LINCOLN — A week from now, a bunch of ex-Huskers will be clutching a new playbook. Or sorting through various free agent offers. Or still waiting for the phone to ring, for a shot at a professional football dream.
The NFL draft will change local football lives. A lot of them, considering the size of NU's senior class. Enough players have carved success out of humble beginnings that several Huskers know that all it takes is a chance and the right team to give it. But naturally, it's easier to go during the NFL draft.
Most Huskers won't.
Judging by NFL Combine invites (just Rex Burkhead, Daimion Stafford and kicker Brett Maher), scouts are cool on the talent Bo Pelini assembled in his 2008 and 2009 recruiting classes. At some spots — the whole defense, minus an injured Baker Steinkuhler — I get the trepidation. NU's lack of top-flight athleticism contributed to giving up big plays last year. There were tackles not made and pursuit angles not sufficient.
I'm not quite as clear on why tight ends Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton aren't attracting as much attention. It's a strong year for tight ends — UCLA stud Joseph Fauria is a late-round projection — but Reed and Cotton are versatile, well-conditioned, experienced weapons. But undrafted free agency appears their lot.
NFL draft talent doesn't automatically correlate to collegiate success. But Nebraska averaged 5.9 draftees a year from 1993 to 2002. In the next 10 drafts, NU had 3.9 per year. The best team in that stretch — the 2010 squad — had seven. No other year produced more than five. Those stats are more than a coincidence.
Nebraska took 48 players in 2008 and 2009, and thus far two — defensive backs Alfonzo Dennard and DeJon Gomes (junior college prospect) — have been drafted from those classes. If Burkhead and Stafford get drafted, that's only three from the first two classes, since Stafford arrived in 2011. Then again, Reed and Cotton — both 2008 recruits — could slide in, as could Steinkuhler as he recovers from a torn ACL. Plenty is possible.
Burkhead is the guy whose name NU fans will watch to flash on the screen. Tune in Saturday afternoon, I'd say in the middle rounds. ESPN's Jon Gruden — if he's still around the set — will talk up No. 22's intangibles for the allotted 15 seconds. NFL Network's Mike Mayock — a football wonk if there ever were one — will probably highlight Burkhead's limitations. Mayock has a penchant for that, in my viewing experience.
Knocks on Burkhead's lack of top-end speed seem beside the point; a highlight tape could have shown Burkhead's not a natural burner. But he works holes well, catches the ball, blocks and still makes plays in the fourth quarter. When a team needs two yards, Burkhead's good for three. If you're not on the top shelf of total NFL studs — Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson, Arian Foster — that's a good kind of NFL back to be. Swiss Army Rex. The team that lands him will be pleased.
Maher could get drafted, too, depending on how needy teams are for kickers. I project Maher to be as good in the pros as Alex Henery is for the Philadelphia Eagles. Which is to say, yes, Maher will be one of the 10 best in the league.
Stafford's a puzzler. He's undoubtedly a hitter, and Nebraska's average front seven made him look worse against the run at times than he actually was. Plus, in a true zone pass defense, I could see Stafford making good breaks on passes and picking a few off. He'll get drafted in a late round.
How does it look for the 2014 draft? Much the same as the 2013 draft, with the addition of Spencer Long, who could be NU's highest-drafted lineman since Toniu Fonoti went in the second round in 2002. Yes, it's been awhile.
Below are rankings from CBS Sports' NFLDraftScout.com. All of the rankings are updated as of April 10 and for seniors only. The round predictions are mine.
Spencer Long (No. 4 guard): Smart, tough and consistent, Long can likely play either side of the line and, most important, he's stayed healthy. Rounds 2-3.
Taylor Martinez (No. 13 quarterback): It will be hard for NFL teams to say no to Martinez's athleticism for seven rounds. He'll run a good 40-yard dash time. He'll jump well. His mechanics will not light up a room, so playing quarterback seems unlikely unless he changes his technique significantly on the deep ball. But he'll get a look somewhere. Safety. Wide receiver. Somewhere. Rounds 4-5.
Ciante Evans (No. 23 cornerback): I like him more than scout lists do, because I've seen him tackle out on the edge as a freshman. He's good enough to be a No. 3 or No. 4 corner for some team. Rounds 5-7.
Jeremiah Sirles (No. 12 offensive tackle): He needs a full year of health, but Sirles is versatile and pretty good as a run blocker on the edge. With a better senior year as a pass blocker, I think he gets an NFL Combine invite. He's been better and healthier in college than Marcel Jones, who got drafted. Rounds 6-7.
Jason Ankrah (No. 19 defensive end): Great-looking frame with, so far, average production. But there are guys who find their groove as fifth-year seniors, and that may be Ankrah. He might be better in the NFL if playing the zone read isn't a constant responsibility. Rounds 6-7.
Other players in the rankings: Brent Qvale (No. 18 offensive tackle); C.J. Zimmerer (No. 5 fullback); Cole Pensick (No. 20 center); Quincy Enunwa (No. 34 wide receiver); Thad Randle (No. 55 defensive tackle).
Juniors ranked: Ameer Abdullah (No. 7 running back); Kenny Bell (No. 11 wide receiver); Jamal Turner (No. 25 receiver).
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