With the start of the 2012 season right around the corner, and loads of potential NFL-level talent on Florida State's roster, NoleNation checked in with ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. to talk about the top draft-eligible members of the Seminoles team and what they'll need to do this season to secure their status in next year's draft.
NoleNation: With all the talent on Florida State's defense, the guy you seem to like the most is Xavier Rhodes. Do you view him as a sure first-rounder?
Mel Kiper: I like him. I've got him right now as the 20th best player overall, and of course, he's an underclassman and has eligibility still remaining. He's big, he's got great physical ability, he's a rock-solid kid. He's just a good, good, fundamentally sound corner. He's got super-long arms, was a gifted high school wide receiver, so you know the ball skills are good. He's got it all. He's one of those guys who needs to stay at full strength, and he's a tough kid. But he's got to stay at full strength and go out there and put together the type of year he's capable of."
NN: Pound-for-pound, Lamarcus Joyner might be FSU's best defensive player, but his size is obviously not ideal at safety. How much will that hurt him in the eyes of NFL scouts?
Kiper: He's not real big. He's one of those compact guys. He's kind of a Bob Sanders type of guy, one of those heat-seeking-missile destroyers who has really good ball skills. He was their second-best defensive player last year. He's rugged and tough, but the question with him is going to be, can he stay healthy? With his rugged, aggressive style, when you get to the pro level and you're only his size -- 5-7, 5-8, 195 pounds -- and you start laying hits on NFL guys -- Bob Sanders did the same thing coming out of Iowa as a second-round pick and couldn't stay healthy. So that's the thing. You've got that vicious, tough, aggressive, hard-nosed, undersized guy -- that's great to have that, but at the end of the day, can you be at full strength and stay out there and be durable?
NN: Two years ago Brandon Jenkins looked to be a potential first-rounder, but his numbers dropped off a bit last season. He was getting more attention from the opposition, but how has that changed his status in terms of the NFL?
Kiper: They say he didn't catch anybody by surprise last year, and that's fine. But you've still got to produce better than he did. Two years ago, he looked like a top guy, certainly a first-round guy. He's got the quickness off the edge, he doesn't take any plays off, he makes plays down the field, so he hustles and you like his approach. But he's got to make more impact plays behind the line of scrimmage like he did a couple years ago.
They chipped at him every play last year. He's got Bjoern Werner on the other side, who's a very good prospect. So I don't buy into that. There's too many talented guys up front to say they're going to isolate on Brandon Jenkins. And every guy that's a top-notch guy -- Terrell Suggs gets isolated on every play, and he still makes great, impact plays. So I don't buy that, I don't want to hear anything about the fact that, oh, he did this, everybody targeted him.
When you're a great player, you've got to play through that. You've got to continue to produce impact plays. Now, if you're going to be a guy who hustles and gets neutralized, that's fine -- but you're not a first-round pick. First-round picks can't have any excuses.
NN: You mentioned the guy on the other side of the line. What's your view on Bjoern Werner's potential?
Kiper: Werner's an interesting guy because he's got a limited football background over in Germany. More of a soccer guy. He's got a limited background, and yet I think he's developed from a technical standpoint very effectively. He can play inside as well as outside, powerful, athletic, instinctive guy, finds the ball, fundamentally sound, does a good job using his hands. To me, he's the kind of guy, if he can put together a great year -- and he's only a junior -- he could certainly be in the first-round discussion.
NN: One guy who seems particularly tough to predict where he might fit at the next level is EJ Manuel. From a skill standpoint, he's impressive. His production hasn't been first-round caliber though. What does he need to do this year to improve his stock with NFL teams?
Kiper: He needs consistency week in and week out. He's got to put up solid numbers every Saturday. He's got to play well all the way through. He's got to have a consistent year. Three consecutive bowl wins they've had with him, and the bottom line is the guy has a great skill set. He's got all the skills from a size, arm strength, ability standpoint that you could want. He's got some receivers he can throw to. He's got a running back who can get it done. He's got an offensive line with some ability with some of these younger guys. There's a lot of guys there that have a chance to be pretty good players that can help him. I just hope he becomes that guy week in and week out and plays to the level of his talent.
NN: Manuel obviously had to deal with some adversity last year, with injuries and a young offensive line. Did you see enough from him that you think he can make that next step?
Kiper: You see flashes of it. Then you see a guy that you think, "OK is he going to be better than Matt Barkley? No. Is he going to be better than Tyler Wilson or Landry Jones or Mike Glennon, some of the senior quarterbacks, or Logan Thomas at Virginia Tech?"
He's got the talent. That's the thing. He's got all that ability. He's got some players around him. It's just up to him now. The bottom line is, it doesn't matter all this other stuff. It's how you play individually. If you're going to be a high pick -- look at Cam Newton. He goes to Auburn, takes a mediocre team, takes them to a national championship and goes undefeated. You've got to elevate a team. You've got to be the guy that elevates everybody around you and makes everybody better. If not, you're a third- or fourth-round pick. First round picks are a special group, and there's no excuses.
NN: There are a handful of other players with potential to catch the eyes of NFL GMs this season. Who else stands out to you?
Kiper: I think (Cornellius) Tank Carradine is a guy -- he's their third defensive end, but he's been productive, had sacks, had tackles for a loss. He plays the run well. He's the kind of guy that I think could be interesting because he's overshadowed, but he's got the size and the physicality you want. If you're looking at defense and guys who can make things happen behind the line of scrimmage -- that's what this league is looking for.
Dustin Hopkins is a senior kicker. He had a couple big misses last year, but he's got the (Sebastian) Janikowski kind of leg, he gets a lot of touchbacks, gets the ball in the end zone and out. He's a guy who elevates the ball, doesn't have many blocked. He'll be one of the top kickers, no question about that.
Christian Jones needs to take that Nigel Bradham type of role. He had more coverage responsibilities last year, and now he's going to be freed up a little bit more. He's the kind of guy that if he can get after the quarterback and do some things -- Bradham wasn't a big-play guy, but Jones gives you that ability to make things happen. He's going to be interesting to watch.
Chris Thompson had the injury issues, but he's a home-run threat. He can do some things. He's healthy and ready to go now, and he's a guy to watch very closely and see what he does.
Anthony McCloud, the defensive tackle, he's a guy who's agile, he's strong, gets double-teamed a lot. He's 320 pounds, and a defensive tackle like McCloud's going to get some attention.
NN: Final question: As FSU's on-field results have dipped, so too has the talent they've sent to the NFL. Do you see that starting to change as Jimbo Fisher's recruiting classes begin to fill out the roster?
MK: It's getting there. It's getting to that point. Jimbo has recruited exceptionally well, and you see a lot of junior influence with Werner and Rhodes and Joyner. Then he's got the young guys like Matias and Jackson coming up on the offensive line. You've got a guy who's a spectacular sophomore receiver in Rashad Greene. He's a guy who could be an awesome player. Christian Jones could be big time. You've got the young guys, Cameron Erving at left tackle, they think he could be as good as any offensive tackle they've ever had. You've got a lot of that going.
Now you've got a sprinkling of true sophomores, third-year sophomores, juniors and they're all in that mix that are going to be good, and a great incoming class of freshmen. I saw Eddie Goldman in high school and he's got great ability and could be a big-time player. It's getting there. The talent level is getting back to the way Florida State used to be in terms of producing NFL prospects.