Which ACC Players Will Go In NFL Draft’s 1st Round?

Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins is one of several ACC players who could be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins is one of several ACC players who could be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.

The NFL Draft begins tonight, with the first round taking place for a primetime television audience. Several ACC players could hear their names called tonight at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, culminating stellar collegiate careers.

North Carolina’s Jonathan Cooper is the first ACC player seen in most mock drafts. Cooper will likely become the first Tar Heel offensive lineman taken in the first round since Harris Barton, who was selected by the San Francisco 49ers with the 22nd pick of the 1987 draft. Cooper’s athleticism and power allowed him to start eight games as a freshman and improve with each season in Chapel Hill. In 2012, Cooper was a consensus All-American and an Outland Trophy finalist, establishing him as one of the best linemen in this draft class. At the NFL scouting combine, Cooper completed 35 reps in the bench press, placing him third amongst offensive linemen.

Defensively, the Tar Heels expect defensive tackle Sylvester Williams to join Cooper in the first round. Seven of North Carolina’s last eight first-round selections have been defensive linemen. Williams was largely unrecruited in high school, and initiallly didn’t play football anywhere, working at a manufacturing plant after graduation. He walked on at Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College before transferring to UNC, making his journey to the NFL an unlikely one.

Florida State could place multiple players in the first round of the draft. Many mock drafts list defensive ends Bjoern Werner and Cornellius “Tank” Carradine, offensive tackle Menelik Wilson, and cornerback Xavier Rhodes as Seminoles who could have their name called Thursday night.

Werner led Florida State in tackles for loss (18) while recording an ACC-best 13 sacks in 2012, earning ACC Defensive Player of the Year. He also showed an ability to time a jump or drop into coverage to defend passes when he wasn’t sacking quarterbacks, breaking up 18 passes during his time in Tallahassee.

Carradine joined Werner on the Seminoles’ defensive line (and the All-ACC first team). Carradine sacked opposing quarterbacks 11 times and was leading the team in tackles before suffering a torn ACL against Florida on November 24. Despite the injury coming so late in the season, Carradine recorded a 4.93 40-yard dash at Florida State’s pro day five months later, making him an intriguing prospect in this year’s draft. Two Seminole defensive linemen, Kamerion Wimbley and Brodrick Bunkley, were taken in the first round of the 2006 draft, so Werner and Carradine hope for a repeat of that.

Xavier Rhodes started 38 of his 43 games in Florida State, establishing himself as one of the best cover corners in college football. Rhodes defended 23 passes during his three-year career, recording eight interceptions. Scouts are impressed with his physicality and willingness to play press coverage, which should ease his transition to the NFL. Rhodes also tied for best cornerback performances in the vertical jump (40.5”) and the broad jump (11.0”) at the NFL scouting combine.

Offensively, Florida State’s most likely first round draftee is offensive tackle Menelik Watson. Like Werner (hailing from Berlin, Germany), Watson came to the United States from Europe. After an injury terminated hopes of playing the sport called football in his native Manchester, Great Britain, Watson turned to basketball and earned a scholarship to play for Marist. However, playing time was limited, and he was encouraged to try American football. This led him to starting at Florida State by way of Saddleback College. During his lone season in Tallahassee, Watson’s natural ability earned him 12 starts, where he allowed just one sack in 2012.

While most mock drafts leave E.J. Manuel out of the first round, he is the ACC player most likely to sneak into the first round or be selected early in the second round when the draft resumes on Friday. His physical tools as a 6’5” quarterback capable of running a 4.65 40-yard dash are undeniable, but his mechanics concern many at the next level. All told, Florida State has had 35 first-round draft picks, and could add several to that tally Thursday night.

Clemson could also add to their 23 first-round draft picks as a program, depending on when wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins is selected. Hopkins caught 82 passes for an ACC best 1,405 yards and 18 touchdowns. His strong catching and route-running ability makes Hopkins a promising receiver in the 2013 draft class. He may only be 6’1” with a 4.57 40 time, but his 3,005 yard career over three seasons as a Tiger show he has the tools to compete at a high level.

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