NFL Draft will finally offer answers to questions on Notre Dame's prospects
This NFL Draft will be strange.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the draft will be held virtually. NFL prospects will hold subdued (and hopefully safe) draft parties. Dreams will come true with no real sense of when players will actually report to work.
But the NFL Draft, which begins with its first round Thursday at 8 p.m. EDT and will continue Friday (rounds 2-3) and Saturday (rounds 4-7) with broadcasts on ESPN, ABC and the NFL Network, should offer some normalcy in the form of multiple Notre Dame selections.
Since head coach Brian Kelly took over the Notre Dame football program in 2010, 39 players who ended their college careers under Kelly have been drafted. That number will reach into the mid-40s by Saturday evening. It could become the fifth draft to include at least six former Notre Dame players taken during Kelly’s tenure. Three players — Chase Claypool, Cole Kmet and Julian Okwara — are expected to be part of the TV broadcasts at some point.
The bulk of the action could come Friday night with many of Notre Dame’s draft prospects pegged as potential second- or third-round picks. But what makes the NFL Draft able to sustain an entire industry of draft analysts is its unpredictable nature. How the following questions are answered will likely dictate the fate of Notre Dame’s draft-eligible prospects.
• How soon will a tight end come off the board?
When Kmet announced his early entrance into the draft in January, he was hailed by many as this year’s top tight end prospect. That ruling hasn’t necessarily become a consensus in the past few months, but he still has a good chance of being the first tight end selected this week.
Kmet vaulted near the top of the tight end list, which includes Dayton’s Adam Trautman, Florida Atlantic’s Harrison Bryant and Missouri’s Albert Okwuegbunam, in part because the position is light on talent this year. In a draft filled with top-end receivers, tight end could be a position that goes without a draft pick well into the second round.
If Kmet isn’t the first tight end selected, it stands to reason that he might not have to wait much longer after that. After recovering from a broken collarbone in preseason camp, Kmet caught 43 passes for 516 yards and six touchdowns in 11 games as a junior last season.
Whoever drafts Kmet will get a 6-foot-6, 262-pound athlete focused solely on football for the first time. He also pitched for the Irish baseball team, though his sophomore season in 2019 was cut short with elbow soreness in his pitching (left) arm.
l Can Chase Claypool stand out in a crowded receiver market?
The position is loaded with talent in all kinds of shapes, sizes and speeds. But when Claypool ran a 40-yard dash in 4.42 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine, it served as a reminder that he has plenty of special traits too. His combination of size (6-4, 238) and speed drew comparisons to the 2007 combine performance of six-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Calvin Johnson.
Chatter of turning Claypool into a tight end seems to have subsided. More relevant may be his ability and willingness to excel on special teams. It’s another way he can provide value early in his career.
That can help compensate for some of his deficiencies that may need to be addressed in the NFL.
“He’s very upright with his releases, needs to better hide his route path and sell DBs on what he’s doing out there,” said Dane Brugler, The Athletic’s draft analyst, on the Pod of Gold podcast. “But you just don’t see many 6-4, 240-pound athletes with 4.4 speed just walking around, so he’s a big-time talent. If the league let’s him get into the third round, a team’s going to get tremendous value at that point.”
l Will production or potential be more highly valued in pass rushers?
Khalid Kareem played through a torn labrum in the final four games of his senior season. Julian Okwara missed those same games with a broken left fibula. The former Irish defensive ends have vastly different draft profiles, but either could be selected ahead of the other.
The 6-4, 252-pound Okwara seemed to have first-round potential a year ago. That talk slowed with an underwhelming start to his senior season, which he finished with 18 tackles, six tackles for a loss and four sacks. The ongoing recovery from his broken leg prevented Okwara from spurring more discussion at the NFL Combine about his freakish athleticism.
The 6-4, 268-pound Kareem didn’t get to work out at the combine either while rehabbing from shoulder surgery. But his consistent production on film — 109 tackles, 26 tackles for a loss and 13 sacks in three seasons as a contributor — was always going to be his strongest argument.
Okwara may end up as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. Kareem projects more as a traditional defensive end. But it will be fascinating to watch who hears their name called first.
“Just as players, Kareem to me is the better football player right now,” Brugler said. “He’s better versus the run. He can reduce inside, give you a little bit of push there as well.
“But I think there’s no question Okwara has the better upside. The biggest question with Okwara is can he be a consistent early down player. Can he be a guy that you trust holding up the edges, being an edge center, closing down the edge?”
l Can Troy Pride Jr. ride his speed to an early selection?
Pride didn’t flirt with a 40-yard dash in the 4.2s as he predicted, but his 4.40 at the combine still proved he has the speed scouts are looking for at cornerback. Anyone familiar with Pride never had speed as a question mark.
The bigger concerns were always how he handled playing as the boundary cornerback as a senior, his lack of pass breakups and interceptions and his willingness to be a physical tackler. Pride saw plenty of playing time in his four years at Notre Dame, but his production slipped as a senior when he wasn’t playing opposite cornerback Julian Love.
After allowing only one touchdown as a junior, opponents caught four touchdowns on Pride as a senior. Yet he still allowed only five catches longer than 24 yards while being targeted 175 times during his career, according to Pro Football Focus.
“There’s a little too much feast or famine in there, because he will make some mistakes,” Brugler said, “but he’s a big-time athlete and NFL teams are more than willing to bet on athleticism at the cornerback position.”
l How will safeties Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman separate themselves?
The duo worked in tandem to lead Notre Dame to top-six passing efficiency defenses in 2018 and 2019. But part of their success was the ability to cover up each other’s weaknesses.
Together, they were dynamic. Apart, they have bigger question marks.
Gilman, at strong safety, played well in the box and in tight coverage, but he was susceptible to getting beat deep. Elliott, at free safety, covered more ground but didn’t show top-end athleticism.
Both may end up waiting the longest to be selected in the draft. Gilman’s lack of size (5-11, 201) and Elliott’s lack of speed (4.80 40 at the combine) could play a big role in the delay.
l Who is the best of the rest?
Wide receiver Chris Finke and running back Tony Jones Jr. both received NFL Combine invites. Linebacker Asmar Bilal, defensive end Jamir Jones and cornerback Donte Vaughn didn’t.
All will likely have to rely on undrafted free agency and training camp invitations for a chance. Kelly said earlier this month that he believes all 12 draft-eligible prospects have the ability to play in the NFL.
Of the five previously mentioned, Brugler said he wouldn’t be surprised if the 5-10, 186-pound Finke makes an NFL roster despite running an underwhelming 4.57 40 at the combine. Going undrafted could benefit Finke to find a roster with a good quarterback that needs a slot receiver.
“He’s going to be very scheme specific,” Brugler said. “He’s that inside slot option. I really love receivers who always make themselves available and that’s what he does. He’s not the fastest guy. He’s undersized. There are plenty of things working against him.”
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, ESPN.com. NFL.com, 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.