Rule No. 1 in scouting: Go where the talent is.
Alabama makes life simple for the scouting business, with coach Nick Saban turning Tuscaloosa into a developmental camp of sorts for the NFL.
The Crimson Tide led all teams last April with four first-round picks. Defensive lineman Marcell Dareus went to the Bills at No. 3 overall and the Falcons traded up to land wide receiver Julio Jones with the sixth pick. The Seahawks selected offensive tackle James Carpenter at No. 25; three selections later, the Saints traded back into the first round to nab 2009 Heisman Trophy-winning running back Mark Ingram.
That might make this statement a bit astounding: No program returns a more talented roster in 2011 than the Crimson Tide.
NFLDraftScout.com currently rates seven of Alabama's senior prospects as having a draftable grade, led by defensive tackle Josh Chapman, linebacker Courtney Upshaw and safety Mark Barron. All three enter the season as candidates to go among the first 50 picks of the 2012 draft.
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Alabama also has a talented crew of underclassmen, including running back Trent Richardson, cornerback 'Dre Kirkpatrick, linebackers Nico Johnson and Don'ta Hightower and safety Robert Lester. Each is among the country's top young prospects at their positions.
This isn't the case of just nabbing a hot recruit or two, according to one long-time NFL scout, who views the full-scale renaissance at Alabama as the result of a carefully orchestrated plan. He said Alabama has arguably the best football teachers at any level.
"I don't know that there is a better-run team in the country than Alabama," the scout said. "I mean from top to bottom, A to Z, Saban and that staff have rebuilt that program into a legitimate football factory. They run that program with the organization and dedication of an NFL front office. And not just any front office -- a highly effective one."
That Saban runs his program like an NFL front office is not surprising, considering his experience at the professional level. He served as defensive backs coach with the Houston Oilers in 1988-89 and was Bill Belichick's defensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns from 1991-94. He's most infamously known by NFL fans as coach of the Miami Dolphins in 2005-06. His tenure is memorable only in that it lasted just two seasons, didn't result in a postseason berth and concluded with a messy divorce from the organization when he accepted the Alabama job despite repeated public denials he had any interest in going back to college.
Saban's unceremonious departure from Miami remains a sore spot for many fans, but it is generally a nonissue with scouts. Love him or hate him, the man knows football and how to develop players for the next level.
"Saban knows his schemes in and out," the scout said. "He knows exactly what he's looking for in a player. Alabama does a great job of recruiting -- and by that I don't mean they just sign highly rated players because some recruiting service says they're good. They are identifying the types of players that fit their system and then they are coaching the hell out of those players.
"By the time those players leave Alabama, they are technically sound. And that, unfortunately, doesn't happen at every school. A lot of schools get good players, but for whatever reason they aren't able to develop them. Alabama takes good college players and makes them good NFL prospects."
The number and variety of pro prospects that Saban and his staff are developing at Alabama is what most in the NFL consider so impressive.
Some coaches are known for the ability to consistently churn out talent at certain positions. Joe Paterno -- and defensive coordinators Jerry Sandusky and Tom Bradley -- long ago earned Penn State the moniker "Linebacker U."
Iowa's Kirk Ferentz is the preeminent developer of pro-ready offensive linemen.
North Carolina's Butch Davis has emerged as an incredible cultivator of front-seven, and more specifically line, defenders.
Cal's Jeff Tedford is often recognized for his work with quarterbacks, though his success producing running backs is actually more impressive.
Saban's experience as a player and coach in the defensive backfield is revered. But rather than just one position of expertise, Saban's fingerprints are all over the program and its ascension as a pro pipeline.
Consider that over the past three years, Alabama has sent at least one player at every position on offense and defense to the NFL. Kicker Leigh Tiffin even signed a free-agent deal with the Cleveland Browns following the 2010 draft. Few, if any, other programs boast that all-encompassing success in any time frame.
Scouts say Alabama seems likely to continue to churn out pro talent.
|Dont'a Hightower -- an LB compared to Rolando McClain -- is still working to recover from his 2009 ACL injury. (Getty Images)|
"Assuming he doesn't leave for greener pastures again, they could be very good for a long time."
A closer look at the top 10 Alabama prospects for the 2012 NFL Draft (listed alphabetically):
SS Mark Barron, 6-feet-2, 218 pounds, senior
Physical and a reliable open-field tackler, Barron is considered by most pro scouts to be Alabama's top senior prospect.
DT Josh Chapman, 6-1, 315, senior
A classic nose guard. He fits in nicely in Alabama's scheme, and his square frame and incredible strength make him one of the country's top run defenders.
OLB Jerrell Harris, 6-2, 238, senior
An athletic defender who has flashed signs of greatness throughout his career and could enjoy a breakout senior season.
ILB Dont'a Hightower, 6-4, 258, junior
An immediate standout in 2008, Hightower tore his ACL in 2009 and hadn't regained his speed yet last season. When healthy, he has drawn comparisons to former 'Bama standout and 2010 first-round pick Rolando McClain.
CB 'Dre Kirkpatrick, 6-2, 192, junior
A second-team All-SEC pick as a true sophomore, Kirkpatrick is a long, lanky corner whose size and physicality could lead to a move to safety at the NFL level.
FS Robert Lester, 6-2, 210, junior
Opportunistic ball hawk led the team and finished second in the country last season with eight interceptions.
WR Marquis Maze, 5-8, 190, senior
A big-play specialist at receiver and punt returner, Maze averaged more yards per touch last season than Julio Jones.
RB Trent Richardson, 5-11, 224, junior
He has more natural ability than former teammate and 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram.
ILB Courtney Upshaw, 6-2, 268, senior
Gifted pass rusher with a knack for finding open lanes. Led the Tide with 14½ tackles for loss and seven sacks last season despite missing two games with an ankle sprain.
C William Vlachos, 6-1, 300, senior
Took over for former All-American and Houston Texans third-round draft pick Antoine Caldwell and hasn't looked back. A second-team All-SEC pick last season, he's currently NFLDraftScout.com's No. 4-rated center for the 2012 draft.
Rob Rang is a senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange. Follow him on Twitter at @RobRang.