There probably won't be any University of Kentucky football players selected during the first two nights of the NFL Draft, but when all is said and done the Wildcats could still end up with their best draft class of the modern era.
The first round is Thursday night, with rounds two and three on Friday. The Big Blue floodgates figure to open on Saturday for rounds 4-7, with as many as five UK selections possible: cornerback Trevard Lindley, linebacker Micah Johnson, fullback John Conner, defensive tackle Corey Peters and tailback Alfonso Smith.
If that happens, it would be the highest number of Wildcats taken since eight were picked in 1979, when the draft was 12 rounds. It would also surpass the 2008 class that included Jacob Tamme, Keenan Burton, Andre Woodson and Steve Johnson (Wesley Woodyard, now with the Denver Broncos, was an undrafted free agent).
Analyst Jerry Jones, who publishes the NFL Draft site, The Drugstore List, projects Lindley as a fourth- or fifth- round pick and sees Johnson, Peters and Conner as sixth- or seventh-round selections.
"I really think Lindley is the only one who has a shot in the first five rounds, and he has slipped badly in a period of a year," Jones said. "If you go back to the end of last year, there was a thought that he had a chance to get into the first round. But injuries and poor times (in the 40-yard dash) have really hurt him."
Greg Linton, who represents Peters, Conner and Smith, said that in a draft where defensive tackles will be at a premium, Peters could go as high as the third round. Tennessee and the New York Jets have shown the most interest.
"If there are six tackles taken on Thursday, then I think Corey will go in the third because teams will start to get nervous because all the tackles are going off the board," Linton said.
Conner has worked out for Detroit, Dallas and Cincinnati and had extensive conversations with Jacksonville, Kansas City, Houston and Oakland. Jones said that either Conner or Virginia's Rashawn Jackson would be the first fullback taken.
As for Johnson, Jones said his subpar 40-yard dash times have hurt his stock. Johnson ran a pedestrian 5.07 at the NFL Combine but did respond with times in the 4.8 range at UK's Pro Day.
"He's a productive player, but the trouble is he can't run fast," Jones said. "He can fit in somewhere, but it's got to be somewhere where he won't be asked to do a lot of pass coverage. He can be a run stopper. He does that well."
Perhaps no Wildcat has improved his stock more than Smith, who has gone from a projected free agent to a potential late-round pick. Several mock drafts have Smith going in the sixth and seventh rounds.
Smith was a career backup at UK, but Linton has led an aggressive campaign to get the word out about him. Linton compared Smith to Pittsburgh tailback Willie Parker, who played sparingly at North Carolina before becoming a starting tailback with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He also noted that Fresno State's Lonyae Miller and Alabama's Roy Upchurch are viewed as late-round selections but don't have the credentials of Smith.
"We've tried to do comparisons between Alfonso and other running backs projected to go in the late rounds," Linton said. "Don't tell me these guys are fifth- and sixth-round picks and Alfonso's a free agent.
"We've been able to get his name out there, and Alfonso has done everything right. He's answered every knock they had on him. They said he wasn't big enough, so he weighed in at 212. They said he couldn't run side-to-side, then he went out and did very well on the short shuttle. He really wants it."
Jones said that offensive lineman Zipp Duncan and linebacker Sam Maxwell figure to sign free-agent contracts shortly after the draft.