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COLUMN

Which Notre Dame players will be NFL Combine stars?

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For more on the NFL Combine, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1

Four or five players could go in first two rounds of draft

Thursday, February 20, 2014 - 4:26 pm

Notre Dame will forever be a lightning rod for college football fans who divide evenly along a love-hate line. The NFL couldn't care less.

For NFL coaches, general managers and owners, it's all an individual bottom line: Can you play at the next level?

Nine former Notre Dame players will be on display at the NFL Combine this weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Some will be taken in the first or second round of the May draft. Some will be free-agent signees. Some will be disillusioned by a lack of interest.

Here's how I see them shaking out in terms of interest from NFL teams:

1. Zack Martin, left tackle, 6-4, 308

The Irish have five players with legitimate shots at going in the first two rounds of the draft, but Martin is the most solid, reliable bet.

Martin started in all 52 games he played at Notre Dame, a sign of durability, especially on the line where collisions and other unmentionables are a way of life. He was one of the few Irish players who played up to par in the national title blowout loss to Alabama two years ago. He has the flexibility to play other spots on the line, which is another selling point.

“I think he can play tackle, but the beauty in this kid is he can play all five positions in the NFL,” NFL Draft analyst Mike Mayock said in a conference call. “Some teams look at him as a Pro Bowl guard.”

2. Louis Nix III, nose tackle, 6-2, 345

Nix is puzzling because he has so much potential but injuries and ineffectiveness have put some question marks on him. Most believe he needs to be in the 330-pound range, and it'll be interesting to see how much he weighs this week.

Nix has great quickness and good strength, but he'll have to prove his health, having dealt with a torn meniscus and knee tendinitis.

“Can he gain an edge and push the pocket?” Mayock said. “If you believe in that, then he's probably a top-20 pick. He's a rare 330-pound nose tackle with some movement skills.”

One asset for Nix is his strong personality and good attitude. He needs to combine that with performance.

3. Stephon Tuitt, defensive end, 6-5, 315

Tuitt has the body type to be a dominate defensive end. He's very athletic for his size although some have noted he isn't exceptionally quick getting off the ball. Another issue is whether he was in great shape in his junior (and final) Notre Dame season.

If he posts strong numbers throughout the testing, and does well in interviews, he could raise his stock, possibly into the first round.

“If he went somewhere between 25 and 50, it wouldn't surprise me,” Mayock said.

But in Mayock's ranking of the top five prospects at each position, Tuitt didn't make the cut.

4. Troy Niklas, tight end, 6-6, 270

Teams are going to like Niklas' size, especially if they can be convinced that he'll be an effective blocker. He's still relatively new to tight end, having converted from defense, playing two seasons, including one behind the Cincinnati Bengals' Tyler Eifert.

Scouts will be paying particular attention to Nicklas' knack for precise route running and his reliability in making a variety of catches.

Since his potential is greater than his resume, he could end up being a third- or fourth-round pick with a team that already has a solid No.1 tight end.

“If he commits to becoming a good in-line blocker,” Mayock said, “he could be the best blocking tight end in the NFL in two or three years.”

5. Chris Watt, guard, 6-3, 318

You have to love the phrase on NFL.com's analysis of Watt: “Needs more sand in his pants.” In other words, he'll need to prove he can build additional strength so he can't be pushed around by the big men on the defensive line.

Scouts seem to love that Watt has a very tough, lunch-bucket mentality that is essential to playing on the offensive line, particularly in the overlooked role of a guard.

6. T.J. Jones, wide receiver, 5-11, 193

Jones is a solid wide receiver, but this is a fairly deep draft class so his lack of “wow” speed might end up keeping him further down in the draft.

But his selling points are attractive for teams looking for a late-round No.3 receiver with No.2 potential. He runs good routes. He doesn't drop many passes. He has the team captain character that is necessary if you're not the No.1 receiver. You don't have to be the fastest receiver to excel in the NFL. He'd be a great third option for Peyton Manning and the Broncos.

7. Prince Shembo, outside linebacker, 6-1 254

Shembo is the type of player who is likely to have to find a niche early on special teams. That's not a knock, necessarily. Players such as the Colts' Robert Mathis made their mark early in that role.

He's a little smaller than the ideal outside linebacker, but he has shown strong tackling skills, which are essential.

8. Bennett Jackson, defensive back, 6-0, 187

He's a former wide receiver so that means he has decent hands (but not great, or he'd have stayed at wide receiver). Like Shembo, his special teams experience will be a plus, and he's pretty good size for a cornerback.

The question is whether he has the necessary defensive-back instincts to play regularly at the NFL level.

9. George Atkinson, running back, 6-1, 220

Atkinson's selling point is his speed, and that could make him a possible kick returner at the NFL level. But he didn't show much as a running back at Notre Dame to warrant high interest from NFL teams.

Running backs don't carry the value they once had in the NFL, Atkinson's mediocre college career doesn't bode well for being more than a free-agent camp signee. He needs to test very well at the Combine, and he must interview well enough to explain why he wasn't more productive at Notre Dame.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.