In preparation for the 2014 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.
NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS
NFL Draft picks the last five years: 23
2013 NFL Draft picks: five -- OG Jonathan Cooper (first round, Arizona Cardinals), DT Sylvester Williams (first round, Denver Broncos), RB Giovani Bernard (second round, Cincinnati Bengals), OT Brennan Williams (third round, Houston Texans), OL Travis Bond (seventh round, Minnesota Vikings)
Despite up-and-down results on the field, North Carolina continues to recruit and produce NFL talent each year. The Tar Heels boast at least one NFL Draft pick in 42 of the past 43 years, including at least one first-round pick each of the last three NFL Drafts. And that trend should continue in the 2014 NFL Draft as North Carolina has multiple prospects who have a chance to be top-32 picks next April.
The upcoming season will mark year two of the Larry Fedora era at North Carolina and with the talent on the roster, an ACC title isn't out of the question as the young players develop in his system. The Tar Heels had three top-40 draft picks this past April, the first time they have done so since 1998, but they might be able to match that feat in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Top North Carolina prospects for the 2014 NFL Draft
1. TE Eric Ebron (6-4, 230, 4.67)*
The underclassmen group of tight end prospects will be an interesting collection of talent to watch this season with well-known names like Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Oregon's Colt Lyerla. But don't count out Ebron as an NFL prospect who could emerge as a first-round caliber tight end between now and next April. He finished second on the team last season in receiving yards (625), adding 40 catches and four touchdowns while also taking snaps on defense as an edge rusher. Ebron is a fantastic athlete with the speed and short-area burst to get off the line and create room to work against defenders. He still needs to grow as a pass-catcher to be more reliable as a finisher, but he works hard to box out and attack the ball in the air. Ebron is a mean, physical blocker who will extend his long arms to jolt defenders and drive them from the play. He does need to stay under control at the point of attack to lock onto his man and stay balanced through contact. Overall, Ebron has a terrific combination of natural athleticism and raw strength that is needed for the position and if he continues to develop his body and focus on the details, he has the makings of a starting dual-threat tight end in the NFL.
2. Kareem Martin (6-5, 260, 4.73)
Entering his third season as the starter, Martin has shown NFL flashes since his freshman season at North Carolina and if he gets closer to his full potential as a senior in 2013, then the ACC might produce yet another impact pass rusher for the next level. He is an intriguing athlete with the frame and length ideally suited for the position and has reportedly worked hard to try to maximize his growth potential. Martin has good natural burst to get off the ball, but he also has the range and foot speed to cover a lot of ground. He is still developing his instincts, but is already a stout run defender, showing the ability to anchor, read, react and attack to be a force vs. the run. Martin admittedly only knew a fraction of the playbook last season as Fedora and his coaches changed schemes, but he is up to full speed now so improvements are expected from the senior with more than a year under his belt with the new coaches. He has the tools to be the top senior defensive end in the country.
3. OT James Hurst (6-6, 310, 5.43)
A five-star recruit out of high school in Indiana, Hurst spurned offers from Alabama, Ohio State and basically every other program in the country to enroll at North Carolina. He earned the starting left tackle job as a true freshman and has started 36 games there the past three seasons. Hurst passes the eye test with a tall, well-proportioned frame with adequate bulk. Hurst is a smart, heady player with improved instincts and anticipation to recognize defensive pressures and adjust accordingly. He works hard to square his shoulders and stay balanced on the move, easily getting to the second level with better foot quickness than expected. Hurst has room to improve his hand placement and technique, especially in space, but he understands angles and plays like a seasoned veteran. Hurst will be tested in the 2013 season opener against Jadeveon Clowney so the Tar Heels left tackle will have the opportunity to prove right away that he's a top-tier prospect.
4. S Tre Boston (6-1, 190, 4.43)
One of the better senior safety prospects entering the 2013 season, Boston started his Tar Heels career at cornerback before transitioning to safety prior to his sophomore season. He started at strong safety each of the past two seasons and led the team in interceptions both years, giving him eight career picks entering his final season at North Carolina. Boston has a lean, athletic body type and flashes the speed and range to cover a large area in the deep half of the field. He is comfortable in space with the natural balance and body control to handle cover assignments or come off his man to make a play on the ball. Boston has room to clean up his tackling technique, but he led the team in tackles last season with 86 stops and isn't afraid to get physical with ballcarriers. He still has room to grow, but Boston is in that discussion to be one of the top safety prospects drafted next April.
5. QB Bryn Renner (6-3, 215, 4.79)
Renner has steadily improve his production the past two seasons and finished strong in 2012 with four straight 300-yard passing performances to end the year with an 11-2 TD-INT ratio over that stretch. As North Carolina enters the second year of Fedora's offense, the stage is set for him to take a big leap forward as a signal caller. The son of a football coach, Renner is a tough-minded competitor who might replace Arkansas' Tyler Wilson as the toughest quarterback in college football. He doesn't have an elite arm and will get himself in trouble when forcing throws, but he shows good-enough arm strength for the next level with downfield touch. Renner understands how to find mismatches and exploit them, doing a nice job taking what the defense gives him. His ball placement and on-field leadership need to be refined, but he'll look down the gun barrel and give his weapons a chance to make a play. While he won't “wow” with his physical tools, Renner is an intriguing quarterback prospect who might surprise as a senior if he continues to improve.
Other North Carolina prospects worth watching:
RB AJ Blue (6-2, 230, 4.59)
With Bernard now in the NFL, Blue, who averaged 5.3 yards per carry last year as a back-up, is expected to be the North Carolina feature back in 2013.
C Russell Bodine (6-3, 305, 5.09)*
After taking over the starting center job last season, Bodine graded as one of the ACC's top linemen and is one of the better underclassmen centers in the nation.
CB Tim Scott (5-11, 180, 4.48)*
Already with 20 starts to his name after just two years in Chapel Hill, Scott had a team-best 12 passes defended last season.