Alabama certainly ranks at the top of the college football heap, both in terms of on-field accomplishment and at churning out NFL talent. The national champs will send a cadre of players to the NFL in 2016, keeping up the strong tradition Nick Saban and his staff have resurrected in Tuscaloosa.

Playing for Alabama is a double-edged sword for prospects. I live in the heart of Big Ten country and yet I get a chance to watch the Crimson Tide almost every week. The same was true when I lived in Houston, which had just become SEC turf during my time there. As a result, the players are often subject to more intense scrutiny and overexposure. Expectations are also quite high, as Saban has NFL experience and prepares his players as if they are already professionals.

Jarran Reed--most fans and casual draft followers are probably stunned that Reed will almost certainly be the first Alabama player selected in the 2016 NFL Draft. He doesn’t play a glamour position like running back or outside linebacker, and he didn’t get near the preseason media hype of fellow defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson (more on him below). Heck, he only registered one sack and 4.5 tackles for loss in his second season as a starter. However, Reed has a lot of very impressive tools and the kind of game the NFL is looking for in an attacking interior lineman.

There is a football axiom that “disruption equals production”. While I often rail against this, many NFL coaches are firm believers in it. While Reed didn’t get much production, he certainly causes a great deal of disruption to opposing offenses with his ability to collapse the interior of the offensive line. He’s ideally built to play anywhere between the 0 and 4i techniques at 6’3” and a very powerful 307 pounds. Lots of guys have similar initial power, but Reed’s ability to sustain the blast beyond the initial combat is downright stunning. He discards blockers regularly and can stream along the line without incident.

The Goldsboro, NC native has good eyes for the ball too. Even though he doesn’t stuff the stat sheet, he definitely knows how to finish when the play is in his vicinity:

There are many plays where Reed forces the run to a different point of attack than desired with his ability to quickly and effectively play the two-gap scheme. He’s an absolute eraser against the run; Alabama coaches charted him with zero missed tackles.

He’s never going to be a sack artist, but few teams ask their nose tackles to get sacks. He’s a little lighter than most typical 0-techniques, and that’s why I see Reed better suited to play in a 4-3 over front. That doesn’t mean he can’t play in an odd front, but I believe Reed’s strength, both figuratively and literally, work in the way Oakland uses Dan Williams or how fellow Tide alum Marcel Dareus played under Jim Schwartz in Buffalo. There are more dynamic interior forces in this draft, guys like Andrew Billings and Vernon Butler, but they don’t offer the down-to-down reliability and consistent winning of the interior battles that Reed brings.

I rate Reed in the middle of the first round, and it seems the NFL does as well. If you can get anyone to lay odds that he’s picked in the teens, take it.

Draft projection: 13-19 overall 

Reggie Ragland--okay, I hate to be this guy, but…I already wrote a pretty detailed breakdown on Ragland and how his power-packed, throwback-style game translates to the modern NFL. It also takes you on a trip back to the very early 1990s and the changing musical tastes of the time, a change which left me on the wrong side for a time. Please check it out over at Draft Breakdown. Even if you disagree with my bullish take on the inside linebacker, you should enjoy the piece. He’s a first-round talent in my eyes and I’d be very happy for my beloved Detroit Lions to land him with the 16th overall pick.

Draft projection: late first/early second round

Derrick Henry--the Heisman Trophy winner is one of the more polarizing prospects in this draft, in part because he’s quite the unique prospect. There just aren’t many 6’3”, 247-pound running backs to compare him to or judge him on…and that leads to some very tough questions.

Henry thrives in the open field, where his massive size, thick legs and outstanding forward lean make him almost impossible for just one defender to stop. He is not afraid to drop the shoulder, but what helps make Henry special--at least in college--is his quick feet for such a big guy. Henry has surprisingly nimble movement in space, and he can quick-step around defenders who lower their heads in approaching him. His open field speed is excellent, capable of hitting a chase gear that few can catch. At his size and power, they might not do much other than become roadkill even if they do catch up.

Alas, there are drawbacks. You would expect Henry to be great in short yardage situations with his size and power. You would be wrong. He is not a decisive runner and his acceleration is only average for the position. That leads to an inordinate amount of negative plays, and it really shows when the defense is clustered in preparation to stop him. Henry also doesn’t protect himself from the big hit, somewhat a function of such a large target area. He was much more effective on stretch runs and getting the ball on the move towards the outside. That does translate to the NFL but I wonder if his pro offense will deploy him that way. I can see the NFL coaches getting his size and trying to use him as a battering ram between the tackles a la Eddie George, which is one of the more common player comparisons for Henry. And that will not go well.

There are some other warts. He’s not a good receiver (16 catches on 36 targets last two years) and doesn’t look comfortable being asked to do more than just throw a shoulder in pass protection. His 395 carries in Alabama’s 15 games last fall are a double-edged sword; it does show tremendous durability but it also means he’s taken a lot of hits. All but 53 of those carries came against the SEC, B1G or Clemson’s NFL-laden front. That will be a bigger issue for some, but for me it’s more of a flag in search of a pole.

Unique talents are always difficult to prognosticate. There is a lot of ability and a high ceiling with Henry, but it is atypical talent. He’s significantly faster than the similarly sized Brandon Jacobs or most taller/heavier RBs. Give him an offensive line that can seal open holes and wide receivers who block well and I can see Henry leading the league in rushing and hitting double digits in TDs, perhaps as early as 2017. But for a team that doesn’t block well, relies heavily on the main back to be a staple in the passing game, and/or tries to use him like Jerome Bettis, I don’t see it working out very well for Henry. Still, his floor is Legarrette Blount and that’s a late second-early third round pick for me. I expect he winds up in that range, too.

Draft projection: 50-75 overall 

Ryan Kelly--arguably the top center in what looks like a pretty middle-heavy class, Kelly departs Alabama after starting for three seasons on one of the most efficient collegiate offenses. As the man in the middle, Kelly was the progenitor of the success up front. It’s easy to see his intense combination of toughness and intelligence.

His predecessor, Barrett Jones, was a better and more versatile collegian. Yet I see Kelly as the superior NFL prospect because of his length and more natural movement beyond the first step. Normally bigger and taller centers (he’s 6’4” and 311, both on the high side) get pegged as power guys, if they’re not moved to guard. Yet Kelly moves extremely well both right off the snap and in peels and combos. He consistently follows his punch with squared hips and balanced feet, which allows him to stay engaged even if the defender gets leverage or tries to overpower him.

Centers need to be leaders, and Kelly proved beyond any doubt he is the general up front. Bama’s line turned over quite a bit of talent during his stead and they never lost a beat. It was rare to see Kelly out of position or failing to pick up a twist or a stunt or a delayed blitz. Even though he played with a pugnacious edge, he kept his linemates calm in the huddle and at the line in those seemingly interminable 20-second sets. If he can add some more base strength--his high anchor is his biggest weakness to me--Kelly can be a very good starting center for a long time. He doesn’t have the athleticism of an Alex Mack or the blunt power of a Travis Frederick, but is reasonably close enough to both that he merits a second-round pick and should start quickly in the NFL.

Draft projection: 2nd round, perhaps late first

A’Shawn Robinson--it’s become fashionable to bag on the big defensive tackle for not being the elite NFL prospect many (guilty myself) projected back in the preseason. Robinson just didn’t make the amount of anticipated plays in the backfield (3.5 sacks, 7.5 TFLs) in 2015.

That doesn’t mean the 6’4”, 307-pound interior presence can’t be a very good player at the next level. So much of what Robinson does well should make him quite effective in the NFL too. He plays with excellent power in his hands, arms and through his lower body. Robinson punches like Clubber Lang and wins the wrestling battle for gap position like Alexander Karelin. He’s tenacious from the snap to the whistle. Most important, Robinson understood his role of eliminating a blocker or two and letting everyone else around him make plays.

Being a facilitator like that isn’t sexy, but it’s an imperative role. Michael Brockers does this for the Rams and Aaron Donald quite well. For a 3-4 fronted team, he can handle the nose tackle spot and keep his ILBs clean behind him, much the way Damon Harrison did so well for the Jets. For an example of how Robinson makes things happen for others, check out this handiwork against Michigan State.

No. 86 at right defensive tackle doesn’t make the tackle, nor does he even touch the ball carrier. Yet this play would not be a tackle for loss without him devastating two blockers and forcing the run away from the design. Robinson does this quite well, and frequently.

Here’s the rub: the NFL doesn’t pay this type of player very well, and fans don’t typically appreciate just how valuable they are either. Alabama fans are apt to be disappointed when Robinson isn’t drafted in the top 40, or when he records 2 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss in about 450 snaps as a rookie. Yet he’s almost certainly going to make the defense better, and he’s a great citizen and leader in the locker room as well. In a very deep and talented defensive tackle class, Robinson doesn’t offer the high ceiling and highlight reel potential of several others. He also is an extremely safe pick who does a lot of important things very well already. And that’s perfectly fine in the second half of the second round. I have little doubt Robinson will have a longer, better career than many taken before him, though without the sizzle.

Draft projection: 25-50 overall 

Cyrus Jones--Jones’ calling card is quickness, both at cornerback and with the ball in his hands as a return man. His feet are quick, his hands are quick. He often makes quick decisions on the fly, for better and for worse.

He primarily played outside for the Tide but at 5’10” and a playing weight in the mid-190s most NFL teams will want him inside. That’s a good fit for Jones and his twitchy agility. He can be quite sticky in man coverage, able to react but also steer and press a little with a pesky physicality. That physicality also shows in run support, where he has proven a very willing and able finisher. Jones also makes plays on the ball, including this strip against Ole Miss:

One of the puzzling issues with Jones is that he often gets completely locked in on his receiver and loses track of the rest of the field. When he’s alert, he’s very good at playing the ball, but he often seems like he’s zeroed in on just playing his own man. It also leaves him vulnerable in zone coverage, where he can be late to identify his assignment. It also makes him late to recognize the run at times, notably against Ohio State in the 2015 title game.

His return skills are excellent insurance. Jones took four punts to the house and is electrifying with the ball in his hands. That’s real value for a capable slot corner who has experience playing against NFL competition in high-pressure environments. His coverage game reminds me some of Quandre Diggs coming out of Texas, and Diggs played quite well in the slot as a sixth-round rookie in Detroit. Add in Jones’ return skills and bump up that draft slot at least two rounds (I had Diggs as my No. 100 overall player last year). Jones deserves a third-round pick, preferably to a team that plays more man than zone.

Draft projection: 4th/5th round because of his size 

Kenyan Drake--it’s hard to be the backup to the Heisman Trophy winner who gets almost 400 carries, but Kenyan Drake filled that role pretty well for the Tide offense. He flashed enough straight-line speed, instant acceleration and receiving ability in his 77 carries and 29 receptions to earn a Senior Bowl and Combine invite while playing the “lightning” role to Henry’s thunder.

Hopefully Drake got accustomed to that role, because in the NFL he will be a third-down back type, or even as a hybrid RB/slot receiver in the Theo Riddick mold. His vision and ability to string together more than one move on any play are real issues. The agility is impressive but because he doesn’t see the field well it limits the effectiveness to his wiggle. He got chastised during Senior Bowl practice for this.

Drake does bring lots of value on special teams, and not just as a returner who averaged over 25 yards per return on kickoffs. He was active and aggressive on coverage units and has some knack for blocking punts too. Reserve RBs must contribute on special teams, and Drake has the potential to thrive there. The downside is he’s had some durability issues, with a broken leg one year and broken arm (which he largely played thru) the next.

I like Drake for that kind of specific role, a 6’1” speed back with explosive speed who gets half his touches on screens and wheel routes and plays all four special teams units. If he can stay on the field, he could do very well in that capacity. That’s worth a fourth-round pick to me, probably a little richer than what the NFL values him.

Draft projection: late 4th-5th round 

D.J. Pettway--a limited-time role player on the Tide’s overwhelming defensive front, Pettway doesn’t get the attention his game merits. His functional power, burst and high-motor style of play are all impressive.

There is some ugliness. Pettway was dismissed from Alabama after a flashy freshman year after he admitted to being involved in an armed robbery of a fellow student. He went the JUCO route and got his act together enough that Saban allowed him to return to the Tide. It was a controversial issue, to say the least. Yet after he returned, Pettway toed the line and kept grinding away even though he was only playing about 30% of the snaps.

The 6’2”, 265-pound edge rusher did what he was supposed to: making plays. He bagged two sacks, five TFLs and 5 QB hits in his limited role as the energy rusher. He also made an impact on special teams:


In the NFL, he’s likely to play much the same role as a reserve outside rusher who also is a big part of the special teams units. His lack of length probably relegates him to being a 3-4 OLB, though he won’t meet the athletic metrics for some teams there. Pettway plays strong and with outstanding leverage, so perhaps he fits as a base end.

I like the fact Pettway has already shown he can thrive in that reserve role, because not every collegian can handle not being The Man. He’s never been The Man. Hard to overlook the off-field incident, but it does appear to be a one-time mistake. I’d take him in the fifth round.

Draft projection: 6th-7th round

Dominick Jackson--a smart, positionally aware tackle who projects to guard in the NFL because he doesn’t have the feet, initial quickness or ability to sustain his movement on the edge. Jackson is the rare Alabama player who is underhyped by the national media and, even more, the SEC media. He didn’t play much before his senior year, so perhaps that explains it.

A JUCO transfer, Jackson is a bulky 6’5” and 320 pounds with a low center of gravity and a Sir Mix-a-Lot approved backside. He played guard before Alabama kicked him to tackle, and his run blocking power portends a smooth transition back inside. Jackson is best when he can be aggressive, as he doesn’t shift his weight quickly in reactions and that can get him off-balance. I like his overall bend but he does tend to rise up when he’s not initially engaged. His game reminds me some of Chris Chester, though he was a college center. A rare Alabama sleeper, I’d take him in the 6th round and see what I’ve got in a year or two. Potential to be better than many who will be taken before him.

Draft projection: 7th round/UDFA 

Jake Coker--if you would have told me back in November I’d have to write something on Jake Coker as a potential NFL quarterback, I’d have spit whatever was in my mouth right back in your face. His sole job for the Tide was to keep the offensive trains running on time, and he was barely competent at that in games against Middle Tennessee and Ole Miss. His inexperience showed, as the Florida State transfer and first-year starter struggled to see the field and often created pressure when there was none.

Then came the stretch run, which started against rival Auburn and then burned hot through Florida, Michigan State and Clemson. Coker suddenly found his playmaking panache. His timing was near impeccable, his pocket presence and confidence both off the charts. This was a guy who conducted the Tide trains better than A.J. McCarron ever did, and didn’t have as many talented cars to throw to either.

Coker earned a berth to the Senior Bowl in his hometown of Mobile. Many griped about favoritism, but the 6’5”, 244-pound dual threat acquitted himself pretty well on the practice fields. He still struggled some with ball placement on deeper throws and forcing the ball into tight windows in red zone drills. There is a lot to work with for a patient team that doesn’t need Coker to play…ever. He’s a late-round lottery ticket luxury pick that could cash in if the progress he showed in college starts 10-15 continues. Combine snub who is worth a 7th-round pick for New England, Indy or Seattle.

Draft projection: UDFA

Denzel Devall--even though he only played part-time until his senior year and never really lived up to his recruiting hype, Devall still has a shot at an NFL future. He emerged as a solid all-around talent, capable of being a pass rusher, covering tight ends or screens, or being active in attacking edge runs.

Devall isn’t the most athletic guy, and that will keep him from being drafted. Running 5.14 in the 40 at Bama’s pro day ensures that. There just isn’t twitch to his muscle, and at 6’2” and 252 he’s not big or strong enough (11 bench press reps) to play with a hand in the dirt in the NFL. If he can find one niche role or stand out on special teams, Devall can at least stick on a practice squad. Still, the poor athletic testing wasn’t a fluke based on watching him over the years.

Draft projection: UDFA

Geno Matias-Smith--the 6’, 196-pound strong safety offers lots of speed and not much else. Even the homerrific Alabama radio broadcast team wasn’t shy about criticizing his positioning or field awareness. His athletic metrics will get him a foot in the door, but he’ll need to show a lot more football IQ and instinctiveness to keep that NFL door open. A prior DUI won’t help. Matias-Smith is a case of a player who gets an opportunity because he comes from Alabama; if he went to a Sun Belt school or even Vanderbilt he wouldn’t get a second look from NFL scouts.

Draft projection: UDFA

Richard Mullaney--the well-built (6’2”, 204 pounds) transfer from Oregon State only caught 38 passes in his one year in Tuscaloosa, but that was enough to draw some scouting attention. He lacks sudden speed and plays at one speed, but he does have solid footwork on his routes and makes for a big target in working primarily out of the slot. Mullaney innately finds the soft spots in coverage and makes his catches count, scoring 5 TDs and converting several third downs. He clearly fit in quickly, as his teammates nicknamed him “Slottie Pippen”. Mullaney also contributed on special teams and proved a capable blocker. Those are his tickets to earning a roster spot in the NFL. The guy I saw against Ole Miss will make it, but the Mullaney who got pushed off line and didn’t look confident against LSU will not.

Draft projection: UDFA

Tight end Michael Nyswander caught exactly one pass, so it’s hard to judge him as a prospect. LB Dillon Lee is athletic enough to merit a chance, though in watching almost every Tide game over the last two years I never thought he looked like a future NFL player. If you combined him and Devall, you’d have a solid prospect.