Connecting Top College Stars With Potential NFL Futures

While NFL fans fixate on this weekend's upcoming Championship Games, much of the league itself has already turned the page to next season. The annual GM and coaching carousel is approaching its conclusion, staffs are being filled out, and the foundation for a run at next year's Super Bowl is already being built.

Enter the 2013 NFL draft, a season all unto its own.

The goal of draft season isn't to stock your team full of brand new blue chip starters and future Pro Bowlers. Of course that would be nice, but really a successful draft class is made up of a couple of long-term starters, plus some rotational players that build up your depth in case of the inevitable injuries. When you consider each team only has 53 guys on its active roster, and that there are already a ton of guys vying for those spots, there just isn't going to be a whole bunch of room for new guys to come in and dominate.

But just because each team shouldn't count on more than three or four contributors to come out of its next class of rookies doesn't mean that they won't spend thousands of man hours over the next couple of months trying to hit on each and every draft choice, plus a few undrafted free agent long shots.

The draft season gets into full swing this Saturday with the East-West Shrine Game and the inaugural NFL Players Association Collegiate Bowl. Neither might draw your attention as appointment viewing, but consider last year's Shrine Game featured a couple of guys who became major contributors this past NFL season — running back Alfred Morris of the Washington Redskins and kicker Blair Walsh of the Minnesota Vikings principal among them, although it was Illinois' A.J. Jenkins who got drafted the highest, all the way up the first round to the San Francisco 49ers.

So as NFL talent evaluators start building their draft boards, here are some fits between players and NFL teams. These aren't projections, but rather assessments of an NFL team's needs and the players who could help fill them come April.

Texas A&M LT Luke Joeckel - Kansas City Chiefs

Whoever ends up playing quarterback for new Chiefs coach Andy Reid is going to need some help on the offensive line. With Branden Albert a free agent, Kansas City can upgrade the position for the long-term with the 6-foot-6, 310-pound winner of the Outland Trophy. Just think, Joeckel could go from blocking for Johnny Manziel to taking care of Michael Vick.

Notre Dame LB Manti Te'o - Detroit Lions

The problem for the Lions on defense isn't talent. Their problem is they're a bunch of undisciplined yahoos who don't play well as a team defense. Te'o is the kind of player and leader that not only does his job extremely well, but pulls together a team so everybody else becomes better at their jobs. This pick wouldn't just improve one linebacker spot for Detroit. It would improve the other 10 defensive spots right along with it.

USC QB Matt Barkley - New York Jets

Just kidding. This is the exact opposite of a smart decision by the Jets, which means there's at least a 75% chance of it happening. If we're really giving the Jets who they need, it's Georgia LB Alec Ogletree to replace the soon-to-be-cut Bart Scott or Alabama corner Dee Milliner so they can quit depending on 2010 draft bust Kyle Wilson.

Alabama G Chance Warmack - Oakland Raiders

There's no chance the Raiders are taking a guard with the third pick, but they desperately need a total overhaul on the offensive line to go along with the scheme overhaul now that they're fired Greg Knapp, perhaps the worst coordinator hire of the 2011 offseason. Maybe they get lucky and Joeckel falls to them. Otherwise, they need to trade back and pick up Warmack, or pray they can get either of Warmack's line-mates, D.J. Fluker or Barrett Jones, in the second round.

(Oh wait. The Raiders don't have their second-round pick because of that stupid Carson Palmer trade. All the more reason they should move back from the three spot if Joeckel isn't there.)

Georgia DT Johnathan Jenkins - Indianapolis Colts

Picking in the mid-20s, the Colts would probably have to jump a few spots to land Jenkins. They may not want to pay the price, but if there's one thing we know it's that you can't run a successful 3-4 defense without an above average nose tackle. Right now, the Colts don't have that, so Jenkins would fill a critical need in year two of the Chuck Pagano era. The Colts' decision-making will be complicated by the training camp trade of their second-round pick to Miami for cornerback Vontae Davis.

South Carolina RB Marcus Lattimore - Atlanta Falcons

Lattimore is obviously damaged goods, which is the only reason he's not going in the top 10. All indications are that Lattimore should be able to recover his pre-injury form, even if he has to sit out next season, and the Falcons are a dominant running game away from being one of the most dynamic offenses over the next 7-10 years. Plus, they can afford to wait on Lattimore. Tight ends Zach Ertz (Stanford) or Tyler Eifert (Notre Dame) would also make sense at the back of the first round as replacements for Tony Gonzalez.

Florida S Matt Elam or LSU S Eric Reid - Dallas Cowboys

If they transition into Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 defense, the Cowboys are going to need a drastic upgrade at safety. If they don't transition to the Tampa 2, they still need a drastic upgrade at safety. Reid is one of those instinctual back-end players who makes your whole secondary better, while Elam showed tremendous heart fighting through the tough loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl. The Patriots, Saints and Giants could also really use either guy's services.

North Carolina DT Sylvester Williams - Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins might be in the best position of any team entering the draft thanks to an extra second-rounder (from Indianapolis) and an extra third-rounder (from Chicago). Miami is still building its defensive depth to account for the shift from the 3-4 to a 4-3 base, and Williams would fit very nicely into the interior line with Randy Starks and Tony McDaniel unrestricted free agents. BYU's Ezekiel Ansah would also be an upgrade over miscast Jared Odrick.

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