The draft came, the draft went (during which the Vikings made some, um, "curious" decisions shall we say), and for the second time in the past three drafts not a single Minnesota Golden Gopher was selected. I'm sure QB Adam Weber will get an opportunity somewhere as an undrafted free agent, but he's probably the only Gopher with a chance to latch on anywhere in the NFL. Is there any hope for next year? Are we in for another draft where nobody from the U will hear their names called?
No way. While I don't see a stampede of Gophers going to the podium to shake the commissioner's hand in 2012, we'll have at least one guy in Maroon and Gold drafted, and perhaps as early as day 2. If the U has a successful season (hello bowl game!) it's possible Minnesota could have at least four players drafted in the 2012 draft, which would be as many Gophers that were drafted in the past five drafts (2007-2011) combined. Barring a Cam Newton-type season from junior QB MarQueis Gray, I don't see Q or any other Minnesota underclassmen declaring early for the draft, which leaves us with the 22 seniors on the 2011 squad. Now, a couple of things to keep in mind here:
1) I'm not a draft expert. I know, shocking but true.
2) NFL teams don't always do what's expected. For example, as Adam Rittenberg notes, it's pretty surprising that both Ohio State WR Dane Sanzenbacher and Wisconsin RB John Clay went undrafted. While neither player were expected to be high picks, it's still pretty surprising that two guys who were as successful and productive in the Big Ten weren't drafted at all.
So while I think the Gophs could potentially have four players drafted, nothing's guaranteed. The potential draftees for 2012 are...
These five could put themselves on the NFL draft radar with a big senior season.
Brandon Kirksey and Anthony Jacobs, Defensive Line
Both guys have good size at 6'2 and almost 300 pounds, and if they can get upfield and be disruptive in Tracy Claey's new defensive scheme, they have a chance to be drafted. Although, if former Gopher DT's Eric Small and Garrett Brown (who both were bigger than Kirksey and Jacobs and had pretty productive senior seasons in 2009 when the Gophers went bowling) couldn't get drafted, it might be a long shot for these guys. Still, I'm putting them here.
Kim Royston, Safety
There's a lot working against Royston getting drafting: Safeties have never been a real high value position in the NFL (there are consistently less safeties drafted than almost any other position), he doesn't have prototypical size (5'11, 195) or speed, and he's coming off a significant leg injury. Still, Royston was very productive in his last full season in 2009 as one of Minnesota's leading tacklers, and thus far it looks like he'll be 100% to start the season. He should be one of the leading tacklers again this season, and if he can show some improvement in pass defense, he has a chance to play at the next level.
Duane Bennett, Running Back
Like Royston, Duane plays a devalued position at running back, where NFL teams are literally pulling undrafted free agents off the street and getting production. On the one hand, that could be good for Duane, as not getting drafted doesn't mean he won't still get a chance. On the other hand, with so many good backs around these days, there's also a lot of competition. Bennett has a career rushing average of over 4.0 yards per carry, has shown a good burst at the line, an ability to run between the tackles, and is a good receiver out of the backfield. He has a pretty appealing combination of skills, but his one big problem has been staying healthy. Bennett had a few big performances in 2008 before blowing out his knee. He wasn't 100% in 2009, and just when it looked like the old Duane in 2010, he again hurt himself two games into the 2010 season and just wasn't the same. IF he can stay healthy, Duane has all-conference ability, and in a run-first offense is going to be given every opportunity to be the bell-cow of this offense. The gigantic question, however, is whether he can stay healthy enough to do it.
Gary Tinsley, LB
Tinsley has the size to play outside in the NFL (6'1, 237), and was Minnesota's best defender in 2010, leading them in tackles and being one of the few guys on that side of the ball who made plays every game. This season, he might not even start, as some nagging injuries cost him reps and a starting position. Still, I see him playing his way back into significant playing time this fall, and if he plays, he's going to produce. And if he produces, with his size and speed, he's going to put himself on the NFL's radar.
POTENTIAL LATE ROUND GUYS
Troy Stoudermire, CB
Stoudermire almost left the program midway through last season after he was switched from receiver to corner. Thankfully for him, and the team, he decided to stick it out and put his best efforts into his new position and it paid off, as he was Minnesota's best DB the last four games of the season. He carried that momentum into the spring as perhaps the team's most impressive defender in spring practice, showing not just a willingness to hit, but a real love for it, as he laid out a few guys in scrimmages and practice. With his quickness and speed, as well as decent size (5'10 and a buck-95) he's also been good in coverage, and is an all-conference candidate for 2011. Add in his dynamic abilites as a return man, and Stoudermire could be a very attractive package for NFL teams that can never have enough corners.
Eric Lair, TE
Last season Lair established himself as one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the Big Ten, finishing third on the team with 39 catches for 526 yards and 2 TD's. While he doesn't have prototypical NFL size at just 239 pounds (that shows you how far the position has advanced when 239 is now considered undersized for a TE. Yowsers!), having Jerry Kill and Matt Limegrover as coaches could do wonders for his NFL prospects, as they're going to work hard with him on improving as a blocker. We saw some pretty awesome videos from spring practice where he was taking on bigger linemen and holding his own in the Oklahoma drill, so if he can prove to his coaches (and therefore the NFL) that he's as serious about blocking as he is about catching the ball, he's got a real chance to play on Sundays.
THE SLAM DUNK
Da'Jon McKnight, WR
I really believe that McKnight has the opportunity to be an even higher drafted receiver than Eric Decker was two years ago (Decker was a third round pick of the Broncos, but obviously could have gone even higher had he not been injured and able to work out for teams). McKnight is even bigger, more physical, and just as fast as Decker was, so the physical tools are all there. In 2010 he led the team in catches and yards, and tied for the Big Ten lead in TD's, yet he's still lacking the production Decker had to this point in his career. The biggest reason? Opportunities, or a real lackthereof. Adam Weber had an undying trust and belief in Decker to the point he was throwing to him at all costs- and most of the time Decker came down with it anyway. To this point, McKnight hasn't seen those kind of chances from game to game, but that could all change this season, as McKnight is far and away the best option at wide receiver. Even though Lair will/better get a lot of looks himself, when this offense needs a first down or a big pass play, you'd better believe they'll be looking at #6. Even if he's double-teamed, he showed the ability last season to make a big play in traffic and make the tough catch. McKnight enters the 2011 season as Minnesota's best player, but also the most underrated player in the Big Ten. If they throw to him enough, he should be a first team all-conference selection, and could vault himself into a third or fourth round selection in next year's NFL draft.