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May 4, 2011

NFL watch list: Who to watch for

The 2011 NFL Draft has concluded, we've talked to the Bulldogs who were selected and heard from their new teams. So draft talk is over, right? Wrong. Almost, though.

While we're still in draft mode, let's take a way-in-advance look at Mississippi State's prospects for the 2011 draft. After Dan Mullen's first year, 2009, he had two players drafted. In 2011, after the 2010 season, that number doubled to four. Could the trend continue, and MSU see eight of it's own headed to the NFL in the 2012 draft? Well, probably not, but there are significantly more than four possibilities.

Much will depend on how the 2011 season goes, both for individuals and for the team, and we'll start today by looking at players on the offensive side of the ball. Later, we'll look at defensive players and then juniors who could - emphasis on could - leave early. This way, it's a bit easier to digest.

Quentin Saulsberry
Saulsberry redshirted his first year in 2007, but started every single game the Bulldogs have played in since then. As a freshman he was a right tackle, as a sophomore he was at left guard, then last year, as a junior, he played both guard and center. Next year, he is likely a center again. At this point, Saulsberry has to be considered the highest-ranked prospect from MSU next year. He is comparable to former Florida guard/center Maurkice Pouncey, now playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who was also coached by Mullen and John Hevesy, because of his versatility, strength and athleticism.

Vick Ballard
The way the NFL is going, running backs are becoming a dime-a-dozen position, unless it's an elite guy like Adrian Peterson or Chris Johnson. For example, only one running back was drafted in the first round last Thursday, Heisman winner Mark Ingram, and he might have fallen to the second round if the Saints hadn't traded up for him. However, if Ballard is able to improve on his 2010 stats, he'd have to be considered a solid prospect. Ballard rushed for 994 yards and was a touchdown machine, reaching the end zone 20 times, once as a receiver. Falling under 1,000 yards may not seem impressive, but he did it on 186 rushes, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. By nature of Mullen's spread offense, it's unlikely Ballard will get the number of touches Anthony Dixon did in past years.

Marcus Green
Based purely on talent, Green should be able to find his way onto an NFL roster. However, he will have a big red flag by his name on any draft board because of his history of injuries. He arrived at MSU as a running back, and because of that he does not have the typical frame of a tight end - 6'1", 235 pounds. He was limited by injury as a redshirt freshman, and in what may or may not have been his junior year in 2010, he only made it through two games. As a sophomore in 2009, however, he emerged as one of Chris Relf's top receiving threats, catching 27 passes for 306 yards and three touchdowns. His highlight game was against LSU when he caught five passes for 100 yards, including a 50-yard touchdown catch-and-run. 2011 will be Green's senior season, though he is likely to apply for a medical hardship to play one more year, so this may all be moot.

Chris Relf
Relf will be one of the more interesting MSU players to watch, both through the season and when draft time comes around. There are two comparisons that may give us an idea of what to expect from Relf. Former Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor was drafted by the Ravens in the sixth round on Saturday. He is a bit smaller than Relf at 6'0" and 217 pounds, but he offers a similar skill set. If Relf chooses to enter the NFL as a quarterback, a strong 2011 campaign could put him in position to be drafted around the same time as Taylor, with a team envisioning him as a developmental/project kind of guy who they could build wildcat-like packages for. Relf made marked improvement in his first year as starter for Mullen, passing for 1,789 and 13 touchdowns in 2010, with six interceptions and a 58.6 completion percentage. He also rushed for 880 yards and five touchdowns. If he can make similar improvement in 2011 and prove to NFL scouts and coaches he can learn an NFL offense, he has a chance to be a quarterback in the NFL.

The other comparison is former Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones. The uber-athletic Jones switched to receiver when he made the jump to the NFL, and it worked relatively well for him. Drug use and other off-field issues limited his success in Jacksonville, but Relf could be viewed as a similar "athlete" prospect coming out of college. Some had toyed with the idea of moving Relf to tight end or H-back if Cam Newton had indeed played at MSU, and NFL scouts will likely consider that a possibility for Relf at the next level.

James Carmon
Physically, Carmon has all the makings of an NFL left tackle. He's huge, strong and relatively nimble on his feet. The problem? At this point, he's basically a freshman mentally. He hasn't figured out the mental side of being an offensive lineman, and that's what is holding him back. If he can grasp the offense and what he needs to do at left tackle, he'll be drafted on potential alone, because he's got tons of it. If the mental side never catches up to the physical side, MSU fans ought to be more worried about the Bulldogs' offense than Carmon getting drafted.


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