Evaluating Notre Dame’s five early NFL Draft prospects

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Notre Dame submitted five names to the NFL Draft advisory board, looking for feedback on juniors Will Fuller and Jaylon Smith and seniors C.J. Prosise, KeiVarae Russell and Ronnie Stanley. Brian Kelly said he’d be meeting with all five players to discuss their NFL future before any decisions are made.

“We’ll see where that goes. I hope they all come back. I don’t know if that’s going to be the case, but we’ll see,” Kelly said Sunday.

For the Irish, it appears that two prospects have bright immediate futures at the next level. Stanley, who’ll graduate at the semester but has a fifth-year of eligibility remaining, and Smith, who has started for three seasons at Notre Dame, notching 100-tackle seasons in both 2014 and 2015. Both are widely believed to be first round prospects, at or near the top of their position group heading into the evaluation season.

The other three players aren’t quite as cut and dry. For Fuller, a two-season run as one of college football’s most explosive players has been undercut by some bad drops. Prosise’s single-season greatness, not to mention his versatility as a receiver, make him an intriguing prospect at the next level, but he’s far from a readymade player at a position already devalued with talent.

Russell’s return to college football wasn’t necessarily as triumphant as many expected. Now he’ll spend the majority of his combine prep time rehabbing from a major leg injury, far from an ideal situation for a defensive back that needs to show great testing numbers to be drafted anywhere in the first three rounds.

To get an outside perspective on the decisions each of these five players have in front of them I reached out to Josh Norris. He’s the NFL Draft writer for Rotoworld and NBC Sports and took some time to breakdown each prospect.

Norris seems to be with just about everybody else who believes that both Smith and Stanley have top of the first round potential. Here’s his quick eval on Notre Dame’s All-American linebacker:

Plenty of games where [Smith] shows complete LB traits. Athletic and quick enough to work around blocks and succeed in coverage, strong enough to take on blocks and shed when necessary. Aggressive finisher. Early round 1 pick is within reach.

While some wondered if Stanley’s “struggles” during the 2015 season would impact his draft grade, it appears that he remains the same type of high-ceiling prospect that finds his way to the first round as well.

Norris believes Stanley will compete with Ole Miss’s Laremy Tunsil for the top tackle off the board, with many NFL scouts keeping a very close eye on the Fiesta Bowl battle between Stanley and Ohio State’s Joey Bosa.

I remain a big fan of Stanley’s. Sure, he was beat a few times against Clemson and sprinkled in some other “losses” against other teams, but all tackles lose. I think he offers great size, length and athleticism, which can equal power. He and Laremy Tunsil will compete for the top tackle spot.

From there, it appears that Notre Dame’s three remaining draft prospects would do their stock a favor by returning to school in 2016. For as dynamic as Fuller has been, he’s projecting as a Round 2 or 3 type player right now, per Norris.

“A team who drafts him (in 2016 or 2017) will have to understand the drops come with the big plays,” Norris explained. “Therefore, benching him or decreasing reps because of drops is pointless. It is who he is. He will atone for a mistake with a huge play.”

Prosise projects to be a similar player to another former Irish running back/receiver, the Detroit Lions’ Theo Riddick. While we all know Prosise has better breakaway speed, Riddick’s instincts as a runner and ability as a pass catcher have allowed him to find a niche at the next level. That might be what teams think they can get from Prosise, which is why Norris sees him as a fourth round-type back entering the offseason.

Lastly, KeiVarae Russell’s senior season left a lot of scouts trying to understand what to make of him. After appearing to be on a great trajectory at the end of his sophomore season, Russell allowed 14 catches on 29 downfield targets, a stat that left many thinking he was rustier than he let on. Russell may have accomplished his goal of returning to South Bend and earning his degree, but he may help his career by coming back in 2016.

“[Russell] was far from consistent. Maybe it can be chalked up to missed time in 2014, and I bet some evaluators will conclude it was,” Norris said.

Last year, Brian Kelly, Jack Swarbrick and a contingent from Notre Dame sat down with Sheldon Day and Stanley as the duo weighed NFL options. Both opted to stay after talking things through.

This year, those conversations will happen—even with Fuller, who pledged his return a few weeks back and Smith, who everybody assumes is gone. As Kelly has shown in the past, his recruiting skills have helped keep Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Tyler Eifert and Michael Floyd. Building on the team’s 2015 success, keeping players like Fuller, Prosise and Russell could lead to a very impressive 2016.