January 19, 2012

Kiper weighs in on Huskers' NFL prospects

While the 2012 NFL Draft is still more than three months away, college prospects across the country are already preparing themselves for their one big chance at taking their games to the next level.

For the past two years, Nebraska has had a player selected in the first round of the draft in defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and cornerback Prince Amukamara, with a slew of others hearing their names called in the later rounds.

With at least three top prospects entering their names into the draft pool this year, the Huskers look to have yet another crop of future NFL talent in it's senior class.

On Thursday, HuskerOnline.com spoke with ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. and asked him his thoughts on Nebraska's draft class, particularly cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, defensive tackle Jared Crick and linebacker Lavonte David.

Kiper said Dennard, who he has rated as his No. 3 senior cornerback, would likely be the first Husker selected.

In his recent first mock draft of 2012, Kiper projected Dennard would be taken by the Cincinnati Bengals as the 17th overall pick. Even if the Bengals decide to pass on him at 17, they select again with the 21st overall pick. With the amount of need for a cornerback from teams picking late in the first round, Kiper said in his mind there was no way Dennard slipped past the Day 1.

"Obviously Cincinnati is looking for a corner," Kiper said. "Several teams in the first round are. We talked about the Detroit Lions at 23, who I'm sure would be very attracted with (Lions head coach) Jim Schwartz. They're desperate for a corner, and Dennard would fit the kind of physical prototype that they want in terms of toughness and the fact that he's a seasoned veteran.

"Obviously (Schwartz) did well with Suh, and he could go back to the Husker program with Alfonzo Dennard, if he were still on the board at that particular point."

One of the knocks on Dennard's projection at the NFL level is his size, as he stands just 5 feet, 9 inches. Kiper said the Rochelle, Ga., native's stature would not be an issue at the next level, as he said Dennard has enough athletic ability to make up for what he lacks in height.

"Great leaper," Kiper said of Dennard. "I think when you can elevate, at 5-9, you can play a lot taller because you're such an explosive athlete. That's the thing. Does he lack size? Yeah, sure he does, but he's incredibly athletic, a tremendous ability to get off the ground, good ball skills, a tough kid, hard-nosed kid. I would think anywhere between (picks) 17 and 32 is where he'll come off the board."

The next Husker Kiper sees being drafted is Crick. Despite the torn pectoral injury that ended his senior season five games into the year, Kiper said he stills views Crick as a second-round talent because of the versatility he brings on the defensive line.

Similar to former Husker defensive tackle Adam Carriker, now a defensive end for the Washington Redskins, Kiper said Crick would best fit as a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme because of his combination of size, strength and athleticism.

"It's a shame with the injury," Kiper said. "Had he not been hurt this year with the injury he had - which you talk about coming back from that, you know, that's not going to be a problem - but a torn pectoral muscle limits the amount of games you play in and the type of year you need to be a first-round pick. It's a shame when something like that happens.

"I remember him when he was next to Ndamukong Suh, how great he played. He fell back just a bit when Suh moved on, but I project him as a 3-4 defensive end. I think that might be where he's best suited to maximize his ability. I think he could end up a second-round pick because of the fact that he had the injury, and like I said, I think a 3-4 team is where he would fit in the best in my opinion."

Lastly, Kiper talked about David, who he said was one of the most intriguing defensive prospects in the entire draft.

Earlier this month, Kiper released his top-five senior draft prospects at each position, and he ranked David as the No. 3 outside linebacker. In his analysis of the position, he had this to say about the 6-foot-1, 225-pound David:

"It's going to be really fascinating to see what some NFL team does with David. This is a guy who is going to come in undersized by NFL standards for linebackers, but he just makes a ton of plays. A defensive coordinator with some creativity is going to get a helluva player."

Kiper echoed those sentiments on Thursday, saying David's natural instincts and athleticism would make him a very appealing choice for a team with the right defensive scheme. Depending on which team decides to pull the trigger on David, Kiper said he could go as early as the third round.

"I've always been a fan of David," Kiper said. "His size in trying to figuring out where he's going to fit into a defensive structure is going to be important. You look at what Jonathan Vilma did at Miami and coming into the NFL undersized. Look at the great career he's had. Just instinctively, this kid's off the charts. Just a tackling machine. He's always in the middle of the action. I like David, and I think different teams will like him and different systems will fit him better than others."

When Dennard, Crick and David are off the board, Kiper wasn't too sure if any other Huskers would have their names called by the time the seven-round, 254-pick draft completed.

"I think if you looked at the early round, the guys I talked about are the only ones who would fit into that particular role," Kiper said. "If you look later, again, you're getting into a lot of mixed opinions on some of these players at that particular point in the draft, but if you had to say right now who would be a late-round pick, I mean, (safety Austin Cassidy) possibly late, but probably more of an un-drafted free agent. The center (Mike Caputo) un-drafted. I don't see anybody else right now that you say would be guaranteed to be drafted."

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