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April 21, 2008

NFL Draft looms for several Commodores

Football fans from all over the world will be glued to television sets, cell phones, radios and the internet this Saturday as the National Football League will conduct its annual prospect entry draft in New York City. The two-day event has become a national phenomenon as football fans of both the college and professional game will watch anxiously to see where the best college stars will end up.

Two years ago, Vanderbilt fans followed the 2006 NFL Draft intensely as anticipation of where and when Jay Cutler might go in the draft, reached a fever pitch in the final week. The former Commodores signal caller would ultimately be selected with the 11th overall pick by the Denver Broncos.

This year, as many as five Commodores are believed to be possible selections in the draft and Cutler's former left tackle, Chris Williams, is projected to become just the fourth Commodore to be taken in the first round of the draft since 1984.

The two-year All-SEC selection has seen his stock rise from a possible late first round selection last fall, to a likely early-to-mid first round pick on Saturday. Standing at 6-foot-6 and 315-pounds, Williams had a great week of practice at the annual Senior Bowl in February and then solidified his rising profile with a strong performance at the NFL Combine later that month. The Louisiana native also attracted a scout or team representative from nearly every NFL franchise during Vanderbilt's Pro Day in March.

With five days to go, Williams currently ranks as long-time NFL Draft guru Mel Kiper's "Big Board" as the 11th best prospect and ranks third among the top projected offensive tackles. Williams also ranks fourth among the offensive tackles by ESPN's Todd McShay and 18th overall.

A number of franchises are believed to have a need in the early half of the first round and several draft analysts have projected Williams to go anywhere between the 10th and 18th picks.

In Todd McShay's latest mock draft, Williams is slated to join Cutler in Denver at the 12th pick due to his great feet and mobility that could fit in the Broncos zone blocking scheme. NFL.com's Vic Carucci also has the Broncos selecting Williams as does Rocky Mountain News writer Jeff Legwold.

Mel Kiper has Williams going the Chicago Bears at the 14th pick as does Rivals.com guest analyst, Frank Coyle of thedraftinsiders.com. NFL.com senior analyst Pat Kirwan has the 2007 Commodore co-captain falling to the Houston Texans, who currently have the 18th pick.

Former Commodore offensive tackle Will Wolford is the only other lineman that has ever been selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Wolford was picked by the Buffalo Bills in 1986 and went on to play 12 years in the league, playing in three Super Bowls and three Pro Bowls.

Vanderbilt record-breaking receiver Earl Bennett and two-time All-SEC linebacker Jonathan Goff are also likely to be selected in the first half of the seven-round draft, though neither are projected to be taken in the first round like Williams.

Bennett, who set a new Southeastern Conference record for career receptions and was a three-time All-SEC selection by the league coaches, chose to forego his final year of eligibility in January and despite a strong showing at the NFL combine, is projected to be just a second-to-third round pick.

Ranked 13th among all projected receivers by ESPN, Bennett's questionable breakaway speed and lack of prototypical first round receiver size, might keep him out of the first round but many NFL franchises may take a look at the Alabama native including the Cincinnati Bengals, Minnesota Vikings, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, St.Louis Rams, Tennessee Titans, Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers.

Bennett had a standout showing at both the NFL combine as well as at Vanderbilt's Pro Day. At the combine, Bennett finished in the top ten of each agility drill and excelled in receiving drills.

Vanderbilt has not had a Commodore receiver selected in the NFL draft since Carl Parker was taken in the 12th round of the 1988 draft. Receiver/tight end Chuck Scott was selected in the second round in 1985 by the then Los Angeles Rams.

Goff, who has the prototypical NFL size at 6-foot-2 and 245-pounds, also had a strong showing at the NFL combine in February after a strong week of practice at the Shrine Bowl in January. Though Goff has been one of the best linebackers in the ultra-competitive Southeastern Conference the past couple of years and is currently projected as the fourth best inside linebacker in the draft according to Mel Kiper, it is believe that his group of linebackers are not overly strong and thus the value of the position might cause him and others to slide into the later rounds.

Some teams who will should take a look at Goff in the third to fifth round include the New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles, Jacksonville Jaguars, New Orleans Saints and New York Jets.

The linebacker position has typically been one of NFL value at Vanderbilt as the 'Dores have had six standouts at the position taken since 1990. While Goff is sure to join those numbers, it is possible that another pair of projected linebackers, Curtis Gatewood and Marcus Buggs could also have their names called during the second day of the draft.

The 6-foot-2, 248-pound Gatewood was a surprise invite to the NFL Combine in February after his strong practice week at the Shrine Bowl the month before. Originally recruited as a linebacker when the Commodore staff signed him out of Memphis' White Station program, Gatewood converted to defensive end prior to his sophomore year with the 'Dores and enjoyed two years as Vanderbilt's main rush end.

However, Gatewood is believed to be headed back to outside linebacker for the pros and many analysts consider him an ideal for the popular 3-4 defensive scheme. Currently rated as the 18th best outside linebacker prospect by ESPN, Gatewood also had a strong pro day in March and has seen his stock rise significantly.

Some teams who may look to select Gatewood in the final two rounds may include the Tennessee Titans, San Francisco 49ers, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets and San Diego Chargers.

Originally thought to be a rookie free agent, Marcus Buggs has saw his value raise after a strong workout at the Vanderbilt Pro Day. Ranked by ESPN as the draft's 30th best outside linebacker prospect, the 5-foot-11, 237-pound Nashville native's speed and strength against the run has attracted scouts. With a perceived weak draft class at outside linebacker, Buggs may be able to sneak into the final two rounds of the draft.

A few other possibilities for either the later rounds or as rookie free agents are former All-SEC tackle and captain Brian Stamper, three-year starting defensive tackle Theo Horrocks, offensive guard Josh Eames and defensive tackle Gabe Hall.

Stamper is currently ranked 26th among all offensive tackles by ESPN while Horrocks is rated 42nd among defensive tackles. All four are expected to get an opportunity to perform in a NFL rookie mini-camp while others such as Cassen Jackson-Garrison, Richard Kovalcheck and Hamilton Holliday may also get a shot at making a team as well.

Since the NFL began drafting college prospects in 1937, over 100 Commodores have been selected. Though the record for most Vanderbilt players taken in a draft is six in 1959, the record for the most Commodore players taken in a seven-round draft is four in the 2000 draft.


Stay tuned to VandySports.com this week for more coverage of the upcoming NFL Draft draft.


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