Alabama's stout recruiting classes being assembled annually by football coach Nick Saban aren't paying off just at the college level.
In his latest projection of April's NFL draft, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper has five Alabama players getting selected within the first 25 picks. The Crimson Tide had four first-round selections last year for the first time in program history.
"It's just tremendous recruiting and some outstanding coaching," Kiper said Thursday. "There are a lot of these guys who are heavily recruited who don't pan out, but at Alabama you don't see many of these guys fall by the wayside and not develop."
Kiper is pegging tailback Trent Richardson fifth overall to Tampa Bay, safety Mark Barron 14th to Dallas, linebacker Courtney Upshaw 16th to the New York Jets, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick 17th to Cincinnati and linebacker Dont'a Hightower 24th to Pittsburgh.
Alabama producing five of the top 25 selections would rank among the top feats by one school in NFL draft history. Oklahoma provided three of the top four selections in the 2010 draft, including quarterback and No. 1 pick Sam Bradford, and Miami set a record in 2004 with six first-round picks.
Among the Hurricanes taken early that year were safety Sean Taylor, tight end Kellen Winslow and linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
The Crimson Tide have signed Rivals.com's top-rated class four times in the past five years under Saban, who came to Tuscaloosa in January 2007 after two seasons with the NFL's Miami Dolphins. Those two years yielded a 15-17 record and sandwiched an organizational decision to trade for quarterback Daunte Culpepper after deeming Drew Brees too risky because of an injured shoulder.
"Nick wouldn't even be the head coach at Alabama had the Miami Dolphins signed Drew Brees," Kiper said. "If they would have signed Brees instead of Culpepper, all that history would have been rewritten in Miami, and it would have been rewritten in terms of Alabama Crimson Tide football. I don't think Nick Saban would have left Miami with Brees there and the winning that probably would have taken place.
"That decision the Dolphins made affected Nick's career, and it certainly affected Alabama with two national championships in three years."
Richardson is expected to be the top tailback in this year's draft and Barron the top safety, but the Crimson Tide player who has enhanced his worth the most the last several months is Hightower.
"Now that he's a couple of years removed from the knee injury, you've seen that the improvement in terms of big plays and overall production is monumental," Kiper said. "He's getting back to the form he showed early on before the injury, and how many 265-pound linebackers can run and get the job done like he can? He could be a 3-4 inside linebacker. He can play strongside.
"There are a lot of roles he can play."
Kiper said the two Alabama players who elected to return to school, safety Robert Lester and versatile offensive lineman Barrett Jones, made wise decisions.
It's a given the Indianapolis Colts are drafting Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck first overall, and Kiper believes the competition for Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III may be down to just two teams. The St. Louis Rams have the second pick and have been open in their willingness to discuss a trade.
"If Peyton Manning doesn't want to play in the same division with his brother, then Miami is obviously the top candidate for him," Kiper said. "I think it's Cleveland and Washington vying for RGIII, and [Redskins owner] Dan Snyder doesn't usually lose in the offseason. He's won the offseason Super Bowl in a lot of years, and he likes to make that big splash.
"[Redskins coach] Mike Shanahan is 0-for-3 now in the evaluations of quarterbacks with [Donovan] McNabb, [John] Beck and [Rex] Grossman, so they can't miss on this particular decision."