In the deepest NFL Draft in perhaps a decade, as many as seven former Notre Dame players hold realistic hopes of being selected come the second weekend of May.
Mike Mayock, who serves as an analyst for NBC’s Notre Dame coverage as well as for the NFL Network, discussed those players as well as dozens of others in a Tuesday conference call, one day before the start of the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.
Mayock projects a maximum of three former Irish and a minimum of one as first-round picks. That number is skewed by the player pool’s depth of top-end talent.
“I had one (general manager) tell me the other day that having a top-20 pick this year is very similar to having a top-10 pick last year,” Mayock said. “I think there are certain positions that are stacked this year with quality players for three or four rounds.”
Mayock included wide receivers as one of those positions, and as a result never discussed TJ Jones specifically. Irish head coach Brian Kelly has said he fully expects his former captain to be drafted, based on his conversations around the NFL. Mayock did discuss six of Kelly’s former charges.
Louis Nix, DT: Mayock expects Nix to be a first-round draft pick, though his injury-plagued senior season throws some doubt into the picture. With two games left in the 2013 season, Nix underwent knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus that bothered him for most of the year.
“He flashed (last season), but didn’t play at a high level all the time,” Mayock said. “He’s got to play at 330 (pounds), so the question is can he gain an edge and push the pocket? If you believe in that, he’s probably a top-20 pick. He’s a rare 330-pound nose tackle with some movement skills. If you don’t believe that, he’s probably not a top-20 pick for your team.”
Mayock cited New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork -- who, coincidentally, Nix has cited as a role model -- as what a team should expect from Nix if he is drafted in the first half of the first round. Wilfork played about 80 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps last season.
“If you put all the composites of Louis Nix together, when he’s healthy, when he’s in shape, when he plays with leverage and doesn’t stand up, when you put all that together, he’s a top-20 pick,” Mayock said. “There are teams out there that really like him and there are teams out there that don’t see it. The good thing for Louis is it only takes one.”
Zack Martin, OT: Whereas Nix must overcome injury concerns, Martin’s longevity on the Irish offensive line helps his cause. Mayock does not consider Martin one of the top three offensive tackles in the draft, but he is not far behind.
“In my top five, I’ve got him as a tackle because I think he can play tackle. The beauty of him is he can play all five positions in the NFL. Some teams look at him as a Pro-Bowl guard.”
The Arizona Cardinals hold the 20th pick in the draft, and very much need to upgrade their offensive line. Mayock expects Martin to go somewhere in the neighborhood of that 20th pick.
Stephon Tuitt, DL: Similarly to Nix, Tuitt’s injury-plagued 2013 may have affected his draft stock. Tuitt underwent hernia surgery before the season and had to play his way into shape during the season.
“He was a little bit heavy,” Mayock said. “He’s probably, at this point at 6-foot-6 and 330 pounds, grown into a five-technique, which is the defensive end in the 3-4. He doesn’t have as much value as a three-technique or a 3-4 outside backer.
“Without getting real technical, if Tuitt went somewhere between 25 and 50, it wouldn’t surprise me.”
Troy Niklas, TE: When Niklas received a draft evaluation pegging him between the second and fourth rounds, many expected the junior to return for his final season of eligibility. At this point, however, Mayock expects Niklas to go no lower than the second round, although that could change depending on how Niklas does in this weekend’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis.
“You’re looking at one year of production as far as catching the football,” Mayock said. “If he commits to becoming a first-tier in-line blocker, he could be the best blocking tight end in the NFL in two or three years. If I were him, if I were his father, if I were his coach, I would try to impress upon him that he should try to become the best blocker he can. He’d make a lot of money for a lot of years.”
In addition to Niklas’s blocking potential, Mayock praised the tight end’s ability to catch the ball, citing it as widely underrated. In the end, however, Niklas’s draft position may hinge on one measurable trait.
“How fast is he, really?” Mayock wondered.
Chris Watt, OL: After a productive Notre Dame career at left guard, lining up alongside Zack Martin for the majority of his career, Watt may face a position switch in the NFL. Mayock would not advise it, but he would understand it.
“I think Watt is a better football player than people have given him credit for in the past,” Mayock said. “I think he’s a starting guard or center in the league. He’s smart enough, quick enough, tough enough and has the size for center. I gave him a third-round grade as a guard. I think he’s a starting left guard in the NFL.”
Bennett Jackson, CB: After a rough senior year, Jackson’s draft stock resides around the fifth round, according to Mayock. Though a former sprint hurdler for Notre Dame, Mayock cited Jackson’s lack of elite speed as part of his late-round grade.
“I see Bennett Jackson as a corner with some length. He’s got to get stronger. He’s got some pretty good movement skills, but he’s not an elite speed guy, so he needs his length to compete on the outside.”
George Atkinson, RB: Atkinson surprised many when he declared for the draft, but it is his size and speed that may make the decision worthwhile. Mayock praised Atkinson’s speed.
“He might be one of the best two or three kickoff return guys in the country,” Mayock said. “A 215-pound guy with world-class speed, so he’s draftable solely as a kickoff return guy.
“If he embraces special teams, not just kickoff returns, but if he’s a four-team special teams player, he can probably go in the fifth round or so and then try to earn his way as a tailback.”
The NFL Combine begins Saturday and continues through Tuesday with all coverage airing on the NFL Network. The NFL Draft begins May 8 and concludes May 10.