis: “There is a lot of upside with him and a lot of tools to work with. He’s a very good receiver for a back. He’s still learning the position and is more a work in progress, but when he’s in the open field, he’s extremely dangerous because of his speed, his ability to make people miss and his power. He’s a strong runner once he’s underway and tough to bring down. He’s a big play waiting to happen.

“A weak point is that his initial quickness isn’t as good as it should be, meaning his quickness to the hole. A lot of that is inexperience and uncertainty at the position. As he sees it more, it will get better. He runs too tall inside. There were a couple games earlier in the year when he took some big shots right in the chest. He runs with his body exposed inside, and that can lead to injury and fumbles, especially at the NFL level.

“As the season wore on, his cutback ability and vision improved. It’s still not where it needs to be to make that instantaneous decision. The holes in college are pretty big; the holes in the NFL are about a foot wide, so you’ve got to be quick with your decision. You’ve got to be decisive, run low and have good body lean. Those are areas that need to improve, and I think they will as he gains experience. I love his upside. The arrow is pointing up.”

Draft projection: “In all honesty, I don’t know what round he goes. When you look at his production, it was outstanding the first half of the season and really dropped off the second half of the season. Running backs, as a whole, don’t get picked real high now.

“I’m going to say he’s probably a third-rounder. It wouldn’t shock me if he went in the second round and it wouldn’t shock me if he went in the fourth round. So I’ll say third round, more from upside than anything else. He’s on the (rise) and he’s got a lot of tools to work with to turn out to be a pretty good player at the next level.”

CB-KEIVARAE RUSSELL (5-11, 196)
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Trending upward following his sophomore season in 2013 when he finished with 60 tackles (48 unassisted), but was hurt by the suspension in 2014. Still managed to finish with 37 career starts, five interceptions, and 19 passes defensed. Left in limbo heading into the draft as he attempts to recover from a right tibia fracture suffered late in the Boston College game on Nov. 21.

Gabriel’s analysis: “The more I watch him, the more I think he’s a safety, and I’ll tell you why. He struggles in man coverage. When he gets beat, it’s usually deeper routes in man coverage. He may time fast, but he plays like he’s a 4.5 guy.

“The trend defenses are going to is you’re looking for a cover safety. You’re looking for safeties that can cover because your ‘tight ends’ aren’t really tight ends. They’re big wide receivers, and guys who can cover them are valuable. Plus, they’ve got to be tough enough to support the run, and I think that’s where he fits. You see how tough he is in run support. He’s a pretty good tackler. He can hit.

“Missing (2014) hurt him, hurt his development. But this guy might be a darn good safety, especially given the packages teams are starting to play now. You’re playing with five defensive backs probably 60, 70 percent of the time, and a lot of times six defensive backs. You need a guy that can play the role of part-safety, part-corner, part-linebacker, and because of his toughness, he might fit into that role.

“He made some good plays at corner this year for Notre Dame, but I don’t see him being better than a fourth corner, maybe a third. I don’t see a potential starter based on this year.”

Draft projection: “I don’t think he gets out of the third round, and how he works out at the combine will play a lot into that. He was telling people last spring he was running 4.3…He ain’t no 4.3. I’ve seen guys that run fast but don’t play fast. I don’t see it on the field. I think he’ll be a 4.5 guy and the third round is a good place, maybe fourth. Usually, it’s 12-to-15 corners going in the first three rounds. If he’s projected as a potential safety, that adds extra value.”

C/OG-NICK MARTIN (6-4 ½, 301)
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Stabilizing presence on the offensive line for the Irish in ’15 after battling a thumb injury that pushed him to guard in ’14. Started 37 games in a Notre Dame uniform. Two-time captain and finalist for inaugural Joe Moore Award. Named the team’s offensive lineman of the year. Received honorable mention All-America recognition from Sports Illustrated.

Gabriel’s analysis: “He’s got the capability to play two positions. He’s a down-the-road starter if he gets into the right situation. He can start out by backing up as a center and guard early on. He’s not as strong as his brother, but he’s a high-fiber guy, a quality character guy.

“The game is important to him. He’ll play in the league. Not bad technically. He’s a good college player. There are worse players in the league who are starting. He’s not an overpowering guy. He’s got to get stronger, but I didn’t see his brother as an overpowering guy and he got stronger. You get in the league and the training programs are different. It’s 24/7. It’s not 20 hours a week like it is in college.

“The Bears took that (Hroniss) Grasu kid in the third round. He was athletic but not strong enough. He started the last half of the season and he’s going to be a good player. He’s got to get stronger, and that’s the same thing with Martin. He’s good enough to start because he knows how to play, but he’s not powerful enough to really be a good player yet.”

Draft projection: “He’ll probably be a mid-round guy. I’m going to say fourth or fifth round. That’s where guys like him tend to go.”

DE/OLB-ROMEO OKWARA (6-3 ¾, 270)
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

A 26-game starter for the Irish after arriving at Notre Dame before his 17th birthday. Came on strong the second half of the 2015 season to finish with 48 tackles, 12 ½ tackles for loss and eight sacks – seven of which came in the last eight games. Completed career with 113 tackles, 19 ½ tackles for loss and 12 ½ sacks. Earned the team’s Father Lange Iron Cross award for his work in the weight room.

Gabriel’s analysis: “He came on really strong in the second half of the season. He’s a tweener, not quite big enough. He doesn’t play the run quite well enough at his present size, nor does he have the strength to be a for-sure 4-3 defensive end. He falls in the category of end/3-4 outside backer.

“The workouts will come into play. Can he drop into coverage? It’s not like you have to drop into coverage 25 times a game. Most of the time you’re being used as a pass rusher, and he got better as a pass rusher this year. He’s got to get stronger and a little bigger. He doesn’t hold up at the point of attack against the run as well as you’d like. But he became a bit of a force the second half of the season and he’s young. What is he, 20-years old? He’s still physically maturing, so there’s upside there. I’m not sure where he plays. My gut says he’s going to be a 3-4 outside backer.”

Draft projection: “He’ll get drafted. I’m going to say another mid-to-late-round guy.”

WR-CHRIS BROWN (6-1 ½, 195)
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Developed into a reliable No. 2 receiver behind Will Fuller in 2015, finishing with 48 receptions for 597 yards and four touchdowns, including a red-zone score against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. Started 31 games in a Notre Dame uniform. Finished with 104 career receptions for 1,410 yards and six scores. A tenacious downfield blocker. Named Notre Dame’s 2015 winner of the Nick Pietrosante Award for showing the “courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and pride” of the late Irish fullback.

Gabriel’s analysis: “A lot will depend upon how he runs and how he works out. Like anybody at that position, the stopwatch tells the story. If he runs real fast, he’s going to get drafted; if he runs 4.5, he’s probably not going to be drafted.

“He catches the ball better. He’s another guy that has to get stronger because he’s a string bean. But this was his best year catching the ball. He was inconsistent earlier in his career, but got better this year. He became more reliable. I think he can run a 4.48, and if he is in the 4.4s, he’ll get drafted.

“His blocking ability is a trait that the NFL is looking for because a lot of college receivers don’t have a clue how to block. Guys that are willing to go after people will get on the field. It shows a degree of toughness. If you’re going to come into the league as a backup receiver, you’ve got to be able to play special teams. Blocking tells you he has the toughness to be put on special teams.”

Draft projection: “Is he draftable at this point? I think so. Worse case scenario is he’s a free agent. Will he end up in a camp? Absolutely.”

OTHER PROSPECTS

• S-ELIJAH SHUMATE (6-0, 224) -- “Shumate I believe is a free agent because of his struggles in coverage. His awareness in coverage is just not very good. He’s a tough guy and a physical guy. Can he carry 240? Maybe he can become a linebacker. It wouldn’t be the first time that happened. But I think he’s a free agent because you can’t trust him enough in coverage to draft him.”

• WR-AMIR CARLISLE (5-10, 195) -- “Carlisle was supposed to be a fast guy and I don’t see any speed. Free agent.”

• S-MATTHIAS FARLEY (5-11, 210) -- “Farley is a free agent in camp. He’s not fast enough (to be drafted). Can he make a niche for himself on special teams? Maybe.”

• LB-JOE SCHMIDT (6-0 ½, 235) – “Before he hurt his ankle, I thought Schmidt had a chance to be a draftable guy. After he hurt the ankle, he lost some explosiveness, speed, quickness, missed a lot of tackles…He’s a free agent.”

LB-Jarrett Grace (6-4 ½, 253) – “Before his injury, he looked like he would become a solid 3-4 inside linebacker prospect. Has good instincts, can shed blocks and get to the ball. Stopping the run was his forte. Since the injury, he has rarely played and I’m not sure what he is. His pro day will show if he has a chance of getting into a camp.”


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