LSU and Alabama will meet tonight in the BCS National Championship Game in New Orleans, Louisiana. Several players playing in tonight's game, particularly from Alabama, are projected to be picked in the first few rounds of the NFL Draft come April. Barring a trade, it seems unlikely that the Miami Dolphins will be in a position to pick a quarterback in the first round. The Dolphins would do well for themselves by sending a few members of the scouting department to the game to see how some of the players perform under a high-pressured atmosphere. Dolfans should also have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with some of the players who could be wearing a teal uniform next season. Although this is not meant to be a projection of who the Dolphins will or should pick in the draft, here is a look at five players that fans should keep an eye on during the game.
Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
It may be puzzling to see Claiborne on a list of players to watch for two reasons: first, both Vontae Davis and Sean Smith are under contract for next year. Second, Claiborne is unlikely to be available for the Dolphins when their pick at either 8 or 9 (to be determined by a coin flip) comes up.
In regards to the cornerback situation, Sean Smith's play was inconsistent this year. There were times where he ably covered his receiver, but then there were times where he gave up passes that he shouldn't at this point. Smith had some focus and maturity issues during his first two years in the league, and while I'm not aware of any current off-field or maturity issues, he is the kind of player who would greatly benefit from competition. If the Dolphins were to draft a cornerback early - whether it is Claiborne or another player - Smith may be humbled into becoming a Pro Bowl-caliber player.
Davis drew the ire of coaches and Brandon Marshall when Davis showed up to practice hung over the day before the Week 9 game against the Kansas City Chiefs. Davis was suspended for the game, but recovered nicely, recording all four of his interceptions and all eight of his passes defended after the suspension. Davis also may need the motivation of competition, unless his grandmother has already set him straight.
There is a reason Claiborne is expected to be gone when the Dolphins draft in the first round: he's good. Real good. Claiborne may not get the recognition of former LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson or Heisman Trophy-finalist Tyrann Mathieu, but he covers his man well and was a First-Team AP All-American and winner of the Jim Thorpe Award (best defensive back).
Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama
Another First-Team AP All-American and another player that doesn't top the list of Dolphins positional needs. Never mind those details; Richardson is a beast at running back and would be a welcome addition to any offense. He ran for 20 touchdowns this year and averaged 6 yards per carry in a league that breeds NFL-caliber defensive linemen. Watching Richardson on television doesn't do him justice. He runs with aggression and explodes through defenders with a fierceness that is borderline frightening. He also has the ability to make cuts around defenders. The perfect combination of power and speed, Richardson is the special kind of running back that merits an early first round pick. I'm not saying he's Adrian Peterson with a lower center-of-gravity, but I'm not saying he isn't. Just watch him and see for yourself. If Richardson shreds LSU's third-ranked rush defense, he may not be around when the Dolphins pick, either.
Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama
Kirkpatrick is part of the new breed of cornerbacks who are as tall as a lot of the top receivers. Kirkpatrick is a towering 6'3", much like Sean Smith, but is lean and physical. He has shown the ability to hit receivers as well as make solid open-field tackles. There's a bit of a perception that he doesn't make enough plays, but teams stopped throwing his way this year, resulting in fewer interceptions and tackles. He did have three interceptions last season. Kirkpatrick is expected to be available around the time the Dolphins are slated to pick in the first round. Some outlets have him going to the Carolina Panthers, who are in the coin flip situation with the Dolphins, so his talent level is right around the Dolphins pick range.
Courtney Upshaw, DE/OLB, Alabama
Upshaw has been widely recognized for his play on Alabama's defense. He has been a finalist for the Lombardi Award (best lineman or linebacker), the Butkus Award (best linebacker), and a semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award (best defensive player). Upshaw already has experience as an OLB in a 3-4 defense. Dolphins defensive coordinator Mike Nolan runs a 3-4 defense, but it remains to be seen if he will return next season. If the Dolphins continue running the 3-4, Upshaw would be a fit for the Dolphins, who need another pass rusher. Upshaw lacks elite speed, and is probably too small to be a DE in a 4-3 (he's 6'2" and about 260-270 lbs.), so he is best suited as an OLB in a 3-4.
Upshaw is the guy playing in this game that is most likely to be drafted by the Dolphins in their current slot. He fills an immediate need and is a talented player. Few teams can be competitive and lack pass rushers. Eight of the twelve playoff teams this year rank in the top half of the league in sacks and of the four that rank in the bottom half, three are top ten in the league in scoring offense. Since the Dolphins don't appear to be on the verge of entering the offensive elite, Upshaw could go a long way to shoring up the defense. Most outlets have him as a mid-first round pick, so he wouldn't be a terrible reach at the eighth or ninth pick if the Dolphins wanted to use the pick on a pass rusher.
Mark Barron, SS, Alabama
Barron is the third member of the First-Team AP All-American team playing in this game that could end up in a Dolphins uniform next season. Barron has been mocked between the mid-first and mid-seconds rounds of the draft by various outlets, which seems appropriate given the relative value of safeties in the NFL. It is typically accepted that good safeties can be found in the middle rounds of the draft and should be drafted early in the first round only in exceptional circumstances. Last season, no safeties were drafted in the first round, but two were drafted in the first round in 2010. However, the two safeties from the first round in the 2010 draft, Eric Berry (fifth overall) and Earl Thomas (fourteenth overall), were considered better prospects than Barron.
Barron has been productive during his years at Alabama, recording 12 interceptions during his three years as a starter. He is terrific in run support as well, but doesn't possess great speed. He hits like a linebacker and will be a strong safety in the NFL. His coverage skills are average, which limits his effectiveness on passing downs.
The Dolphins already have Yeremiah Bell at strong safety, but he will be 34 when the season starts and has only one year left on his contract. Barron isn't a candidate to be drafted by the Dolphins in their current draft slot, but if the Dolphins were to trade back towards the end of the first round, or if Barron is still available when the Dolphins pick in the second round, you can't count out the possibility of him being drafted.
Could any of these players immediately help the Dolphins?
Absolutely. Judging by the way the Dolphins played during the second half of the season, they seem to be on the cusp of the playoffs. Any one of the players listed would instantly make the Dolphins a better team. The Dolphins' draft intentions will become clearer after players are cut and free agents are signed, but you can be assured that some of the players in tonight's game will be on the team's radar. By watching these players, you will get a better feel of their abilities and the contributions they can make to the Dolphins once the 2012 season starts.