There are a few schools lauded in the scouting community for their ability to consistently develop pro-caliber players, and Alabama has been at the top of the list since Nick Saban arrived in 2007. The former NFL head coach runs his program like a pro team, so scouts tend to favor Crimson Tide players due to their extensive preparation.
From understanding the nuances of film study to executing a game plan that mirrors the complexities of a pro call sheet, Alabama players have routinely been able to make immediate contributions as rookies because the game is not too big for them at the NFL level. This was confirmed in a conversation with Marcell Dareus last fall, when he attributed his rookie success to learning how to prepare as a pro under Saban.
Given the importance of identifying prospects with the ability to make immediate contributions, scouts are paying close attention to a handful of prospects set to work out at Alabama's pro day Thursday.
After poring over several game tapes, I believe there are five Alabama prospects carrying first-round grades heading into the final phase of the evaluation process for the 2012 NFL Draft. However, each player faces questions that could affect draft position. Here is what I will look for when I watch these five prospects work out in front of evaluators Thursday:
Trent Richardson, RB: Richardson is regarded as the top running back prospect in 2012 draft class, but he hasn't worked out since recovering from knee surgery following the season. Although his standing at the top of the RB class isn't in jeopardy, Richardson can cement his status as a top-10 pick with a strong showing on the field Thursday. Scouts will want to check out his speed, quickness and agility in a series of position drills to see if his explosiveness in person matches what he has shown on tape. In addition, evaluators want to see how well Richardson catches the ball out of the backfield. He has amassed 58 receptions over the course of his career, but he doesn't appear to be a natural pass catcher capable of being featured in the passing game. Given the shift of the NFL from a run-first league to one dominated by the pass, Richardson needs to be a factor in all aspects to warrant consideration as a special player at the position.
Courtney Upshaw, DE/OLB: Upshaw was one of Alabama's most disruptive defenders, routinely dominating the competition in big games. He excels at creating havoc off the edges and is adept at producing game-changing plays against the run or pass. While he occasionally flashes first-step quickness to defeat blockers, Upshaw's game is built upon strength and power. However, his physical dimensions (6-foot-2, 272 pounds) could put him at a disadvantage against NFL offensive tackles, and he doesn't appear to have elite speed or burst. He also doesn't appear to have the athleticism to spend an inordinate amount of time dropping into coverage or playing in space. That's why scouts need to put him through the paces to see if he is best suited as a 4-3 defensive end or playing from an upright stance in a 3-4. To convince evaluators he's worthy of a lofty draft slot, he must run well and look smoother in transitions than he did at the NFL Scouting Combine. If he fails to impress, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Upshaw fall to the bottom of the first round by draft day.
Mark Barron, S: Barron is the cleanest safety prospect in the draft. He is a rare deep middle player with the ability to contribute as a ball hawk while also showing the physicality and toughness to be an effective defender near the line of scrimmage. Although those critical factors have pushed Barron into mid-first-round consideration, scouts need to determine if he possesses the athleticism, movement skills and footwork to effectively cover tight ends in man coverage. Barron's recovery from double hernia surgery might keep him from fully participating at the pro day, but he will need to put his skills on display at private workouts to convince teams he has the goods to be a difference maker at the position.
Dre Kirkpatrick, CB: Kirkpatrick was once viewed as a lock to be the second corner off the board in this draft (behind LSU's Morris Claiborne), but scouts are increasingly concerned about his speed and movement skills. Though he posted times in the high 4.4 range at the combine, evaluators aren't convinced that he plays to that speed on tape. In addition, some coaches have expressed concerns about his ability to fit into various schemes due to his extensive experience in press-bail coverage. Therefore, he will undergo an intensive positional workout to gauge his athleticism, quickness and technical skills. Scouts will gauge how well he can hold up in isolated matchups on the perimeter by watching him backpedal, break-and-drive and execute a series of turns and transitions. With others at the position (South Carolina's Stephon Gilmore and North Alabama's Janoris Jenkins) pushing hard for the No. 2 spot, Kirkpatrick has to respond to the pressure with a great workout in front of scouts.
Dont'a Hightower, ILB: Hightower's stock is on the rise following his impressive workout at the combine. He surprised coaches and scouts with his quickness and athleticism, and displayed better movement skills than anyone anticipated prior to his workout. To build upon that momentum, Hightower will need to put on a standout performance in positional drills. Teams will want to see if he can be a versatile three-down linebacker capable of providing a pass-rushing presence on third down to complement his role as a run stuffer on early downs. Additionally, coaches will want to see if he is comfortable covering running backs and tight ends in space. Hightower seemingly addressed those concerns with his showing in Indianapolis, but an encore performance could vault him into consideration as a top-20 pick.
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