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  • How Kirby Smart’s program is poised to join powerhouses like Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State in the eyes of the NFL. Plus, the top 10 2018 draft prospects in the national title game
By Albert Breer
January 08, 2018

There have been three programs serving as steady NFL pipelines over the last few years, and it’s no surprise that those schools are the last three national champions: Ohio State, Alabama and Clemson. On Monday night, you’ll get a good look at the next great NFL pipeline.

No, Kirby Smart doesn’t quite have at Georgia what his old mentor, Nick Saban, has had seemingly forever at Alabama. And that will be reflected in our list of the title game’s best 2018 draft prospects, below. But the Bulldogs are coming, and at this point it’d almost be an upset if they aren’t soon right there with the other three in producing an exceptional quantity of quality pro football prospects on an annual basis.

“Kirby’s coming from Nick’s system,” said one AFC college scouting director on Sunday. “And the philosophy there isn’t complicated: Get big, talented athletes. And what plays in the NFL? Big, talented athletes. Kirby’s gonna build a team that fits an NFL profile.”

Those athletes are on the way from Athens. True freshman QB Jake Fromm, for example, is already considered a future first-rounder by some scouts. The NFL will have to wait until 2020 for Fromm, but Smart does have a few pretty good ones set to come out this spring.

And while tonight’s CFP Championship (ESPN, 8 p.m.) lost some sizzle with the elimination of Heisman winner Baker Mayfield in the Rose Bowl, there will still be plenty of prospects for NFL fans to keep an eye on. With the help of a few scouts, I assembled a list of the top-10 2018 draft prospects playing on Monday night, just for any viewers who might not have a rooting interest between the Dawgs and Tide, but are curious about who could soon help your favorite NFL team.

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What NFL Scouts and Execs Said About My Latest Mock Draft

1. Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama. A versatile player who has a good shot at going inside the Top 10, Fitzpatrick is a Charles Woodson/Malcolm Jenkins type, capable of playing both safety and corner, with an athletic profile that’s probably not quite Woodson but a little better than Jenkins. And he’s been a great leader and teammate inside the Tide program to boot.

2. Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia. A sideline-to-sideline wrecker, he’s drawing comparisons to Jon Beason—when the linebacker was coming out of Miami—based on his stature and nose for the ball. He was excellent in both the SEC title game (13 tackles, sack) and the Rose Bowl (11 tackles), and figures to get a lot of work against the Tide’s vaunted run game.

3. Da’Ron Payne, DL, Alabama. Payne got a lot of attention for his fat-guy touchdown in the Sugar Bowl, but the 6' 2", 319-pounder has been on the radars of scouts for quite some time. He’s not the refined two-gapper that so many Alabama defensive linemen have been during the Saban Era; Payne is more comfortable attacking upfield. And to that end, he’s bigger and considered more athletic than ex-teammate and 2017 first-round pick Jonathan Allen. He should join Fitzpatrick and Smith, inside the Top 15 or so picks.

4. Rashaan Evans, LB, Alabama. Rolando McClain. Dont’a Hightower. C.J. Mosley. Reggie Ragland. Reuben Foster. And now, Evans. The senior finished the season on fire, and is considered a worthy torchbearer in the Tide’s recent inside linebacker lineage. He, Smith and Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds will be fighting for draft position come spring, and Evans probably comes off blocks and rushes the passer a little better than Smith does. He has a shot to go Top 20.

5. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama. Listed at 6' 1" and 190 pounds, Ridley’s not the freak that Julio Jones is, and he’s not quite the horse that Amari Cooper is. But he has produced ever since he arrived on campus, and improved his average per catch by about five yards this year. Ridley’s a good candidate to go somewhere in the first round because of his polish and readiness to play early in the NFL.

6. Damien Harris, RB, Alabama. He doesn’t get the attention some other Bama backs have, but he averaged 7.6 yards per carry this year, 7.2 yards per last year, and is 13 yards away from back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. His ability to run inside at 5' 11" and 220 pounds with balance, strength and vision has drawn comparisons to Frank Gore, and Harris could sneak into the first round.

7. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia. Concerns over a knee injury suffered two years ago have subsided, and Chubb will enter the offseason as one of the class’s most complete backs. He and Sony Michel have split the work this season, and Chubb has established an edge over his teammate in vision and lateral quickness, and as a receiver. The comp I got for Chubb? Mark Ingram.

8. Sony Michel, RB, Georgia. Chubb is the efficient worker. Michel is the game-breaker, blessed with straight-line speed that will surely be the reason some teams will prefer him over his backfield mate. Michel averaged 8.0 yards per carry this year, he’s not small (listed at 215 pounds), and will find his fit as a downhill one-cut slasher. He and Chubb are both looking at going inside the Top 45 picks.

9. Ronnie Harrison, S, Alabama. I had Harrison on my top-10 list at one point this season, and that was probably a little overzealous. But at 6' 3" and 214 pounds, he’s the sort of box safety hybrid that’s come back into style in the NFL over the last few years, with guys like Deone Bucannon and Keanu Neal going in the first round. The big question will be how teams see him, because he’ll probably be looked at as a defensive back by some and linebacker by others.

10. Deandre Baker, CB, Georgia. I’ll concede this name is a relative new one for me, from a draft standpoint. But he’s been one of Georgia’s best defenders, has an aggressive, physical style playing press, and will likely see at least some of Ridley on Monday, which should give him a chance to up stock. That could, in turn, prompt the junior to declare.

• Question or comment? Email us at talkback@themmqb.com.

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