James: Ranking Notre Dame's top NFL Draft picks of the Brian Kelly Era

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Selecting a Notre Dame player in the first round of the NFL Draft has been a pretty safe bet during head coach Brian Kelly’s tenure with the Irish.

Of the nine first-round selections from Notre Dame since the 2011 draft, five of them have at least one Pro Bowl selection to their name: safety Harrison Smith, tight end Tyler Eifert and offensive linemen Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Quenton Nelson.

The other four aren’t slouches either. Offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey is fresh off a Super Bowl appearance starting for the San Francisco 49ers. Defensive tackle Jerry Tillery started slow in his rookie season with the Los Angeles Chargers, but he has plenty of time left to improve.

With repeated injury issues, wide receiver Will Fuller has shown flashes with the Houston Texans, though he hasn’t been able to stay healthy often. Wide receiver Michael Floyd may be considered as the biggest disappointment of the group and even he caught 209 passes for 3,293 yards and 19 touchdowns in his first four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals before his career started to fade.

The very best value picks of Kelly’s former players at Notre Dame have come in the first round, but successful careers have come out of later picks too. These are the best NFL Draft selections from Kelly’s time with the Irish.

Honorable mention

• OT Mike McGlinchey, San Francisco 49ers, 1st round, pick No. 9 of 2018 draft

• LB Drue Tranquill, Los Angeles Chargers, 4th round, pick No. 130 of 2019 draft

• DE Stephon Tuitt, Pittsburgh Steelers, 2nd round, pick No. 46 of 2014 draft

7. OT Ronnie Stanley

• Baltimore Ravens, 1st round, pick No. 6 of 2016 draft.

A few more seasons like 2019, and Stanley will find himself even higher on this list. Even though Stanley came with high expectations as the first offensive lineman selected in 2016, he reached the hype last season with his first Pro Bowl selection and a first-team All-Pro honor.

Pro Football Focus named Stanley the PFF Pass Blocker of the Year for his performance as the left tackle protecting Ravens star quarterback Lamar Jackson. Stanley allowed only six total pressures in 16 games games and was flagged only five times last season. He was credited with a win rate of 98.7% with only a pair of centers allowing pressure at a lower rate than him.

Stanley should be looking at a big pay day soon. Jack Conklin, who was selected by the Tennessee Titans two picks after Stanley, received a three-year, $42 million contract from the Cleveland Browns last season.

6. RB Theo Riddick

• Detroit Lions, 6th round, pick No. 199 of 2013 draft

The Lions picked Riddick after 21 running backs were already selected. Yet Riddick established himself as a productive pass catcher out of the backfield in his six seasons with the Lions. He recorded 285 receptions for 2,238 yards and 14 touchdowns in Detroit with a career high of 80 catches coming in 2015.

Riddick’s rushing totals have been limited to only 288 carries for 1,023 yards and five touchdowns in his career. But he’s lasted longer than a number of running backs picked ahead of him.

The 2013 draft included five running backs selected in the second round: three of them weren’t in the league last season: Montee Ball, Eddie Lacy and Christine Michael. Riddick spent last season on the injured reserve for the Denver Broncos after he fractured his shoulder. He remains a free agent heading into the 2020 season.

5. LB Jaylon Smith

• Dallas Cowboys, 2nd round, pick No. 34 of 2016 draft

Taking a chance on Smith following a career-threatening knee injury has paid off for the Cowboys. After making 142 tackles, six tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks last season, Smith was named to his first Pro Bowl.

Smith, a probable first-round pick before his injury, spent his rookie season rehabbing the nerve damage suffered in his left leg during the final game of his Notre Dame career in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. With a complete recovery, Smith has started the last 32 games in Dallas.

The two linebackers selected in the first round in 2016 — Leonard Floyd and Darron Lee — are already on their second NFL teams. Before the 2019 season, Smith signed a five-year, $64 million contract extension with the Cowboys.

4. TE Kyle Rudolph

• Minnesota Vikings, 2nd round, pick No. 43 of 2011 draft

Rudolph has consistently delivered for the Vikings through nine season with 425 catches, 4,154 yards and 47 touchdowns. Rudolph received Pro Bowl honors in 2012 and 2017, but his best season statistically came in 2016 with 83 receptions for 840 yards and seven touchdowns.

Rudolph played only six games for Kelly in 2010 before a hamstring injury wiped out his season. He entered the NFL Draft, where he became the first tight end selected. Four picks later, the St. Louis Rams picked Wisconsin’s Lance Kendricks.

The production gap between the two has been significant. Rudolph averages roughly 20 more catches, 178 more yards and three more touchdowns per season than Kendrick.

3. OG Quenton Nelson

• Indianapolis Colts, 1st round, pick No. 6 of 2018 draft

Guards don’t normally find themselves drafted among the first 10 picks of an NFL Draft. Nelson has already proven to be worth the exception.

He started all 32 games in the first two seasons of his career on his way to Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro honors both years. He has already made a strong case as the best guard in the NFL with his dominant play.

Nelson didn’t allow a sack last season and finished with the second-highest Pro Football Focus grade among guards. The Colts needed to revamp its offensive line in 2018, and Nelson has led a resurgence.

2. S Harrison Smith

• Minnesota Vikings, 1st round, pick No. 29 of 2012 draft

The Vikings sure had a good read on the talent in Notre Dame’s program early in Kelly’s tenure. Smith’s sustained success slightly outpaces Rudolph’s consistency. Smith was named to a first-team All-Pro in 2017 and has been selected for the Pro Bowl each of the past five seasons.

No safety pick in the 2012 draft has come anywhere close to having as much success as Smith. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked Alabama’s Mark Barron with the No. 7 pick in the first round, but he eventually became a linebacker after struggling at safety.

Smith settled in a safety right away by establishing a career-high 104 tackles in his rookie season. Through eight seasons, Smith has started 113 games with 658 tackles, 56 passes defensed, 37 tackles for a loss and 23 interceptions.

1. OG Zack Martin

• Dallas Cowboys, 1st round, pick No. 16 of 2014 draft

Nelson may be the best guard in the NFL, but he still has work to do to rack up all the accolades Martin has managed in his first six seasons in the league. Martin has been named a first-team All-Pro four times and selected to the Pro Bowl each season.

The next guard selected in the 2014 draft, Xavier Su’a-Filo, came with pick No. 33. The former Texan and current Cowboy teammate has only started all 16 games once in his career. Martin has done so five times.

In 94 games, Martin has been called for only 17 penalties. He’s registered no more than one holding penalty in each season except for 2015, when he was dinged with three flags.

Martin became the highest-paid guard in the league when he signed a six-year, $84 million contract in 2018.

Offensive guard Zack Martin (70) has been considered one of the NFL’s best since making his rookie debut for the Dallas Cowboys in 2014.
The Pro Bowl has become an annual tradition for Minnesota Vikings safety Harrison Smith. He’s been selected to play in the NFL all-star game each of the past five seasons.

When: Thursday 8 p.m. EDT (Round 1), Friday 7 p.m. (Rounds 2-3), and Saturday noon (Rounds 4-7)

Where: Originally scheduled for Las Vegas, the draft will be virtual from various locations. That includes NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announcing first-round picks from his basement in Westchester County, New York.

TV: ABC, ESPN, NFL Network

Live Stream: WatchESPN app, NFL Network app,, various streaming services

Notre Dame draft hopefuls: LB Asmar Bilal, WR Chase Claypool, S Jalen Elliott, WR Chris Finke, S Alohi Gilman, DE Jamir Jones, RB Tony Jones Jr., DE Khalid Kareem, TE Cole Kmet, DE Julian Okwara, CB Troy Pride Jr., CB Donte Vaughn.