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ProCanes: Seven players who could help turn the Hurricanes into an elite NFL talent hotbed again

The Hurricanes need to get more players into the 1st round of the NFL Draft and these seven guys will help.

NCAA Football: Miami at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 NFL Draft is over and offseason activities are beginning around the country for NFL teams. When rookie camps begin for each of the 32 NFL teams, a total of six drafted Miami Hurricanes will report to camp. Of the six players selected, none were drafted in the 1st round of the NFL Draft and the highest Miami Hurricane drafted was Chad Thomas, who was drafted in the 3rd round by the Cleveland Browns. The other five (Christopher Herndon IV, Mark Walton, RJ McIntosh, Braxton Berrios, Kendrick Norton) were drafted in the 4th, 5th and 7th rounds respectively. Frankly, for a college football program known for producing NFL Pro Bowlers and even Hall of Famers like the Hurricanes, having only six players drafted, with none before day 3 is unacceptable by all accounts.

Having struggles producing quality NFL talent is not a new issue for the Hurricanes. Since 2009, only four players have been drafted in the 1st round of the NFL Draft. Of those four, only the last two selections (David Njoku and Artie Burns) have made significant impacts for their team and the other two (Phillip Dorsett and Ereck Flowers) have both struggled to gain playing time and had their fifth-year options declined by the New England Patriots and New York Giants respectively. While four seems like a solid number for 1st round draft picks, it is hard to look past the 33 players drafted in the 1st round from 1995 to 2008, which included the likes of Ray Lewis, Warren Sapp, Ed Reed and Reggie Wayne and question if Miami have developed enough NFL talent in recent seasons.

Pittsburgh v Miami
Before shining in his rookie season with the Cleveland Browns, David Njoku (86) was one of the Hurricanes premier tight ends. He is one of just 4 Hurricanes selected in the 1st round of the NFL Draft since 2009.
Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

Frankly, the NFL have been missing a Hurricanes player who takes the league by storm on Sundays for a few seasons now. While the Hurricanes have been able to develop some very good mid-to-late round talents, including Olivier Vernon, Duke Johnson and Lamar Miller and even some capable backups, their recruiting classes took a hit in 2015 and 2016 with the 27th and 22nd ranked class according to 247Sports. While Coach Richt has been able to turn the recruiting around a little bit (12th and 8th ranked classes in 2017 and 2018 respectively), the Hurricanes should strive to develop more top level NFL talent.

While the coaching staff that Al Golden assembled may be the root cause of the poor recruiting classes, it is at least clear that not developing consistent NFL talent hurts recruiting to at least an extent. While so many players in South Florida want to wear the “U” on their helmets every Saturday, the ultimate dream for almost every recruit is to play in front of 60,000+ fans every Sunday and ultimately, these recruits will choose college football programs capable of developing them into 1st round talents and instant millionaires.

While the Hurricanes have produced 47 players to the NFL since 2009, which is a large amount, the need for gaining more 1st round talents is important. Will the Hurricanes ever reach the same level as Alabama or Ohio State, who have had 10 players drafted in the 1st round since the 2015 NFL Draft? Maybe not but more high-end NFL talent is important for the Hurricanes to keep their blue blood status and there are options on the current roster who will help push the Hurricanes figure up.

Players like Ahmmon Richards, Michael Jackson and Jaquan Johnson are the first of this bunch. Each of these players have been slated as first-round selections by many NFL Draft analysts in their early mock drafts of the 2019 NFL Draft.

NCAA Football: Miami at Pittsburgh
After battling injuries last season, Ahmmon Richards (82) looks poised to return with a strong 2018 campaign.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Richards, a 4-star recruit in the 2016 class, is entering his Junior season with nothing but lofty expectations and goals. In Clint Trapasso’s most recent mock draft, Richards was selected 18th overall by the San Francisco 49ers and was the second wide receiver selected.

The expectations are safe for Richards, though. In this freshman season for the Hurricanes, Richards quickly became a solid target for Brad Kaaya and finished the season with 49 receptions for 934 yards and 3 touchdowns. The 2017 season, however, was a different and more difficult season for Richards. Richards battled injuries for all of the 2017 season and finished the season with just 7 games played throughout the season. When healthy, Richards is a Fred Biletnikoff Award candidate and can easily be the next Hurricanes first round pick.

Both Jackson and Johnson were listed as first round picks in Dan Kadar of SB Nation’s mock draft with Jackson going 19th to the Houston Texans and Johnson going 20th to the Dallas Cowboys. Both Jackson and Johnson were major pieces to the Hurricanes’ defense which was tied for 5th in interceptions with 17 as a defense.

Jaquan Johnson, in particular, is an interesting case and may have the best chance to reach the NFL’s 1st round for the 2019 eligible prospects.

Entering his Senior season, Johnson has a total of 160 tackles and 6 interceptions. In his junior season, Johnson really rose to the scene, totaling 96 tackles and 4 interceptions (including a interception for a touchdown against Virginia). Now a captain for the Hurricanes, another top performance for Johnson could lead Johnson into not only the 1st round but also becoming an early 1st round pick.

In the 2018 NFL Draft, three safeties were picked in the 1st round, including Virginia Tech safety Terrell Edmunds, who was said to be a 3rd or 4th round talent according to Lance Zierlein’s scouting report of the safety. With the NFL movement to more nickel packages, someone like Johnson, who posses a ton of NFL quality skills and has versatility will be valued by NFL franchises in need of a versatile and explosive defensive back like Johnson.

Another 2019 draft eligible prospect that could sneak into the 1st round for the Hurricanes is defensive end Joe Jackson. Like Richards, Jackson was apart of the 2016 recruiting class where he was ranked as the 16th best weak-side defensive end in the nation.

NCAA Football: Russell Athletic Bowl-West Virginia vs Miami
Joe Jackson (99) enters his junior season with a large chance at becoming a 1st round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

In his sophomore season for the Hurricanes, Jackson finished with 50 total tackles (10.5 tackles for loss) and 6.5 sacks. Following the season, Jackson rose up 2019 draft boards and was even ranked as the 36th best player on Chris Trapasso’s early big board. However, with an impressive junior campaign, Jackson could rise into the 1st round as a defensive end.

While 2019 looks hopeful for the Hurricanes, the years following look even better and a strong 2018 recruiting class has shown signs of future NFL potential if used correctly at the college level.

Among those players is Lorenzo Lingard, who might be the Hurricane with the highest chance at becoming an All-Pro at the next level. Lingard was ranked as the second-best RB in the class and was a 5-star recruit. Lingard comes into Miami with multiple high school awards, including the Florida Player of the Year and domination in multiple high school games, including a game against Oviedo where Lingard rushed for 358 yards and 4 touchdowns.

If Lingard does succeed with the Hurricanes, he could easily be the top running back of the 2021 or 2022 NFL Draft and make an NFL impact as an early 1st round selection. NFL teams have begun to shift their focus to running backs in the NFL Draft if their college resume supports it. Since 2015, 7 running backs have gone in the first round of the NFL draft with 5 of those being drafted in the top 10, including Ezekiel Elliot and Todd Gurley who have rose to the top of the boxscores for running backs.

There are also a few receiving targets that could sneak into the 1st round when they become draft eligible. One of those with a decent chance is incoming freshman Brevin Jordan.

Similar to Lingard, Jordan is one of the Hurricanes’ more impressive recruiting grabs in recent memory. A 4-star recruit from Las Vegas, Jordan was ranked the best tight end in the 2018 class and 33rd nationally among all recruits.

With Herndon graduating, Jordan could have a premier role in the Hurricanes offense and could be schemed often into positions that work for him. In fact, with quick acclimation to college football, Jordan could become one of the big name tight ends in college football and could become an All-American quickly. All of which could help push Jordan into the 1st round when he is draft eligible. Like Lingard though, Jordan is just a freshman and it is too early to drop him into first round conversation without letting him complete at least one season. However, the potential and talent are all there to make a run at the next level.

High School Football: St. Thomas Aquinas at Bishop Gorman
Brevin Jordan (9) completes a touchdown catch over 2019 UM commit Anthony Solomon (43). Jordan joins the Hurricanes this summer for the 2018 season.
Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

The previous tight ends drafted in the 1st round of the NFL Draft may also help push Jordan into the early part of the draft and into a good NFL role for him. In the last two seasons, a total of four tight ends have been picked in the 1st round, those being the aforementioned Engram, O.J. Howard, David Njoku and Hayden Hurst. The first 3 played big roles in their respective offenses, becoming primary targets for their quarterbacks and the latter in Hayden Hurst is set to become the starting tight end for the Baltimore Ravens.

Another receiving target that could help push the Hurricanes into the NFL Draft spotlight is sophomore wide receiver Jeff Thomas. Despite being widely ineffective in his freshman season (17 receptions, 374 yards and 2 touchdowns), Thomas is set to gain more time in better situations after Braxton Berrios and will also likely continue kick return duties.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Miami
Despite a disappointing freshman season by most accounts, an increased role in the offense could put wide receiver Jeff Thomas into a better position to become a 1st round selection.
Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

If Thomas is able to take control of one of the two starting wide receivers spots, which is expected by all accounts, Thomas could use his speed and overall explosiveness to bolster himself into a 1st round draft spot.

Another aspect that could help push Jeff Thomas is the amount of receivers that go early in the draft. In the last two NFL drafts, a total of 5 receivers have been picked in the 1st round of the draft, including three in the top 10 of the 2017 NFL Draft. The importance to keep getting weapons on NFL offenses could overall push Thomas into a 1st round draft spot come 2020 or 2021.

One thing that will help each of these prospects make the push towards a top pick in the NFL draft is coach Mark Richt. In this tenure with Georgia (2001-15), Richt saw 14 players go in the 1st round, including Matthew Stafford, Todd Gurley and A.J. Green who are all considered top players at their positions. Since his firing in 2015, Richt’s recruiting classes have seen four players go in the 1st round, including three in the most previous draft with Roquan Smith (8th overall), Isaiah Wynn (23rd overall) and Sony Michel (31st overall) all being selected in the first round.