The 2019 NFL Draft wrapped up over the weekend with five Notre Dame players getting selected in the seven rounds of the draft. Next year’s NFL Draft though might have much more of an Irish flare depending on how the decisions of a few players who will have eligibility left in 2020. With a year between now and then, here’s a real early look at how next year’s draft could play out for Notre Dame players.
Players with No 2020 Eligibility
Julian Okwara & Khalid Kareem – Both decided against pursuing the NFL this year to return for their senior seasons and their decisions will pay off for them and Notre Dame. Pass rushers are in high demand in the NFL these day and both can get to the quarterback. Neither would have been a particularly high pick this past weekend had they left because of the talent ahead of them, but next year both have their eyes on high selections.
Of the two, I think Kareem has the better chance of being a 1st rounder simply because of his size. Okwara was still weighing in at 240 lbs in the spring and while he’s highly disruptive and effective at that weight in college, it could give some NFL teams pause. If he bulks up to say 255 lbs by the draft and retains his explosiveness, then I can easily see both being 1st round picks.
Regardless of where they are selected, both should be in store for monster senior seasons that will power the Notre Dame defense in 2019.
Troy Pride – Pride looks ready to be the top corner for the Irish. He played in the shadow of Julian Love this year, but 2019 will be his time to shine. His speed could also propel him to a much higher in the draft than Love’s disappointing 4th round selection on Saturday. Pride will run in the 4.3 range at the Combine next year and if he has the tape to go with that speed, he could be a 2nd round pick.
Chase Claypool – He contemplated leaving early this year, but didn’t get back the evaluation to make that decision a wise one. He is Notre Dame’s unquestioned #1 receiver this year and if he builds on his 2018 output and shows more consistency, he can play himself into being a very high selection. Wide receivers weren’t in huge demand this year, but it’s not hard to envision Claypool being a 2nd round pick without much stretching. He’s got the measurables to be a 1st rounder, but that would require a pretty big leap.
Jalen Elliott – Elliott went from afterthought to potential captain in a little over a year’s time. He completely turned his game around in 2018 becoming a ball hawk in the process. How high of a pick he can ultimately end up being is still a little up in the air. A mid to late round selection seems the most likely for him at this point.
Chris Finke – Finke’s draftability will largely be dependent on how much volume he gets this year in an offense that is probably going to be spreading the ball around quite a bit. We saw Clemson’s Hunter Renfrow get drafted in the 5th round by the Raiders this past weekend and Finke’s game is very similar. With a big final campaign he could be a late round pick. At worst, Finke is going to get signed as a undrafted free agent next year.
Asmar Bilal – Bilal is a bit of a wild card right now. If Tevon Coney can go undrafted, Asmar Bilal as we know him now certainly will be undrafted. He still has an entire season to change that though so it’s possible he plays himself into draft contention this year. He has got a rather large hill to climb to get to that point as of now though. Spring practice didn’t do a whole lot to change that perception either.
Early Exit Possibilities
Alohi Gilman – Gilman, along with Elliott, solidified the safety position for Notre Dame in 2018. He has already given a few indications that he is planning on leaving for the NFL after his senior season so while he has two years of eligibility left, 2019 is probably the last year we’ll see him in South Bend.
Gilman transferred from Navy initially because of their internal policy change that wouldn’t allow for athletes to pursue professional sports careers prior to fulfilling their service commitments so it’s pretty clear Gilman has his eyes on the NFL. If he improves on his 2018 season this fall, he’ll be ready for the NFL.
Ian Book – Technically speaking, Ian Book has two years of eligibility remaining. There’s a school of thought though that if Book has a huge year to build on his impressive debut in 2018, he’ll declare for the draft without using the 5th year of eligibility he has remaining thanks to redshirting in 2016. It’s not a forgone conclusion that Book will head to the NFL at the end of the 2019 season, but it’s a pretty safe assumption IF he has the kind of year that people are expecting him to have.
Where he would project in the Draft isn’t as clear though. No matter what Book does he won’t be able to address the two biggest concerns NFL teams have on him – size and arm strength. We’ve seen the NFL embrace smaller quarterbacks the last two drafts, but arm strength is another story. Book might be in a situation where even with a huge year in 2019 his draft ceiling might be limited and it might be limited even he were to use a 5th year.
Jafar Armstrong – It might be a bit of a stretch at this point, but if Armstrong were to explode this year and top 1,000 yards; leaving for the NFL wouldn’t be that much of a stretch. NFL teams don’t put high value on running backs any in the Draft anymore, but there is certainly value put on backs without a lot of tread on their tires. There is a lot of risk for running backs to leave early though. The last two Notre Dame RBs to leave after their junior years – Darius Walker and Josh Adams – went undrafted.
Aaron Banks, Liam Eichenberg, and Tommy Kraemer – Three of Notre Dame’s starting offensive linemen will be draft eligible by the end of the season. In the case of Banks he will still have two years of eligibility remaining while Kraemer and Eichenberg will just have one – a 5th year for both. Now all three have seen a series of Notre Dame linemen return for their senior seasons and parlay that into high draft picks: Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley, Mike McGlinchey, and Quenton Nelson so there is precedent at Notre Dame for offensive linemen to return.
All three would have to improve considerably this year for leaving early to make much sense. Banks wasn’t a starter until half way through the season. Eichenberg was a first time starter and was fine, but not exceptional enough to think he’d be a high draft pick at current level. Kraemer lost his starting job in 2017 and while he wrestled it back in 2018, he was still a work in progress.
Cole Kmet – We’ve been waiting for Kmet to breakout for a while now and all signs point to 2019 being the year he does it. If he does, there will be an opportunity for him to leave for the NFL and there has been some precedent set at tight end at Notre Dame for that. Troy Niklas only had one season as the #1 tight end where he put up good production in 2013 and he left for the NFL right after that one season as a true junior at the time.
There may be too many weapons on offense for Kmet to get enough targets to have the kind of production that would really warrant leaving early, but there is a premium placed on athletic tight ends like Kmet in the NFL these days.