Mark Story

Are ex-Cats facing a ‘reverse-Kentucky effect’ in the 2019 NFL Draft?

When Bear Bryant’s 1950 Kentucky Wildcats (11-1) gave UK its first-ever 10-win football season, there were nine ex-Cats selected in the ensuing NFL Draft.

In an era of 13 NFL teams selecting 362 total picks over 30 rounds, the 1951 draft saw a dominant former Kentucky defender, tackle Bob Gain, taken No. 5 overall.

When Fran Curci’s 1977 Kentucky Wildcats (10-1) gave UK its second 10-win football season, there were six former Cats selected in the ensuing NFL Draft.

In an era of 28 NFL teams selecting 334 total picks over 12 rounds, the 1978 draft saw a dominant former Kentucky defender, end Art Still, taken No. 2 overall.

Now that Mark Stoops’ 2018 Kentucky Wildcats (10-3) have given UK its third 10-win football season ever, how many ex-Cats are going to hear their names called in the 2019 NFL Draft which will be held in Nashville Thursday through Saturday?

This year, 32 NFL teams will make 254 picks (including compensatory selections) over seven rounds. It is widely expected that a dominant former Kentucky defender, rush end/outside linebacker Josh Allen, will be among the early overall picks.

It is what will happen for the other draft-eligible Cats after Allen comes off the board where things will get interesting. How many former Kentucky players are going to be selected in the 2019 NFL Draft?

After UK put the finishing touches on its 27-24 victory over Penn State in the VRBO Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day, there was speculation that Kentucky could have as many as seven, eight even nine players taken in the 2019 NFL Draft.

That would be a heady achievement for a UK program that has not had even one player taken in the past two NFL Drafts.

Alas, if the abundant NFL mock drafts carry credibility, it appears Kentucky’s presence in the 2019 draft may not be as robust as initially hoped.

At drafttek.com, the most recent projection as of Wednesday afternoon had four UK players being drafted: Allen (first round, No. 3 overall); cornerback Lonnie Johnson (third, No. 72); safety Mike Edwards (fifth, No. 167); and offensive guard Bunchy Stallings (sixth, No. 186).

Over at draftsite.com, five ex-Cats are projected to go in the draft: Allen (first round, No. 3 overall); running back Benny Snell (fourth, No. 116); Johnson (fifth, No. 139); cornerback Derrick Baity (fifth, No. 143); and Stallings (seventh, No. 216).

Meanwhile, RJ White of CBSSports.com has six former Kentucky players being selected: Allen (first round, No. 5 overall); Johnson (second, No. 57); Snell (fifth, No. 150); Edwards (fifth, No. 161); Baity (sixth, No. 213); and Stallings (seventh, No. 228).

Missing from any of the mock drafts I checked were these ex-Wildcats: tight end C.J. Conrad; offensive tackle George Asafo-Adjei; linebacker Jordan Jones; safety Darius West; or cornerback Chris Westry.

When in marketing mode, UK men’s basketball coach John Calipari speaks of the “Kentucky effect,” how a connection to the all-time winningest men’s college hoops program helps create opportunity.

One wonders if the Kentucky football players are up against an opposite dynamic: That UK’s lack of pigskin tradition creates doubts, even sub-conscious ones, in NFL draft rooms that ex-Cats have to overcome.

In recent days, Snell’s standing in the draft scuttlebutt seems to have softened. After what was perceived as a so-so showing at the NFL Combine, Snell has again faced questions about a lack of speed and versatility.

Nevertheless, I would think Snell’s three years worth of game video as a consistent and productive back in the SEC with the niche as a power rusher who can grind out the tough yards should prompt somebody to use a draft pick on him.

At a Tuesday news conference to preview UK’s hoped-for success in the 2019 NFL Draft, UK’s Stoops expressed belief that cornerback Johnson may join Allen in being chosen in the first round.

If it happens, it would give Kentucky two first-round picks in one NFL Draft for the first time since Warren Bryant (No. 6 overall) and Randy Burke (No. 26) in 1977.

In the big picture, when you are UK, you are trying to change the historical narrative of your football program.

Since the NFL Draft went down to seven rounds in 1994, Kentucky has never had more than four players chosen in one year (2008).

Really blowing the draft out of the water this year, having seven, eight ex-Wildcats players hear their names called, would be next-level huge for UK football.

Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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