Will NFL Draft fuel Notre Dame football recruiting?
The first unofficial infomercial for Notre Dame football and head coach Brian Kelly’s player development mantra will likely come in the first few hours of NFL Network’s 51 hours of NFL Draft coverage next week.
Zack Martin, a player who didn’t crack Rivals.com’s top 250 prospects 5½ recruiting cycles back, won’t last past pick 13 of the first round on Thursday night, according to NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock, who also serves as color analyst for ND’s home football game telecasts on NBC.
“He’s too good, he’s too safe, and there are too many offensive line needs out there,” Mayock said of Martin possibly landing in the mid-teens, a projection shared by some other draft analysts.
“There are a bunch of teams that look at him and say, ‘He could start at right tackle, day one, and maybe we move him inside to guard or center in the next year. He’s awesome. He’s about as safe a player as there is in this draft. And if you want him, you better get him early.”
That Martin will have plenty of company — perhaps as many as 10 ND players total selected over the three-day, seven-round draft (May 8-10) — is where Kelly and the Irish program really have a chance to make an impression, particularly on potential recruits.
But will it be a lasting impression?
“It’s not like an avalanche of kids do research on the draft,” JC Shurburtt, national recruiting director for 247Sports, assessed. “Most of them, quite frankly, are busy. But how you produce as a school in the draft is important.
“Recruiting usually comes down to relationships and all that. Selling a kid that you can get him to the NFL definitely helps build a relationship. But I think it’s a matter of colleges bringing it to their attention than prospects monitoring it and remembering what happened during the draft.”
Notre Dame, second all-time to USC’s 484 with 477 drafted players, is in a burgeoning cycle with regard to pro prospects. After Kelly’s first season as ND’s head coach, the Irish produced just one draft pick in the 2011 draft.
And had tight end Kyle Rudolph, a second-rounder to Minnesota, not been an early entry, the Irish would have produced zero draft picks for the first time since 1937, the second year the NFL Draft was staged.
The number improved to four draftees in 2012, including first-rounders Michael Floyd (Arizona) and Harrison Smith (Minnesota). That matched the number of first-rounders ND had produced over the previous 12 drafts combined.
Six Irish players came off the board in 2013, including yet another first-rounder, tight end Tyler Eifert to Cincinnati.
The 2014 draft pool is the first to contain ND players recruited from start to finish by Kelly — defensive end Stephon Tuitt, tight end Troy Niklas and runner back George Atkinson III. All three are true juniors, and were Nos. 9, 10 and 11 from Notre Dame to go three-and-out since the NFL unlocked its doors to underclassmen 25 years ago.
Kelly was particularly miffed about Niklas’ departure, and drew a rhetorical line in the sand during his National Signing Day press conference roughly three months ago. He declared ND would not be recruiting prospects who openly expressed a plan to leave school early for the NFL.
“I just have to do a better job of educating our own players on the NFL and what it means to be a first-round draft pick versus a second or a third,” Kelly said at the time. “When an agent says, ‘Let’s play for your second contract,’ how ridiculous that is.
“My point is in the recruiting process, we do not want to go out there and say, ‘Come to Notre Dame for these reasons: Hey, come to Notre Dame, we’ll get you an apartment off campus; come to Notre Dame and we’ll help you go pro early.’
“I just wanted to be clear that these are our distinctions, and you’re shopping down a different aisle. We’re not better than anybody else, but this is what you’re going to get if you shop down this aisle.”
Shurburtt does not think those words will be able to be successfully twisted by Kelly’s competitors on the recruiting trail in the weeks and months ahead.
“I think what Brian Kelly is probably trying to say is that there are a lot of guys making horrible decisions,” Shurburtt said of the record 98 underclassmen in this draft pool, 25 more than the previous mark set just last year.
“I can understand the frustration of a coach who sees selfish people around a player telling them their stock is a little higher than it is. I’m not sure how you’d use that against him unless you’ve never expressed disappointment about a player making a mistake by coming out early. And there aren’t too many of those.
“When it comes down to it, there are some recruiting battles you’re just not going to win anyway. But what it usually has to do with is geography, comfort level, that sort of thing.”
•Two mid-to-late round ND prospects who intrigue Mayock are players who may end up playing a different position in the NFL than they did at Notre Dame — outside linebacker/defensive end Prince Shembo and cornerback Bennett Jackson.
“(Shembo is) too short to be an edge guy, which is where his natural fit is,” Mayock said. “I think some of the 3-4 teams are looking at him inside. I kind of like him inside. He stood up in the East-West (Shrine) Game, and I thought he had a heck of a week. I think he’ll be a value in the fourth or fifth round.
“Bennett Jackson is a little bit of a ‘tweener. I’d kind of like to see him at safety. I want to see him be more physical. I think he’s going to get drafted late and he’s going to have to play some special teams.”
•Special teams potential, Mayock said, could lift Atkinson from an undrafted free agent to a late-rounder.
“He’s one of the fastest players in the draft, and he’s 215 pounds,” Mayock said. “He might be the second- or third-best kickoff returner, so his ticket to the NFL is returning kicks, playing special teams, and secondarily trying to earn some time as a tailback.”
•Mayock said Martin could come off the board as early as pick No. 9.
“I have him fourth as a tackle, (but) he’d be my No. 1 center or my No. 1 guard,” Mayock said. “I believe that he is the only player in this draft that could start and play at a high level at all five offensive line positions.”
•Mayock projects Martin’s good friend and linemate, offensive guard Chris Watt, as a third-rounder, but thinks most teams project him in the fourth round.
•TJ Jones will likely move from outside receiver at ND to slot receiver in the NFL per Mayock and is a probable fifth-rounder in one of the deepest wide receiver drafts in memory.
•Despite Niklas’ slide out of round two by some analysts, Mayock likes the tight end’s long-term potential.
“If he wants to be the best blocking tight end in the NFL, he will be. But he’s got to want it,” Mayock said. “He’s only played that position two years at the collegiate level.
“If you put the Stanford tape on, he kind of got schooled by Trent Murphy, an outstanding linebacker for Stanford. So from a technique standpoint, he’s got a lot to learn. But if I was him, in my heart and soul, I’d want to become the best blocker in the league at tight end, ‘cause that would guarantee me a 10-year career. He also catches the ball well, both short and intermediate.”
The 20 schools that have produced the most NFL Draft picks since the drafts inception in 1936:
1. USC 484
2. Notre Dame 477
3. Ohio State 407
4. Oklahoma 363
5. Nebraska 347
6. Michigan 342
7. Tennessee 334
8. Penn State 332
10. Miami (Fla.) 315
11. Florida 312
12. Alabama 309
13. Georgia 304
14. LSU 302
15. Michigan State 298
16. UCLA 295
17. Washington 279
18. Purdue 274
19. Pittsburgh 268
20. Texas A&M 266