Sizing up Notre Dame's NFL Draft prospects for Senior Bowl and beyond

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

In doing his film work in preparation for this week’s Senior Bowl, NFL Draft analyst Scott Wright became fixated on a Notre Dame player whose participation in the premier all-senior showcase will be limited to watching it on television.

Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton.

“You can’t help but notice Kyle Hamilton,” Wright, of, said of the Irish 6-foot-4, 210-pound freshman All-American. “He might be the best Notre Dame pro prospect since Jaylon Smith, just in terms of sheer talent. It’s pretty impressive the way he came in and made such a huge impact right away for them.

“He’s firmly on the NFL’s radar already.”

Also on the outside looking in on Saturday’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. — and the heavily scouted practices this week leading up to it — are the new favorites among the Notre Dame players to be drafted first, the player who started the 2019 season with that distinction, and a player whose nagging injuries prompted him to withdraw from the game.

That would be junior tight end Cole Kmet, senior defensive end Julian Okwara and fellow senior end Khalid Kareem, respectively.

Kmet is ineligible because he’s a true junior. Okwara is still recovering from the broken fibula he suffered Nov. 9 in a 38-7 Irish win over Duke that ended his season. Kareem’s family and agent, meanwhile, urged him to invest in getting healthy for the NFL Scouting Combine, Feb. 23-March 2 in Indianapolis.

Kareem is rated as the No. 6 defensive end project in Wright’s latest positional rankings.

That still leaves four former Irish players on the North squad, two of whom have a significant opportunity to heighten their draft buzz this week, per Wright — Chase Claypool, part of a historically deep and talented wide receiver crop, and Troy Pride Jr., a cornerback charged with covering those wide receivers from the senior class.

The other two ND representatives in the game are safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott. Together, with Pride, returning starting cornerback Shaun Crawford, and Hamilton, they helped the Irish to their highest ranking ever in the national pass-efficiency defense rankings — fifth.

The Senior Bowl weigh-in and first practices are set for Tuesday, with practice sessions to follow on Wednesday and Thursday and the game itself set for a 2:30 p.m. kickoff (NFL Network) at Ladd-Peebles Stadium on Saturday. The 2020 NFL Draft is scheduled for April 23-25 in Las Vegas.

Wright has Claypool projected as a second-round pick going into the game, with round 3 as a worst-case scenario for the 6-4, 228-pound team MVP. Overall, he’s the No. 9 receiver in Wright’s rankings, with nine of the top 11 being underclassmen.

“I think if he can stand out down there at the Senior Bowl against a really good group of senior wideouts, that will definitely help his cause,” Wright said. “And not only as a receiver, but special teams.

“At the Senior Bowl, there’s a lot of emphasis on special teams. They want to see how guys can contribute there. And, as you know, Chase Claypool is just an absolute stud in that regard.

“He can play in the NFL for a decade, just as a special-teamer. So I think Claypool has a lot to gain to kind of separate himself from the pack and some of these other guys he’s battling with.”

Going into Senior Bowl week, Wright projects Pride (No. 13 cornerback in Wright’s rankings), Gilman (No. 9 safety) and Elliott (No. 11 safety) all in the range of rounds 3-5 in the seven-round draft.

If Kmet ends up going in the first round — and Wright’s latest mock draft has him projected to do so with the 23rd overall pick, to New England — that would give Notre Dame six first-rounders in the five most recent draft cycles and 10 in the last nine.

That follows a 12-year stretch (2000-11) in which Notre Dame produced a combined two first-round picks — center Jeff Faine and quarterback Brady Quinn.

“I think it was a pretty good decision by Cole Kmet to come out,” Wright said. “I think he got the feedback (a second-round grade from the advisory committee) and looked at the landscape at his position and realized, ‘Hey I’ve got a really good chance to be the first tight end off the board.’ To me, he’s the clear-cut tight end in this class.

“Now, does that mean he’s a first round pick? Not necessarily. But tight end is one of the weakest positions in this draft, and I think he seized that opportunity to take advantage of that lack of quality this year. If he doesn’t come off the board right away, in round one, it’ll be very early in day 2.”

Okwara once was looking at that kind of scenario, and could work his way back there when he gets healthy, but for now Wright projects the 6-5, 248-pounder as the No. 8 outside linebacker prospect.

“I think he can play either outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme or defensive end in a 4-3, but I think his best fit is as an outside linebacker.” Wright said. “The pre-draft workouts are going to be big for him. If he’s healthy enough to do that and he tests as well as we think, he can start to push his stock back up.”

The rest of ND’s draft-eligible players project as undrafted free agents, according to Wright. Tony Jones Jr., who rushed for five yards on seven carries in Saturday’s East-West Shrine Game, is No. 38 among running back prospects.

Chris Finke, a Shrine Bowl invitee, is the No. 58 wide receiver. Asmar Bilal is the No. 27 inside linebacker, and Donte Vaughn is the No. 97 cornerback. Long snapper John Shannon and offensive guard Trevor Ruhland already have announced they won’t be pursuing pro football because of health concerns.

Of the longer shots to make an NFL roster, Wright finds Jamir Jones (No. 45 defensive end) intriguing. The 6-3, 248-pound Jones was set to redshirt this season and return in 2020 until Daelin Hayes was lost for the season because of a shoulder injury sustained in a 35-20 win over Virginia on Sept. 28.

Jones’ role expanded when Okwara went down. He started the final four games of the season and finished among the team leaders in sacks (4.5) and forced fumbles (2) to go along with 26 tackles.

“You wonder if there’s some untapped upside there, because he had so much talent in front of him at Notre Dame,” Wright said. “I think teams will look at him and see him as an interesting developmental guy — not to be drafted.

“But if he can get himself in a camp, maybe they’ll say he’s just a product of lack of opportunity and keep him around.”

Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool (83) looks to flash his MVP form this week at the Senior Bowl game and workouts.
Notre Dame defensive end Jamir Jones (44) has become an intriguing long shot to make an NFL roster.

WHO: North vs. South

WHEN: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EST

WHERE: Ladd-Peebles Stadium; Mobile, Ala.

TV: NFL Network

ND PARTICIPANTS: WR Chase Claypool, S Jalen Elliott, S Alohi Gilman, CB Troy Pride Jr.