In preparation for the 2013 NFL Draft, NFLDraftScout.com will profile the top draft-eligible prospects from FBS-level programs. This summer series will run until the start of the college football season.
ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
NFL Draft picks the last five years: 24
2012 NFL Draft picks: Eight – RB Trent Richardson (1st Round, No. 3 overall), S Mark Barron (1st Round, No. 7 overall), CB Dre Kirkpatrick (1st Round, No. 17 overall), ILB Dont'a Hightower (First Round, No. 25 overall), DE/OLB Courtney Upshaw (Second Round, No. 35 overall), NG Josh Chapman (Fifth Round, No. 136 overall), DB DeQuan Menzie (Fifth Round, No. 146 overall), TE/FB Brad Smelley (Seventh Round, No. 247 overall)
Under the direction of head coach Nick Saban, Alabama has turned into a virtual factory of NFL prospects. This was never more evident than last April when for the second consecutive year the national champs led all universities with four players selected in the first round of the NFL draft.
What has made Saban's transformation of the Alabama program so impressive is that it wasn't too long ago when the Crimson Tide were struggling. While the team has averaged nearly seven players annually drafted into the NFL in 2010-12, in 2008 zero Alabama players were deemed good enough by NFL scouts to be selected.
The loss of so many talented players -- especially on the defensive side of the ball -- is certainly going to make it a challenge for the Crimson Tide to repeat in 2012. However, if Saban has proven anything over his tenure in Tuscaloosa it is that he knows how to recruit the types of players that fit into his pro-style schemes on both sides of the ball. Under Saban, Alabama isn't rebuilding, they're reloading.
While Saban is best known for producing terrific defensive prospects, the biggest impact the Alabama Crimson Tide may have on the 2013 NFL draft could come from a trio of offensive linemen.
Top-five prospects for the 2013 NFL Draft
1. Barrett Jones (6-4, 305)
Rarely does a technically-refined offensive lineman earn top billing at a university with such tradition of producing flashy athletes at virtually every position but in the case of Do-Everything Jones (pictured above), the honor is well deserved. Since redshirting for the Tide in 2008, Jones has simply started 35 of the past 39 games, earning action at right guard (25 starts), left tackle (10 starts), as well as sliding over to play the three other positions up front, as well, when necessary. Despite earning First Team All-SEC honors (and third team All-American accolades by the Associated Press) in 2010 while at right guard, Jones was asked to move to the all-important blindside tackle position last season and starred there, earning the Outland Trophy as the nation's top lineman, as well as the Jacobs Blocking Trophy (SEC's top offensive lineman) and was a consensus All-American. This season, Saban is moving his top lineman once again; this time to the center position, where the same intelligence, quickness, balance and surprising anchor Jones demonstrated has demonstrated at guard and tackle will translate well. Jones is typically characterized as a try-hard player who gets by with excellent fundamentals and it is true that he uses his hands and feet very well to consistently defeat his opponent. However, while he isn't likely to cause anyone to compare his raw athleticism to former first round offensive tackles Tyron Smith (Dallas Cowboys, No. 9, 2011) or Joe Staley (San Francisco 49ers, No. 28, 2007), Jones is smooth and efficient when easing back at the snap in pass protection or getting to the second level. He latches on and keeps his feet moving on contact, rarely allowing his opponent to make the play even if he's relatively close to the ball-carrier. Saban has publicly compared Jones to Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, who saw action at all five positions during his 19 years with the Houston Oilers (and Tennessee Titans), and whom Saban saw up close when coaching defensive backs in Houston from 1988-1989.
2. OL D.J. Fluker (6-6, 335)*
Since redshirting in 2009, Fluker has emerged as a standout at right tackle for the Tide. He played in 10 games in 2010 - starting nine of them - despite missing four games in early October due to a groin strain. He started all 13 games as the strongside tackle last season, demonstrating improved footwork and power from his first season of action. Fluker, who enters 2012 with two years of eligibility remaining, is still a bit unpolished, despite the fact that he's already earning preseason All-SEC recognition and is on the Lombardi and Outland Trophy Award watch lists. At his size, he is strictly a right tackle or perhaps even a guard prospect as he hasn't demonstrated the agility or balance necessary to handle NFL speed rushers on a consistent basis. Even as a run blocker -- his specialty -- Fluker has a tendency to drop his head and stop his feet as he makes contact, resulting in some of his more talented opponents being able to disengage. Fluker's combination of size and power, however, make him a formidable prospect who should only get better. For a drive-blocking, power-based scheme, Fluker ranks as one of the top right tackle prospects in the entire country. Due to his massive size and upside, Fluker will often earn comparisons to former Alabama standout Andre Smith, who the Cincinnati Bengals made the No. 6 overall pick of the 2009 draft. In reality, a fairer comparison is to former teammate James Carpenter, who also earned a first round selection but at No. 25 in 2011 by the Seattle Seahawks. Fluker is reportedly on pace to graduate in December, which could push him towards entering the 2013 draft with collegiate eligibility remaining should he earn a high enough grade from the NFL Advisory Committee.
3. OG Chance Warmack (6-2, 322)
Warmack hasn't received the national attention to this point that his linemates Jones and Fluker have generated but he has very much caught the eyes of NFL talent evaluators. Unlike Jones and Fluker, Warmack saw action immediately upon signing with Alabama, playing in five games as a true freshman and earning the starting nod at left guard for each of the 26 contests since. Despite a relative lack of fanfare, Warmack earned Second Team All-SEC acknowledgement from conference coaches and on tape it is easy to see why. While shorter than scouts would prefer, Warmack uses his natural leverage and surprisingly long arms to his advantage to move defenders off the line of scrimmage as a drive blocker, clearing a path for Alabama's talented ball-carriers. He is considerably lighter on his feet than one would expect given his stout frame and, like Jones, is adept at meeting and eliminating linebackers at the second level. In pass protection, Warmack does a nice job of supplying an initial punch and grasping hold of his opponent, showing good lateral agility to slide, as well as the anchor to handle powerful bull-rushers. Due to his lack of height, Warmack may lack the position versatility of his more recognizable linemates but he is further along in his development than Fluker and, frankly, makes more eye-popping blocks than Jones. While his size means that he'll be relegated strictly to interior blocking in the NFL, with another strong campaign Warmack could be one of the few pure interior linemen to earn a top 50 grade next April.
4. DL Jesse Williams (6-3, 320)
Under Saban Alabama typically has built its program with highly regarded high school recruits. In the case of Williams, the Crimson Tide went the junior college route. Williams, who grew up playing rugby and basketball in Brisbane, Australia only took up football at the age of 15. Once he joined the sport, however, it became obvious that his combination of size, power and athleticism could result in big things. Coaches from the University of Hawaii quickly recognized his talent when they were in Australia performing at a clinic and they got Williams, then 16 years-old, to commit to their program. It was soon discovered that Williams was missing an English and math class. Rather than spend another year in the classroom so that he could play at Hawaii, Williams elected to go to Western Arizona Community College. There, he quickly proved himself to be a man amongst boys, posting 76 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and six sacks over two seasons (18 games) and quickly earning recognition as one of the elite JUCO prospects in the country. Last year, in his first season with the Tide, Williams started all 13 games as a five-technique defensive end, posting 24 tackles, including four tackles for loss and half a sack. Due to his agility, Williams was moved inside to defensive tackle on passing downs and it will be inside at nose guard that he'll play in 2012. Incredibly strong (he's reportedly maxed out on the bench press at 600 pounds) and surprisingly agile, Williams is the most athletically intriguing of this year's talented Alabama class. With only one season of top notch competition under his belt he's certainly a project but considering his tools and the coaching staff working with him, Williams is a good bet to join running back Eddie Lacy as a breakout candidate for the Tide and eventually earn heavy NFL draft consideration.
5. RB Eddie Lacy (5-10, 220)
Lacey isn't likely to follow Richardson and Mark Ingram into the first round but he's shown enough natural running skills to go along with his bullish frame to prove he's hardly just a product of Alabama's terrific offensive line. Lacy redshirted in 2009 but quickly flashed star potential once given an opportunity. In his first collegiate game (San Jose State) Lacy rushed for 111 yards and two touchdowns (on only 13 carries) and he ended the year in similar fashion against a talented Michigan State squad in the Capital One Bowl by rushing for 86 yards, including touchdown scampers of 62 and 12 yards. He emerged as the top backup behind Richardson in 2011, finishing second on the team with 674 yards (averaging 7.1 per attempt!) and seven touchdowns. He also caught 11 passes for 139 yards. With Richardson now the focal point of the Cleveland Browns' offense, Lacy will get his opportunity to shine in 2012 and he appears poised to enjoy a spectacular breakout campaign. Though he's never had more than 13 attempts in a single game over his career, Lacy enters his junior season having already rushed for 1,080 yards and 13 touchdowns against quality competition. He has the leg drive to push the pile and keeps his legs churning through contact, often resulting in broken tackles. Lacy reads his blocks nicely, showing enough lateral agility to avoid defenders as well as the burst to stick his foot in the ground and accelerate through gaps quickly. He's a well-built back but shows good balance (including a spin move) and athleticism (leaping ability) to surprise defenders anticipating that all he has is power. To fully capitalize on his opportunity, Lacy will need to stay healthy as he's been hampered at times with foot injuries (ankle sprains, turf toe) and put the ball on the ground a few times early in his career. Lacy is currently NFLDraftScout.com's No. 4 rated running back.
TE Michael Williams (6-5, 272)
CB DeMarcus Milliner (6-1, 198)*
QB A.J. McCarron (6-3, 210)*
FS Robert Lester (6-2, 212)
ILB Nico Johnson (6-2, 245)
OLB C.J. Mosley (6-2, 232)*
DL Damion Square (6-3, 286)
For all of NFLDraftScout.com's team-by-team previews of the top prospects to watch in the 2012 season in preparation for the 2013 NFL draft, click here.
Photo credit: US Presswire