In the latest mock draft churn, Chase Claypool surfaces as Notre Dame's top NFL prospect

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

A weird cocktail of NFL Free agency, the cessation of pro days and medical checks, and the aftermath of the NFL Scouting Combine has churned up mock drafts and produced a new top prospect among Notre Dame’s NFL Draft hopefuls.

Chase Claypool.

At least according to the father of mock drafts, longtime ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr.

Roughly four weeks before the actual April 23-25 NFL Draft — if it indeed goes on as scheduled, that is — the former Irish wide receiver popped up as a projected first-rounder in Kiper’s latest mock, released earlier this week.

Kiper has the 6-foot-4, 238-pound Canada native headed to Green Bay late in the first round with the 30th overall pick.

If that indeed happens, Claypool would be the third Notre Dame wide receiver selected in the first round since 2012, joining Michael Floyd (2012, Arizona) and Will Fuller (2016, Houston). That’s triple the number of wide receiver first-rounders ND produced in the 42-year span that preceded that run.

Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown, in the 1988 draft, was the only wideout drafted in the first round between 1970 to 2011.

Claypool (66 catches, 1,037 yards, 13 TDs in 2019) nudged his way into the first-round conversation with a strong showing in the Senior Bowl practices and game in mid-January, followed by a stunning couple of days at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis in late February.

That included a time of 4.42 seconds in the 40-yard dash, seventh-fastest among the 45 wide receivers timed at the event.

“He had a second-round grade and at worst an early third,” Kiper said of Claypool’s early January standing during a teleconference with the media on Wednesday. “Now he’s in the late first, early second.

“So the (NFL) combine on the heels of a solid career allowed him to be where he is right now. It’s rare. He also has dual versatility. If you’re looking for a ‘move’ tight end, he can be that guy at 6-4 ¼ and 240 pounds.

“Running a 4.42 and over a 40 vertical, those are extraordinary numbers. They’re historically great numbers for a kid his size. That’s why I think Green Bay, who’s looking for a tight end and a receiver, can get a combo guy in Claypool.”

Tight end Cole Kmet was the most recent player to ascend to the top of ND’s prospect list, with seven players overall expected to be drafted next month. Kmet is the only true junior in the group that comprises him, Claypool, cornerback Troy Pride Jr., safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott, and defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara.

Okwara began the draft cycle as ND’s consensus top prospect, but a dropoff in tangible production in 2019 and a season-ending broken fibula suffered Nov. 9 at Duke eroded his projected first-round status.

The 6-4, 252-pound Okwara did perform the bench press at the combine in Indy, with his 27 reps at 225 pounds constituting a tie for the 10th-best showing among the 38 defensive linemen at the invitation-only event and fifth among defensive ends.

His plan was to do the rest of the testing at ND’s Pro Day on April 1. The event, however, won’t take place on that date due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. However, ND officials are hopeful to find a creative way to have it at some point while honoring the social distancing edict.

Those affected the most are Irish players with NFL aspirations who did not receive one of 337 invitations to the NFL Combine, such as defensive end Jamir Jones and linebacker Asmar Bilal. But it affects players expected to be drafted as well, such as Okwara and defensive end Khalid Kareem.

Kareem played the final five games of the 2019 Irish season with a torn labrum in his left shoulder before undergoing surgery Jan. 21, and had planned to do all his physical testing at pro day.

“In terms of Okwara, you can go back to two years ago, when he was really good,” Kiper said Wednesday. “And if you can look at the tape then, he had some first- , early-second-round tapes. I would think if you want a pass rusher with some length, you could look at him in the late second, early third — Kareem as well.

“(Kareem) has solid tape. I think he’s at worst a third-round pick. I think Okwara is a guy who’s very intriguing to me.

“He’s got really long arms. He’s got the sack production and he has the ability to get after the quarterback. I think if you get him in the third round, Okwara would be a really nice pick.”

There is talk about whether the NFL Draft should be delayed, because of the complications brought on by COVID-19, to give teams more time to evaluate players through pro days and in-person meetings.

As it stands, since March 13 NFL teams were limited to no more than three phone/video calls with a player per week, and none of those virtual meetings could exceed an hour in length.

“In terms of delaying (the draft), I would move forward with it,” Kiper weighed in. “Everybody needs normalcy to set in. We keep doing the radio, doing all the draft stuff — the mocks. Everything’s going along. Free agency went along, even though everything wasn’t perfect.

“We see players moving all over the place, trades being made. Everything’s being done. The draft can be done, obviously, without everybody being together. No teams go to the draft anyway. Everything’s going to be different, and we just have to adjust.

“There are a lot more important things going on obviously than the NFL Draft, and everyone’s trying to deal with the health of their families and trying to get through it the best we can. I think the NFL can get through it. I think it’s important to give people something to focus on and occupy their minds, and it’s kind of an escape during these trying times.

“Everyone’s trying to deal with something much, much bigger than what happens in the NFL Draft. So I would think moving forward, April 23rd, 24th and 25th is something we’re hopeful happens.”

Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool (83) celebrates a touchdown during ND’s 52-20 rout of Navy, Nov. 16 at Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool’s stock rose with his performance at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis Feb. 27.