Draft results highlight Alabama’s plight
Analysis: 2009 Draft class offers brighter outlook for Tide players
By Jess Nicholas
April 28, 2008
Prior to the start of the 2008 NFL Draft, the question among many Alabama fans was whether Alabama’s first selected player would have his name called on the first day or not. With the draft’s third round now taking place on Sunday rather than Saturday, the debate was whether D.J. Hall or Wallace Gilberry would rise into the second round or not.
Talk about your overblown expectations.
For the first time in decades, Alabama saw not a single of its players drafted. It wasn’t as if Alabama didn’t have draft prospects; five Crimson Tide players – wide receivers Hall, Keith Brown and Matt Caddell, defensive end Gilberry and cornerback/safety Simeon Castille – were thought to have a great shot at hearing their name called on draft day.
But there were concerns with each. Three players – Castille, Hall and Brown – had each been suspended in their college careers. A few years ago, such indiscretions would not have mattered. But in more recent years, teams wary of future embarrassments have begun marking off players for the most minor offenses.
Of the other two, Caddell had been a non-factor at Alabama until his senior year, where he first emerged as a valuable possession receiver and special teams player, and then followed that up with an eye-popping performance at Alabama’s Pro Day.
But it was Gilberry who would undoubtedly be drafted, most Tide fans probably thought, and drafted very highly. However, as the St. Louis Rams closed out the draft by picking Idaho’s David Vobora with pick No. 252, Gilberry’s name had not been called.
After the draft, it did not take long for Gilberry to find a home. Word came down just prior to this column’s publication that Gilberry would sign a free agent contract with the New York Giants. Word also arrived that Castille would head to Cincinnati along with offensive lineman Justin Britt, whose final season in Tuscaloosa was curtailed at the end by injury. Caddell had signed with St. Louis. There was no immediate word on Hall or Brown.
The dearth of draft picks in Alabama should highlight just what Nick Saban and staff were up against when they arrived in Tuscaloosa prior to the 2007 season. Mike Shula’s recruiting at Alabama, which looked good at the time, was clearly overrated and badly imbalanced. That second point was further driven home when Alabama spent its spring trying to craft a linebacker corps out of one pure linebacker, two converted defensive ends, a former safety and a former running back. In retrospect, 2007’s 7-6 record (which could have easily been 9-4 had Alabama not literally given away winnable games against Mississippi State and Louisiana-Monroe) doesn’t look so bad.
But what of the 2008 Alabama Crimson Tide? Does Alabama have more to offer NFL teams for their 2009 Draft? Here’s a quick overview of Alabama’s seniors and other potential draftees for the 2008-2009 season:
OFFENSE: John Parker Wilson, QB; Nick Walker, TE; Travis McCall, TE; Antoine Caldwell, C/OG; Marlon Davis, OG; Andre Smith*, OG/OT; Nikita Stover, WR; Will Oakley, WR; Charles Hoke, TE/OT; Mike McCoy*, WR (*=underclassman)
John Parker Wilson
Analysis: John Parker Wilson will leave Alabama likely holding every significant school passing record. But that’s mostly a product of Wilson staying healthy enough to start three years after serving as Brodie Croyle’s backup as a freshman. Wilson is bigger than Croyle was, but not significantly so. As for arm strength, there’s no question – Croyle has a NFL arm; Wilson does not. Wilson’s best attributes are throwing a catchable ball, throwing on the run and operating the two-minute drill and no-huddle aspects of Alabama’s passing attack. He solidified his hold on the job in spring training, which was not guaranteed heading in. He still needs to quit staring down receivers but he did show marked improvement under new quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator Jim McElwain from the first of spring to the last, which gives Alabama hope heading into the fall.
Draft projection: Not drafted. Staring down receivers is not an unpardonable sin (Michigan’s Chad Henne stared his way to a second-round draft selection Saturday), but the relative lack of arm strength is.
Analysis: Walker is Alabama’s “receiving” tight end (McCall is the “blocking” tight end), and on the hoof, he looks the part of a next-level player. But Walker has yet to have that one dominating season fans have expected of him since he reported to Tuscaloosa. Over that time, though, it is very possible no one has seen the “real” Nick Walker. Walker bulked up to play in Mike Shula’s offense, but Nick Saban asked him to slim down. He’s finally at a good weight and has improved his blocking, but in a development that has happened just in the last few games of the 2007 season and which has carried over into spring 2008, Walker has had issues holding onto the ball after contact. If he can fix that, he’ll likely get the chance to catch 40-50 passes in Alabama’s retooled offense. If he can’t, he might not even hold onto his job.
Draft projection: Perhaps no player is as hard to project as Walker, due to Alabama’s high-competition tight end depth chart and his recent issues with ball security. Walker could start every game or he could find himself losing playing time to promising freshman Chris Underwood. His measurables are strong and he should Combine well, whatever happens. Look for him in the late rounds or in free agency, but if he comes of age in McElwain’s tight end-friendly system this fall, he could go shooting up the draft charts.
Analysis: There are few players who work harder than McCall, who lacks the ideal size for a tight end but is heavily counted on when the chips are down. McCall is not a terrible receiver – his hands are acceptable – but he is not the route-runner that Walker is and he lacks plus-speed. For him to get the attention of NFL teams, he’ll have to continue to do it with his blocking. His ability to also play fullback is a plus in his favor.
Draft projection: Not drafted. In all likelihood, he simply won’t have the stats. Also, Alabama will probably be trying to get Preston Dial and Chris Underwood more involved in games, which means fewer snaps. But some teams might consider taking a chance on him late in the second day, due to his positional flexibility, toughness and ability to play on special teams.
Analysis: The best thing for Caldwell’s career is for everyone else on the line to remain effective and healthy. Caldwell was having a banner season in 2007 until two things happened: He became embroiled in “Textbookgate” and he started moving from position to position to cover other holes in the line. If Alabama can leave Caldwell in one spot, he’ll probably get comfortable enough to have an all-star year. His best position is either center or left guard, and that kind of versatility will pay major dividends – literally – at the next level. Basically, what happens with Caldwell will be determined by the play of Michael Johnson and Drew Davis more so than his own.
Draft projection: Guards and centers don’t generate the buzz that tackles do, and on top of that, Caldwell isn’t a bulky beast. But he still should be good enough to get into the second round at worst, so long as he has a good season. If he can play a complete 2008 the way he played the first few games of 2007, he’ll easily be a millionaire next April.
Analysis: Davis is a road grader of a run blocker, and some say Alabama’s best overall physical specimen on the offensive line, with the most upside. Before Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa, Davis’ career was spotty, including some degree of mild off-field trouble. But in 2007, he was on his way to becoming one of Alabama’s best players until he, like Caldwell, got involved in the textbook affair. Davis returned to the team late in the year and solidified his hold on right guard in the spring, but he needs to be on alert: This is his last go-round, and if he wants to make an impression on the league, now’s the time to do it.
Draft projection: There will be questions about Davis’ pass protection abilities, which is why 2008 is crucial. Going off potential and how Davis should perform in the Combine, the possibility exists that he’ll be picked in the middle rounds. Working for him is that he has the ability to rise higher than that. Working against him is the fact that this year’s draft went heavy on linemen.
Analysis: There’s little question that Smith is Alabama’s best NFL prospect at the moment on either side of the ball. Smith will be only a junior in 2008, but the economics of the NFL are about to change relative to rookie salaries. If Smith were to return for his senior season in 2009, there’s a good chance he (or any other rookie) wouldn’t get as big of a draft payday as he would if he came out following the 2008 season. For that reason, expect a ton of underclassmen to declare for the 2009 Draft that might not be ready. But Smith is ready – for guard, at least. His ability to play tackle will be a plus for him when draft time comes, but Smith doesn’t look like the prototypical NFL tackle. If he did, there’s a chance he could go very high in the first round. He’s the most talented lineman Alabama has had since Chris Samuels. For Alabama fans, it’s a shame Smith is no better than a 50/50 shot to play four years in Tuscaloosa.
Draft projection: With a strong season, Smith has a great shot at the first round, even as a guard. If he works hard in the summer, gets his conditioning in better order, maintains it until next year’s draft and has good performances in the Combine and in all-star games, he could go in the top 10 picks.
Analysis: Wide receivers who wait until their senior seasons to break out aren’t uncommon. Alabama’s own Matt Caddell was on the verge of finishing up a disappointing college career until he exploded on the scene as a senior, his top highlight being a game-winning touchdown catch against Arkansas. He followed up his season with a strong performance at Alabama’s Pro Day, and was rewarded with a contract from the St. Louis Rams as a free agent. Nikita Stover would like to copy Caddell’s feat, and would especially like to have the season that Devin Thomas had for Michigan State – Thomas entered 2007 having barely played, but worked his way to a second-round pick with the Washington Redskins. Stover already has more career receptions heading into 2008 than Thomas had going into 2007. Stover is fast, blocks well and runs good routes, but needs to cut down on the drops. He also must claim a starting job in the fall after missing much of the spring and perhaps watching Darius Hanks and Earl Alexander pass him by. He has his work cut out for him.
Draft projection: Without some kind of breakout year, Stover will likely go undrafted. But if he does have a strong senior season, his measurables and makeup would make him an attractive pick. So much is unknown at this point because of the injury, however, that everyone will just have to wait and see.
Analysis: Oakley ran with the starters at A-Day as a slot receiver, but figures to slide back in the depth chart somewhat once Alabama’s heralded class of freshmen arrive on campus. Injuries have curtailed Oakley’s career at Alabama immensely.
Draft projection: Not drafted. Although Oakley has good size and runs well, lack of measurable production thus far in his career hurts him. He needs a miraculous summer and fall.
Analysis: Hoke arrived at Alabama with all the potential in the world: He’s 6’7”, big and could catch. But injuries and a loaded depth chart have conspired against him, and he was moved to offensive tackle in the spring in a numbers crunch. He finished the spring as a reserve.
Draft projection: Not drafted. Hoke would have to add around 50 pounds to be an effective tackle given his height, and unless he redshirts in 2008, that won’t happen.
Analysis: Yes, McCoy will be just a junior, and his first year as a starter didn’t produce much excitement. But McCoy made a statement in spring practice and capped it off with a nice A-Day performance in which he showed signs of being able to be the physical downfield threat that Keith Brown was for Alabama on and off in his career. McCoy will face challenges from Stover and the incoming freshmen for his job, but if he hangs onto it and establishes himself as John Parker Wilson’s go-to receiver – and considering Wilson’s affinity for picking a favorite receiver during games – it’s possible he could have the kind of year that would help him get noticed. Another concern for McCoy is that Alabama will have a new quarterback in 2009, his senior season. If he catches 800 yards or more worth of passes, watch out.
Draft projection: McCoy is virtually still a complete unknown in regards to being a starter in the SEC, so it’s impossible to project him – especially considering any projection would depend on him having a breakout year. Assuming everything falls into place for him, McCoy has the size and speed NFL teams like, so his ceiling is almost unlimited.
DEFENSE: Bobby Greenwood, DE; Ezekial Knight, LB; Jimmy Johns, LB; Rashad Johnson, S; Lionel Mitchell, CB; Lorenzo Washington*, DT; Brandon Deaderick*, DE; Javier Arenas*, CB/KR (*=underclassman)
Analysis: Greenwood can succeed only in a very narrow set of circumstances. He is a weakside defensive end in a 4-3 set, meaning he’s out of position at Alabama and may not start this fall. Greenwood gave it a go at Alabama’s tackle/end combo position last year, but his slight frame made him a poor choice to work inside and he was injured as a result. Greenwood brings great intangibles to the table, however; he is a tireless worker and does whatever his coaches ask. He is also fairly tall and has good pass-rushing ability when he’s working against outside personnel and not the guards and centers he saw for much of last year. Greenwood had a decent spring, but will fight for his job into the spring with Luther Davis and perhaps a true freshman or two.
Draft projection: Not drafted. Greenwood would need to perform well at the Combine or in an all-star game most likely, as Alabama’s defensive scheme will continue to curb his potential.
Analysis: If Knight were healthy, he would likely be Alabama’s second-best pro prospect. But a congenital heart condition has caused Knight’s playing status to be thrown up in the air, and it’s not even a given that he’ll be able to play again at any level. If healthy, Knight is a rare combination of size, speed, coverage ability and pass-rushing ability. He was a breakout player in 2007 after moving from defensive end to linebacker, and his presence on Alabama’s defense in the fall would certainly be appreciated. But right now, that looks doubtful.
Draft projection: If health factors weren’t a consideration, Knight would probably be looking at a second- or third-round selection because of his measurables. But even if he’s able to play, cardiac issues get everyone’s attention and teams might consider him too much of a risk.
Analysis: Depending on which fan you ask, Johns is either very rough around the edges or the next great Alabama linebacker. His devil-may-care attitude to busting wedges on special teams has given him a reputation of being somewhat of a wild man, and when coaches moved him from running back to linebacker in the spring, it was thought he might have found the ideal outlet for his aggression. Johns’ first spring as a linebacker was scattershot, however. He displayed aggression, but was also caught out of position frequently and was a liability in pass coverage. There will always be a “what-if” question surrounding him as to what might have happened had he played defense from day one, but at this point in his career, one has to wonder if it’s too late to become a contributor.
Draft projection: Not drafted. Johns’ position is still wide-open heading into the fall. His value on special teams might make him attractive to some teams who need a linebacker – or maybe even a fullback – in next year’s draft. But it’s going to take a big autumn from Johns to get to a draftable point.
Analysis: From walk-on to Alabama’s best defender, Rashad Johnson has had a memorable time at the Capstone. He went from solid contributor to star in his first year in Nick Saban’s defensive scheme, and if he has a solid fall, he could easily play his way into the Draft. Johnson can play either safety slot, is a demon on special teams and a high-character individual. He was a team captain as a junior and will likely be one again as a senior.
Draft projection: Because Johnson lacks ideal size for a pro safety – he’s around 5’11” and 200 – some teams may penalize him. He’s a good ball hawk but he wasn’t tested much in one-on-one coverage assignments against top receivers in 2007. Look to about the fourth round for Johnson, but he has the potential to move up.
Analysis: Mitchell began last season as a starter but lost his job first to Marquis Johnson and then, permanently, to Kareem Jackson. He then missed the spring with an injury and watched from the sidelines as both Johnson and Javier Arenas got a lot better. Mitchell has above-average height for a cornerback, but isn’t particularly big and struggled when he didn’t have safety help. Mitchell was burned for the winning touchdown against Georgia and nearly gave up a last-second hail-Mary to Ole Miss. He will have to fight to reclaim his job in the fall.
Draft projection: Not drafted. Mitchell is already behind on the depth chart and heralded Alonzo Lawrence arrives in the fall, as well.
Analysis: Three Alabama juniors might decide to test draft waters and Lorenzo Washington is one of them. Washington took over at nose tackle last year when Brian Motley broke his foot, and he never relinquished the position. Washington proved to be a fairly formidable pass rusher from the nose, which is something Alabama lacked for much of the previous coaching regime. He enters 2008 as the most proven pass-rushing threat among the down linemen, but he has a fight on his hands for his job from second-year fireplug Josh Chapman. Washington would figure to need another year to develop, but if he has a particularly strong season – coupled with the aforementioned concerns over rookie contract restructuring – anything could happen.
Draft projection: Washington’s body type lends itself more to a 4-3 front, or the tackle/end combo position in a 3-4 up-down. There are a lot of what-ifs in play for Washington, but if he improves substantially upon his 2007 performance, his upside will have teams salivating. He could go in the middle rounds, or possibly even above that. But unless he has a breakout year, he would be well advised to return to Alabama in 2009.
Analysis: Deaderick wrestled a starting job away from Bobby Greenwood last year when Greenwood was hurt, and Deaderick didn’t relinquish it. This year, he slides over from the tackle/end combo slot to the strongside end position. Deaderick is already tough against the run, but needs to work on his pass rush moves. He has very good size for an end and with a strong season, could make some waves next April. But like Washington, he would probably be better served coming back to Bama.
Draft projection: Deaderick’s lack of a polished, proven pass-rushing game hurts him at the moment. Almost more so than Washington, he would need a standout season with at least a half-dozen sacks before he even needs to think about testing the draft waters. But like Washington, if he does have a breakout year, his measurables make him attractive – particularly since he can play in either a 3-4 or 4-3 front. A strong year could carry him into the middle rounds.
Analysis: Arenas established himself as a frontline punt and kick returner in 2006, then followed that up with a statement year in 2007. Along the way, he moved to safety and became Alabama’s nickel back down the stretch. He moved back to corner prior to spring 2008 and claimed a starting spot, although true freshman Alonzo Lawrence, along with current team members Lionel Mitchell and Marquis Johnson, figure to compete for that job in the fall. Arenas displayed decent corner skills in the spring, but nothing special. It is his return skills, though, that could make him rich. In order to come out this fall, Arenas would need a strong year as a corner or a nickel, coupled with duplicating his 2007 success in special teams. If he does that, he would enter the NFL potentially as one of the top five or ten kick returners in the country.
Draft projection: How important is a game-changing kick return specialist? Some teams say very, others not so much. Without a marked improvement in his defensive back skills, Arenas would likely be a middle- to low-round pick. But if he shows he can make a difference in the secondary, the sky is literally the limit. Something in between sounds good for now, possibly fourth round – but again, this is another junior who would seem to be better-served by coming back for his final year.
Alabama’s only sure-fire NFL draft picks in the 2009 Draft are Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell. Barring injury, Smith will go on the first day and Caldwell might as well. After that, it could be a long wait – perhaps an entire year – before another Tider is picked.
Rashad Johnson figures to fall somewhere in Round 4 or 5. It’s unfortunate Johnson was arrested at a bar in Tuscaloosa last fall, especially since the details of the case seemed to support Johnson’s version of events. Several teams are likely to take him off their draft boards anyway.
Beyond Smith, Caldwell and Johnson, things get far more complicated. Marlon Davis would be the next most likely player to go, probably in Round 5. Nick Walker and Ezekial Knight have the most potential of the rest, but Walker might lose his starting job and Knight might not even be playing anymore.
The wild card is Javier Arenas. At this point, don’t expect Alabama’s other juniors to declare. But Arenas has improved dramatically since his arrival at Alabama and doesn’t appear to be close to tapping out his potential. He’s on the short list of players to have a big year in 2008. If it’s big enough, he could go, and go highly.
Nikita Stover, Travis McCall and Mike McCoy are all in the same boat: Unlikely to be drafted, but possible with a breakout year. Of those three, McCoy is in the best position, but Stover has the most raw talent of the three and this being his senior year could be the catalyst to having a big season.
And then there are the others. John Parker Wilson doesn’t appear to have the skill set NFL teams like. Lionel Mitchell’s playing status is unclear. Jimmy Johns has plenty of raw talent but also too many rough edges. Bobby Greenwood needs to show major improvement. Brandon Deaderick and Lorenzo Washington just aren’t ready. Charles Hoke and Will Oakley don’t figure to be in the mix.
Look for Alabama to end up with between three and five players drafted in 2009. As for future years, one has to believe that Alabama will become an annual draft fixture again once Nick Saban’s highly rated recruiting classes begin cycling through the system.
For Alabama fans, it can’t come a moment too soon.